Officer Michael Slager shooting and killing Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina—with a video discrediting Slager’s version of the events (and exposing what Frank Serpico calls “testi-lying”)—has cast another dark cloud over justice in the U.S.
More recent revelations of Slager laughing after the shooting add, if possible, even more incredible to an already horrifying series of events. The context of that laughter, however, must not be ignored:
In the recording, a man the paper identified as Slager can be heard asking an unnamed senior officer what would happen next.
“They’re gonna tell you you’re gonna be out for a couple of days and we’ll come back and interview you then,” the senior officer is heard saying in the clip. “They’re not going to ask you any kind of questions right now. They’ll take your weapon and we’ll go from there. That’s pretty much it.”
The senior officer also urged Slager to write down his recollections of the incident.
“The last one we had, they waited a couple of days to interview officially, like, sit down and tell what happened. By the time you get home, it would probably be a good idea to kind of jot down your thoughts on what happened,” he advised. “You know, once the adrenaline quits pumping.”
“It’s pumping,” Slager said, laughing as he spoke.
This exchange appears to be a specific example of yet another norm of policing in the U.S.—one different but related to the inequity of criminal justice for black males—in that using deadly force requires officers simply to wait a few days until it all passes over. Deadly force seems all too common place, and essentially poses almost no consequences for the officer, who nervous, pumped up, and deeply calloused by his work, simply laughs.
I think we will make a terrible mistake if we simply conclude Slager is either a “bad apple” or inherently (although isolated) soulless. Dehumanizing police officer will not address the great failure of policing that dehumanizes black males.
Instead, we should be asking, what could possibly have led to Slager’s shooting, dishonesty, and laughter? Just as we should be asking, why would so many Atlanta teachers change test answers?
My wife and I combined have over 50 years as educators, and her father was a highway patrolman in SC. So is our nephew. I have several close friends who are police officers.
In other words, I am deeply sympathetic to the difficulties of serving as either a teacher or a police officer. But I am simultaneously, because of my intimate knowledge of both fields, highly protective of the necessity for teachers and police officers to serve and protect—not breech the dignity of those they serve.
I have the highest standards for teachers and police officers, and I fear the U.S. is increasingly moving to a careless demonizing of both professions.
The “bad” teacher myth had already begun when the spectacle of police officer shootings of black men reached a critical mass in the media, demanding the U.S. pay attention (despite racial inequity in the justice system being a historical reality in this country).
The current intense focus, then, on police officers and teachers requires careful consideration.
First, we must admit that all professions have a range of quality among the members of any profession; as well, we must admit that some professions have necessarily less tolerance for low quality within the profession—such as airline pilots, surgeons, pharmacists, and I would argue, teachers and police officers.
Next, even within those professions requiring high standards for members and low tolerance for weak members, we cannot discount how the working environment and norms of the profession are reflected in professionals’ behavior.
A pharmacist required to fill prescriptions at too high a rate is more likely to make mistakes. A pilot required to fly too many hours in a short span of time is more likely to make life-threatening errors.
Policing and teaching as service fields are certainly not exempt from those realities. Policing and teaching, in fact, share the consequence of both professions being much harder under the weight of impoverished communities, especially in urban settings, that are disproportionately racially majority minority.
As many have noted, the teacher cheating scandal in Atlanta may reflect more significantly the corrupt culture of high-stakes accountability than the individual faults of those teachers convicted.
Also being recognized is that police shootings of black men are equally powerful reflections of a racially inequitable criminal justice culture that also seems in the U.S. to have too low a bar for the use of deadly force—at least for some (black and male) suspects.
In the U.S., I believe, we do not know if we have a police officer and teacher quality problem because the cultures within which both work are so corrupted that police officer and teacher behavior can be misread as “bad apples” (or an “isolated incident”) instead of agents or consequences of the “burden of the impossible.”
If we care about teacher quality, we must significantly change the culture of teaching and learning by ending high-stakes accountability and competition within our schools.
If we care about police officer quality, we must significantly change the culture of deadly force (which many other countries have accomplished) and racially biased criminal justice.
Our schools and criminal justice system are too often ugly reflections of the worst aspects of our society—despite political and popular claims that both public institutions are designed to support and even build the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness we claim to embrace for everyone.
As such, we must start by avoiding the urge to blame “bad” police and “bad” teachers and instead by confronting how the norms of policing and teaching too often produce police and teacher behavior that is harmful to our entire way of living, especially for the impoverished and racial minorities who most need public institutions to serve and protect them.