Community Forum: Police strive to shed stereotypes

My name is Christopher Mason, and I am a police officer.
I speak it as a confession to highlight a tension that rests at the heart of my professional life — a perceived contradiction that is very frequently commented upon. The comments typically run something like, “I really hate cops, but you seem OK.” Which is very gratifying, of course, since it’s nice not to be hated, but disconcerting at the same time.
In those happy moments when I’m seen as intelligent it’s generally considered a stark contradiction to my chosen career. The same if I’m perceived as polite, charming, engaged or tolerant.
I suspect the idea of me being these things has more to do with my British accent than my personality — an entrenched tendency among Americans to regard English people as much smarter and nicer than they really are. It’s a tendency that causes my long-suffering spouse no end of frustration.
Whatever the true measure of my faculties and charms, it certainly reveals something about people’s perception of police that they’re so consistently surprised by my occasional flourishes of intelligence and decency.
There’s an old adage that plays upon some classic European stereotypes:
Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French,
the mechanics German, the lovers Italian, and it is all organized by the Swiss.
Hell is where the chefs are British, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss,
the police German, and it is all organized by the Italians.
My interpretation is that people like the idea of police being polite — even if they assume the opposite. Again, I think my accent is a tremendous asset.
Beyond the intellectual, emotional and social shortcomings of police, the only assumption made about them with greater regularity is that they consume vast quantities of doughnuts, and are, by extension, overweight and lazy. This has caused me considerable personal grief, because I used to enjoy the occasional jelly-filled binge.
Of course, this isn’t the whole story. I’m sure most people have a more nuanced concept of police, but the negative associations are reproduced with such consistency in our culture, I don’t imagine anyone can avoid being influenced by them. What images flash through your mind when you think of police? Noble images, or images of brutality? Do you think of acts of kindness and self-sacrifice, or is your mind irresistibly drawn to that moment when an officer gave you a ticket despite your most compelling excuse, or your most endearing puppy-dog eyes? I confess, the scene that invades my mind is of a man lying on a Los Angeles highway being beaten. I suspect this generation is currently formulating its own iconic representations.
What does it mean that police officers are seen as dull-witted, crude, brutal, morally corrupt, gluttonous and indolent? Certainly there are officers who display these qualities, and I’m sure all of us occasionally succumb. I’ve made some pretty dull-witted choices in my time. Just ask my aforementioned spouse. But the power of the image speaks to deeper associations.
It’s curious, I think, that when police are depicted as heroic, they’re almost invariably acting outside the boundaries of the law: a noble renegade on a crusade for justice. We like our heroes to be rebels — the wronged and the persecuted, standing against oppression and exacting vengeance upon the wicked. Plucky, noble America, facing down the might of the evil British Empire (my accent may actually work against me on that score).
Institutional authority is something that makes us profoundly uneasy, because it’s connected in our minds with despotism. Institutional authority is in many ways the antithesis of the American ideal, diametrically opposed to the ruggedly independent frontiersman. And what could be more symbolic of that authority than a police officer? From the officious uniform and the intimidating vehicle, to the short hair, and militaristic weaponry — the very term “law enforcement” reeks of oppression.
So, given all these negative associations, why did I choose to become a police officer? After all, I was certainly not immune to the prejudices. Some of them haunt me even now.
It’s a question every cop gets asked, over and over — why did you become a police officer? Typically we come up with an easy, well-rehearsed response. Something along the lines of, “To help people.”
This answer always struck me as too trite, so I started telling people it was for the health insurance, which is true, but certainly not the whole story.
A more honest answer is that one day, as I was watching a police officer get increasingly frustrated with an infuriating individual, who was clearly grappling with an excess or deficiency of medication, it struck me what qualities were really required of an effective police officer. I had a revelation — that law enforcement must regularly consist of dealing with people who have limited personal resources, or people whose resources have been outstripped by a crisis, and the goal is to bring some measure of calm into that chaos. It struck me that I might be good at that, being, on the whole, a rather patient and tolerant individual. It also struck me that I might find it tremendously rewarding.
In essence, watching the equanimity of that beleaguered public servant steadily decay, I realized that the qualities most essential in law enforcement are the exact opposite of the things most commonly associated with it — compassion, tolerance and patience.
As that seed germinated, I came to realize that policing, in essence, is an enterprise dedicated to supporting and strengthening community. I saw that its fundamental purpose is to combat the things that undermine social connectedness. It occurred to me, crimes are not crimes because they’re an affront to some ultimate moral order. It’s not about good and evil in an abstract, idealized sense — crimes are crimes because they do violence to the social fabric. Theft makes it impossible to trust, violence propagates fear. Even traffic patrol exists to diminish injury on our roads, and reduce corrosive suffering and grief. If you want to understand drug enforcement, it’s essential to view it in terms of its social impact. If an adult makes the conscious choice to get high, that’s one thing, but if they’re stealing and committing acts of violence to support their habit, that’s quite another. It all circles back to community.
And so I found the Middlebury Police Department — a department ardently committed to community policing, and probably one of the few that would have hired someone with my eclectic background.
Since then it’s become abundantly clear, that moment of clarity all those years ago was a moment of true prescience. Police work is social work, far more than it’s straightforward enforcement. And even those more classic functions are rendered effective through community presence and trust. At its heart police work is a collaborative social enterprise.
I don’t imagine that’s surprising to many people in this community, but I think it bears emphasizing. One thing that has really surprised me, however, is the process of arrest. So often it’s conceived as a violent, intrusive experience, which it certainly can be, but there’s another dimension to it that’s almost never portrayed — a bizarre and powerful intimacy. It’s often adversarial. The officer is perceived by the arrestee as the instrument of their suffering — but, at the same time, the officer is the person who’s there as the emotional impact unfolds.
Frequently I find myself in the position of a confidant. I’m looked to for support. Sometimes after the screaming and the colorful language, and possibly even the hurling about of things, a peculiar bond develops, and I learn about a person’s trauma serving in Iraq, or the loss of love — I hear tales of loneliness, grief and shame, and, all too often, self-loathing. I see people at one of their most vulnerable moments, and by demonstrating that though I am implacably holding them accountable for their actions, I don’t believe they’re essentially bad, they’re often willing to permit me a privileged glimpse into their brokenness. It amazes me that through such a basic demonstration of compassion, people in situations that are characterized as among the most fundamentally hostile, can establish trust and respect. It’s a stark demonstration of the power of compassion.
Of course, these are the sublime moments, when I’m able to summon my best self despite how reckless and destructive the person I’m interacting with might have been, and despite how desperately they’re striving to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. There are certainly moments when my best self remains buried and inaccessible.
As a police officer it’s a daily challenge to love under difficult circumstances — to love in the face of anger and abuse. It’s a daily challenge to acknowledge the inherent dignity of people who are seemingly stripped of every last shred of it, and it’s a daily challenge to feel a sincere connection with people who express hatred toward you.
I believe these are the most fundamental and profound challenges facing police officers, and it is by meeting these challenges that officers ultimately serve and strengthen their community. Yes, by enforcing the law, but enforcing it from a place of reverence and striving always to reach a place of grace.
Editor’s note: Officer Christopher Mason adapted this piece from a sermon he delivered at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society.

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