July 8, 2016

Police Officers Who Enjoy Bullying Others

Protest against police brutality

Four young men who graduated from my high school a couple years before me became police officers, employed by the small town in which we all grew up. It would surprise no one living in that town at the time that all four were Christian. What was a bit more surprising, as least to me, was that three of the four were what any reasonable person would characterize as bullies during their time in high school. They picked on smaller students, regularly started fights that often resulted in injuries to the other party, and routinely used racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs directed at other students. They make little attempt to conceal any of this behavior; it was a central part of their identities and reputations. Much of the time, it appeared that they truly enjoyed treating others like this. They were "tough guys" who were better than almost everyone else and wanted everyone to know it.

When I hear about cases of police brutality today, I cannot help but think back to these three guys and how all of them made it through whatever screening procedures the local police department had in place. I remember the first time I saw them in uniform while visiting from college. They were still hanging out together and the way they were acting suggested that little had changed. A couple friends who had never moved away told me that they were still bullies, only they now had badges and guns. My friends listed off many examples of what these guys had been up to, ranging from pulling women over in order to hit on them to roughing up civilians who looked Mexican. According to my friends, two of them had been in some trouble related to excessive force complaints; however, it sounded like neither experienced more than a minor reprimand and some unflattering coverage in the local newspaper.

Having been familiar with their antics in high school, it did not surprise me that they were doing these things. I asked my friends how many people were aware that they were doing this stuff. My friends said that it was common knowledge around town. I asked why nobody had complained. I was told that there had been several complaints but that nothing ever seemed to come of them. My friends explained that some of the more recent incidents had involved two of the officers accusing people from our high school of complaining about them and then threatening them. When people complain and then see it go nowhere, they explained, they give up and worry about retaliation.

I do believe that most police officers are decent people and that they do not take the job primarily because they enjoy bullying and intimidating others. At the same time, I have to admit that I have had many negative experiences with police officers over the years (not counting any of the officers mentioned above). The common thread in all of them was that it felt like I was on the receiving end of bullying. Here was someone who could do more or less whatever he wanted to me without consequences, who knew it, and who wanted to make damn sure I knew it too. I know that not all police officers behave this way, but I cannot ignore multiple experiences where some have.

When I hear about yet another case in which police officers murder a civilian (and usually escape any sort of criminal conviction), I wonder whether the officers involved might be bullies with histories of treating others poorly. It would be far too simplistic to conclude that this is a factor in most of these cases, but I do wonder how common it is. Most of all, I wonder what we civilians can do to make police brutality far less common than it seems to be.
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