Statistically speaking, we live in a safer world today than ever before. Over the last few centuries, incidence of homicides has plummeted and although certain war torn areas around the globe suffer, on the whole our century is one of the safest ever (see chart below).
But it sure doesn’t feel safe at the moment, does it? Across the board on all sides of the issues people are afraid. We are bombarded by news covering every incident of crime or violence across the globe. And then the coverage repeats, hourly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If it bleeds, it leads is the motto of news editors keen to keep their numbers up. Politicians also benefit from having fearful constituents because it helps justify a particular agenda and mobilizes political forces in a direction favorable to that politician.
Fear is a potent emotional state. It is centered in the oldest, most primal part of our brains. But solving the problems we face requires rational thinking and a certain amount of calm. We need to be focused on solutions and avoid fanning flames.
FDR famously said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Along similar lines, Gandhi claimed that ‘the enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.’
Adding hate or anger to fear is a bad mix and is bound to fuel extreme actions. Although racism is a problem that needs to be fully addressed, it is also true that millions of people of every color interact daily with law enforcement and are not shot in the process. Unfortunately, what leads to interaction with police is by definition negative. My personal encounters with law enforcement came about either because I did something wrong or they thought I did. I was (maybe) breaking a law (speeding, driving with expired auto tags, driving without a seatbelt, drinking in an area where alcohol was not permitted) or, my house had just been burglarized. I’ve never just chatted over coffee with a law enforcement officer; almost all my interactions have been fraught with emotion – as an annoyed ticket recipient or a hysterical crime victim.
During the course of a friend’s adolescence, his mom constantly drilled him and his brother about the importance of avoiding interaction with the police. She was deathly afraid that a situation could escalate. If they were pulled over, they had strict instructions to be utterly polite, to do exactly what the officer asked, no matter what.
And these were white kids from an affluent neighborhood.
Our law enforcement system is like our currency system. It’s based on trust. Just as you trust that the dollar I pay with is worth a dollar, we have to trust that the system meant is to keep us safe is functional and consistent. When we lose faith in either system, we are in big trouble. The cycle of the public and particularly minorities’ not trusting law enforcement, and law enforcement fearing the public has to be stopped. Attitude, perception and expectations need to shift and I suspect that starts with better communication and relationship building.
From all my encounters with police, to this day I recall one name. Many police officers with whom I engaged despite clearly being in a superior power position (ticket book in hand, gun in holster, able to arrest me) struck chords ranging from stern to sarcastic, purposefully intimidating to threatening. But Officer Stewart was sociable, calm, sincerely respectful, easy-going and reasonable. He began by introducing himself which is part of the reason I remember him but also in doing so he humanized the entire encounter. Maybe he was taking into account how I must have felt in that moment, and addressed me from a perspective that reflected his seeing the situation from my point of view. From my point of view his attitude helped me see that he had a job to do and that his motivation was public well being, not my humiliation.
I suspect that people who live in areas where neighborhood policing is in effect have a more positive view of and relationship with law enforcement. As a society we would surely be better off developing good and deeper relations between police and the community they serve, starting with positive engagement as children. Fearing each other is disastrous. And while freedom from fear doesn’t guarantee security, security won’t work under its distorting lens.