Why do we expect less self-control from police than we do from teachers?

Recently, I got an email from one of my former teachers and colleagues. He had been shifted by the administration out of a teaching role and onto alumni relations, and was contacting me as a young alumna to talk about writing a blurb for the magazine. I made the mistake of asking why he’d switched roles, and the story he told me made me both sad and intensely uncomfortable.  A student had slammed the door to a classroom, and he’d lost his cool, slammed him up against a locker, and yelled at him. “I never hit the kid” he said, by way of explaining. He had just wanted to get the kid’s attention, throwing in the detail that the kid in question was 6’2″.  My friend never said anything about the kid’s race, but I can make a pretty good guess: he was probably black.

If you’ve never taught, you have no idea the sense of anxiety teachers have around certain subjects. When I was first taught to teach, the list of rules they had for us was extensive: always leave your window shades up, your door unlocked, preferably open. Never be alone in a room with a kid; there always needs to be a witness with you. Never hug the children.  If at all possible, try to avoid touching the children. All it takes is one accusation of impropriety, a single kid claiming that you’ve abused them, be it physical or sexual, and that’s it; your career is over.  Teachers agonize about the possibility, second-guessing how they intervene in the lives of kids who are in crisis, making sure that when we put in that extra time to support a kid who needs it that there are others in the building, nearby, witnesses to be called on just in case.

You can’t ever lose your cool as a teacher, or you’re out. Never mind that the job can be frustrating, frightening, depressing, or enraging. Never mind that, in high school at least, it’s not uncommon for students to be big enough to be a very real threat, and don’t always act in ways that are entirely safe. Teachers are public servants, and if you can’t keep your emotions in check and act like a professional, then you shouldn’t be in this profession. Period. As a teacher, you have enormous power over the children in your charge, and if you abuse that power, you are unfit to do the job. My colleague who lost his cool and shoved a black kid up against the lockers lost his job, because that kind of behavior is simply unacceptable. And you know what? That’s the right call.

But if you’re a cop? If you’re a policeman, and you lose your cool on the job and hurt an innocent kid, everyone is so very ready to forgive you. We worry about what your emotional state was at the time, whether you felt threatened, whether your use of force was justifiable. In the end, no matter how young or old the black kid is that you shoot, whether he staggered towards you or ran away, whether he had a weapon or was unarmed, whether he complied with your demands or not, whether he begged you not to kill him, whether he is a suspect in some petty crime that merits at most a small fine or is just an innocent child playing in the park…in the end, that officer is not going to go to jail. They’re not going to have a trial. Odds are, they aren’t even going to lose their job.

Is it a normal, human emotion to be afraid or angry in these circumstances? Yes, absolutely, but policework isn’t a job for every human any more than teaching is.  Police have all the power of the state’s monopoly on force behind them.  If you don’t have exceptional patience and understanding, you’re not going to last long as a teacher. Your behavior is unacceptable, and you’re going to be fired. Why do we let cops, who, like teachers, are public servants tasked with keeping our children safe, behave this way without consequence? If you can’t face a 6’2″ kid acting aggressively and follow protocol and act in the best interest of that kid, you don’t deserve to be a cop anymore than you deserve to be a teacher.  If you lack patience, if you lack empathy, or if you are easily frightened then you are not cut out to be a policeman.

The knowledge that all it would take is one mistake for me to lose my job forever frightens me, yes, but it also makes me careful, and I think that’s probably a good thing for everyone involved. So ask yourself: do you really want people in positions of power over your kids who know that whatever they do, they do free of consequence?

If you wouldn’t tolerate that in your teachers, why do you tolerate it in your police?


5 thoughts on “Why do we expect less self-control from police than we do from teachers?

  1. Andrew M. Farrell

    How many teachers have attended a memorial for a teacher that was killed in the line of duty? I’ve seen a teacher try to teach despite the disruptions of a kid that could have easily lifted her off the ground, but to what degree is “the work we do is dangerous” part of the mythos of being a teacher? Honest question–I’ve really not spent much time around teachers talking shop.

    I suppose I haven’t spent much time around cops doing the same either. Yet, having handed out water bottles at a memorial that was attended by at least 7,500 cops, a few who’d flown 16,000km to get there, It seems like for cops, the story of them being under threat is much closer to the front of their minds.

    This isn’t to justify any particular use of force, but if we are to change the system, we have to recognize that the identity-forming stories cops tell themselves are a part of the system.

    1. dharlette Post author

      You’re absolutely correct that for cops there is absolutely a very real mythos of “the work we do is dangerous”, but the statistics don’t really back up that assertion. For example, in 2007, in the entire United States, there were 57 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty [1]. In comparison, 85 preschoolers died of gunshot wounds. Thirty-six people died in school shootings the same year [2]. So being a cop isn’t really that much more dangerous than working in a school…and cops are supposed to be trained to deal with dangerous situations. We should not be allowing whatever mythology cops have built for themselves to serve as an excuse for hurting people in the very communities it’s their job to protect.

      [1]Children’s Defense Fund, Protect Children Not Guns 2010, September 2010
      [2]List of School Shootings in the United States

    1. dharlette Post author

      Feminism is the belief that women deserve equal social, political, and economical rights as men. It’s as simple as that.

      I try to be an intersectional feminist, which means that I also try to think about how people’s race, disabilities, economic class, religion, sexuality, gender identity, etc. affect their experience of womanhood, and fight for the rights of ALL women, not just the ones who look like me. For example, as a young white woman, I’m not particularly likely to be shot and killed by a cop, but a lot of black women are killed by police.


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