When I saw a flurry of stories being shared on Facebook about police officers doing kind things, I felt sick to my stomach. Every ” this cop helped the pregnant woman put on her license tags instead of giving her a ticket” or ” this cop helped a puppy” story mutes the larger issues of police violence against black and brown people.
This new wave of positive press for police officers feels disingenuous. When I called the timing of the stories “evil” on Facebook, a friend came to the defense of the police. Just like teachers, she noted, being a police officer can be a thankless job; positive stories seemed like a good idea. Other friends said they thought it was good to be more balanced in the reporting, that some good news about the police was important amid all the stories of vile and criminal activities.
Until the use of technology began allowing honest documentation of how police have been treating black and brown people, there were almost no news stories about those truths. The truth of police violence is only starting to come out in white communities — black and brown people have been living it all this time — and even though it’s making the news, it’s happening in biased and racist ways.
My daughter just heard a radio story about how a police officer who murdered a black man was having trouble finding a job. She found it troubling that the news story was focusing on the murderer’s “difficulties.” We had talked before about the different ways the media portrayed white killers compared with black victims; for example, how Dylann Roof was shown opening Christmas gifts while the media use and crop images of black victims in ways that imply they are not entirely innocent. That kind of biased reporting is pretty standard.
I know a couple police officers personally, and I believe they are good-hearted men. Taking into account my Facebook friend’s point that the police officers she knows are faced with enormous pressures and too often have very little public support, I might take a moment to thank my cop friends for doing their sometimes thankless job. There’s nothing wrong with that. The good cops shouldn’t be lumped in with the bad cops, of course, on an individual and personal level.
But going out of our way to applaud police officers across social media for doing their jobs is just one more way for us to try and pretend things aren’t as bad as they are. It waters down the truth. Black and brown people are not safe in our society. They aren’t safe in the hands of the police, in the care of medical professionals, in our classrooms, or in the workplace. They are treated like they are less than human, that they are less valuable than everyone else. Look at the phrase “white trash,” for example. What is meant to be disparaging to poor white people actually implies that the default for “trash” people is “not-white.”
We need to keep the facts about police brutality against black and brown people in the forefront of our awareness. We must not cloud the issue with feel-good stories about the police. Just because there are stories about police officers who aren’t pinning innocent people to the ground, shooting them, choking them or tasering them to death doesn’t mean those “positive” stories need to take up any of our public space.
If you feel bad for the cops who you think might be lumped in with all the awful ones, by all means, write a note to your local police department thanking its officers for their service. Support one of the agency’s charity efforts. On a personal level, and quietly, go ahead and let them know you think they are doing good work. But every time you “like” or “share” these news stories about non-violent cops on social media you are saying by implication — even if it’s not what you believe — “I think black and brown lives matter less than white lives.”
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.