Police Officers and Teachers: Confronting Corrupt Cultures, Avoiding “Bad Police/Teacher” Narratives

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.

3 comments

  1. learningfirst

    Thanks for this, Paul. It’s also interesting that the Atlanta teachers are predominantly (exclusively?) black – representing the historical marginalization of people of color within our profession. As our culture becomes increasingly influenced by big data, Campbell’s law will have ever-increasing influence on human interactions – resulting in more corruption and more dehumanization among the most vulnerable people in society.

  2. Lloyd Lofthouse

    Regardless of the video and the media reporting on this incident, I can’t speak about the individual incident where officer Michael Slager shot and killed Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, but I can talk about combat and the reactions it causes before and after seeing action.

    America is an extremely violent country and many of our public urban police, just like many urban public school teachers, often find themselves in combat daily and combat comes with a horrible price on the people involved.

    For instance, I fought in Vietnam and came home with PTSD and that means that even today, decades later, I’m usually hyper vigilant and will probably shoot first before I ask questions if I found myself in a situation I felt might have the remotest chance of turning violent and putting my life or the safety of my family and friends at risk. I know a few other combat vets and we seem to all react and think this way.

    During the almost 20 years while the U.S. had troops fighting in Vietnam, the U.S. lost 40,934 troops killed in action. Another 5,299 died of their wounds. There were other causalities that led to deaths but those did not happen in combat.

    That breaks down to about 2,154 combat related deaths annually during that war.

    What about the combat taking place in the United States on the streets of our cities and towns and the price our public police pay for this combat—and it is combat?

    Here is a snapshot of just one year from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

    Between 1955 and 1975, the Vietnam War killed over 58,000 American soldiers – less than the number of civilians killed with guns in the U.S. in an average two-year period.

    Guns were used in 11,078 homicides in the U.S. in 2010 (more than FIVE TIMES the average annual combat deaths during the Vietnam War), comprising almost 35% of all gun deaths, and over 68% of all homicides.

    http://smartgunlaws.org/gun-deaths-and-injuries-statistics/

    You see, I think I understand why that officer laughed. After you have survived what you think is a dangerous situation, few cry or feel remorse—if there is remorse, it comes later after the Adrenalin rush. They laugh because they are still alive and that laughter probably is also fueled by what the danger that comes with the job does to the person over a period of time.

    Anyone who reads my comment for this post can intellectualize and/or criticize what I said all they want, but I think General William Tecumseh Sherman said it best. “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over,” and, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”

    I can say from first hand experience, that Sherman got it right and most noncombatants who intellectualize and rant about an incident like this one will usually not get it right.

    If you think our urban police aren’t embroiled in a combat situation every day and paying a horrible price on how they think and react when they are on the job, then you do not live in the real world. You live in a fantasy world created by Disneyland feature cartoon thinking.

  3. Christine Langhoff

    Here’s another look at the nexus between schools and the police, and it is certainly disturbing: an 11 year old autistic child ended up being found guilty of a felony charge of assualting a police officer. We are a far distance from police protecting children at a school building here. The judge who heard the case also told the boy that he needed to “man up” and that if he didn’t start contolling himself they would control him. I believe this story needs far more amplification as this is far from the only case. See: http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-04-10/how-kicking-trash-can-became-criminal-6th-grader

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