One question I like to ask my students is who are the greatest American presidents? After I gather the list of usual suspects, I then ask what makes these presidents great. What I tend to find is that the greatest usually get us through some sort of crisis.
My next question is are they really the best presidents or were they fortunate enough to have a situation to fix. How do we know how Millard Fillmore and Chester Arthur would have handled a crisis? Maybe they would have done better. Perhaps James Monroe or Calvin Coolidge were the best presidents because under their leadership we did not have a crisis. John Adams stopped us from going to war with France. Most don’t think of him as great, even though I do. We only think of presidents who won wars, not stopped them. My point always is that we remember people for things that happened, not for things that did not.
I was thinking of this example this morning as I wanted to write a piece about police. I racked my brain as I took my morning walk for historical incidents involving police. The problem was I could only come up with one positive example. The rest were times when cops behaved badly. There has been plenty out there to read and hear about police abuses, yet I know those are rare compared to the thousands of interactions happening every day. My realization was that, when police do their jobs correctly, we do not hear about it. There will be thousands of arrests across the nation today that we will not hear about. Who knows how many crimes or episodes will not happen today because of the police. Yet we never remember things that do not happen.
There are very few jobs like police work. Their job is to protect us, but often times when they do their job we get upset. We say we support the police but then curse them when we see their lights in our rear view, even when we know we are speeding. We want them to do their job, but towards others. Police are like teachers. Jobs we claim we respect for their service, yet grossly underpay and often trash for not being good at their job. Children have no respect for police or teachers anymore because they hear their parents and society at large criticize them, especially when either calls parents about discipline issues their precious children never could have committed.
Police work is not like most jobs because, though police are part of our lives, we only tend to spend real time with them on our worst days. Days when we have violated the law or had a crime committed against us. Either way, not a good day. They have to deal with us at our worst–when we are mad, agitated, angry, or often times scared. Most handle us in our crisis with patience and caring. Most of our crises will pass, while police officers move on to the next one, day after day. They will see things most of us will never have to see and do things most of us will never have to do, and then they will do and see it again and again.
Ultimately, their jobs are not like ours because, more than most, every day at their day could be their last. Their job is to rush into danger when everything is telling the rest of us to run away. They never know when what seems like a basic traffic stop is actually a life-threatening situation with a person who can cause them harm. Every day they put on a badge saying, “I will put myself in danger to protect you.” Like soldiers they do not do this for money. There are many reasons why cops become cops, but they all sacrifice time and family and security to stand on the front line.
Police are part of America, as much a part as any profession. Police forces are older than the nation itself. The oldest that we know of started in Boston in 1635 and the first death in the line of duty occurred in 1786. According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial, 1909 marks an important year. It was the last year that there were fewer than 100 deaths. 1930 led the way with 312 officers killed
I am not trying to take anything away from Black Lives Matter. Historically speaking, policing has a checkered past. Cops like Bull Conner in Montgomery, Alabama, used every aspect of his position to terrorize the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Protests during the time were filled with examples of cops beating American Citizens for exercising their rights. Yet, at the same time let’s not forget that today as the police are being vilified that police officers of every race are working tirelessly to reach out to their communities to find solutions.
We cannot allow officers to kill a restrained man. I know it’s a time to help and support our Black brothers and sisters. Yet, in the process let’s not forget those brave men and women who continue to serve faithfully. Let’s not compound one tragedy with another by forgetting the positives police have done. Before we decide to defund police forces, let’s remember the one historically significant day that instantly comes to my mind. I still remember the day in 2001 when 72 officers ran into a burning building to save the lives of others only to lose their own. One side does not have to be evil for the other side to be right. Black lives do matter, but that does not mean all police are villains. Let’s all take a moment to remember who protects our lives from unseen and unspoken evils every day that we will probably never hear about because they did their job right.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.