Across policing there is a generally accepted narrative: Former President Obama never supported cops. In fact, he hated cops. Many of my friends, even those who see the need for progressive police reform, tend to share this belief, at least to some degree. The most strident majority has even gone as far as saying that any cop who supports the former president is a traitor to the profession and have the blood of the fallen on their hands.
That kind of inflammatory rhetoric does nothing to help solve any of the issues for policing in this country. I would argue that it is equally damaging to community and officer safety as any anarchists carrying signs or chanting slogans calling for the killing of cops. These equal and opposite reactions only inflame the tensions and harm everyone.
We have to listen more and bully less because learning can never occur if we remain locked in our echo-chambers, only hearing how there’s a war on cops and anyone who questions policing or suggests reforms is the enemy. We blame the media or the former president rather than those individual officers and departments who give policing a black eye.
The Obama-hates-cops line has become so universally accepted in many policing circles, that on some police message boards or chat rooms, anyone who dares to challenge the narrative is shouted down, vilified, and even censured. So much for our belief in free thought. Truth be known, this kind of against-the-grain thinking is the reason for the title of my blog. I find myself agreeing with the objectives of safety and respect for law enforcement, but see the road to that goal differently. Many think the way to gain respect is through dominance and force; I believe it is through compassion and service.
I wanted to understand where this animosity came from against the former president. I searched extensively, truly wanting to find the source. I wanted to defend you. Surely there must be some smoking-gun statement that I could point to and say, “Aha.” What I found was only a man who, like all of us, filters life through his own experiences and tried to get us to see the world through the eyes of someone who grows up Black in America.
Did he challenge us to improve? Yes. Did he condemn violence against cops? Many times. Did he also empathize with the systemic issues that set up the conflicts between minority communities and the police? Definitely. Did he ever disrespect police officers? No. Unless you believe any suggestion of systemic problems that contribute to historical bad blood and violence defines disrespect.
Are we really so thin-skinned that we require our leaders to speak only of blind allegiance?
The more I read and searched for the answer to this hatred of the former president, and effusive enthusiasm for the current president, it struck me that we want a cheerleader, not a leader. But, leadership is what we desperately need. We need honest reflection to improve. Discussions about the hard topics. Ferguson, Chicago, and Baltimore exposed serious systemic problems that made their crime-fighting ineffective and destroyed the trust of their citizens. Policing 101 teaches us that we cannot effectively conduct our mission without the support of the citizens we serve. Without it, crime increases and cops are in more danger. All the feel-good speeches bragging about supporting cops do no good if we don’t fix the deep-seated problems exposed by each flashpoint. And the next one is surely coming.
Most of my white friends told me Barack Obama disappointed America because he had the opportunity to do so much more on race relations and he didn’t. He divided us further.
Long, careful reflection has made me conclude something entirely different.
When we complain about what our first African American president didn’t accomplish our bias is on full display.
I think we really mean we voted for a Black man expecting him to prove that racism is over in America. We expected him to wag his finger and scold Black America. We wanted him to tell them to get their shit together, because it’s their own fault if they haven’t succeeded. His great sin was asking white Americans—and policing—to confront biases that made us uncomfortable. Police wanted him to tell Black people if they would just do what their told, they wouldn’t have a problem.
Instead, he told us that he understood the frustrations of African Americans. He asked us to think about ways to stop shootings instead of escalating violence. He asked us to consider systemic racism in ways we didn’t want to. None of this is anti-police. It’s a plea to find ways to bridge the divide. Yes, part of that is acknowledging very real concerns with how some departments and individual officers conduct themselves. He tried to shine a light into the dark corners we don’t want to see.
His refusal to become the excuser in chief for the racial tensions that continue to divide is what really bothers us. As though his presidency might magically erase the legacy of two centuries of harm.
We should think about that.