Over the past few weeks, I’ve tackled some tough topics related to race and law enforcement work. And I’ve made a point to be as nuanced and thoughtful as I possibly can in handling these topics. 

I shared how an unexpected delivery taught me a tough lesson on gentleness. And I even pulled back the curtain on how a training I did with a local law enforcement agency didn’t quite go as planned. I also got vulnerable in sharing my response to how that meeting went. 

Earlier this year, I also published a blog post entitled Changing the Dynamics of Law Enforcement. One of my clients said he loved it but took exception with my use of “privilege” (he prefers “advantage” — to which I say, “to each his own”). 

We exchanged a series of emails on various points, but this one has stuck with me; I’m sharing it now because I think it helps to further illustrate how nuance is so important, especially with regard to law enforcement:


Just one last thought. Is it realistic to expect 400 years of awful, unjust, and brutal mistreatment to be completely eliminated in a bit less than 60 years?

And are those who say, “racism isn’t any better today than it was in, let’s say, the 20’s through the 40’s” being realistic?

Another point: police are shot at and often killed routinely, which we hear little about.

. . . . 

Now, you may have had similar thoughts. Or you may work with or care about someone who has. It’s important to ask hard questions about complex, messy issues like this, even if they make us uncomfortable and expose areas of disagreement — or even areas where we ourselves aren’t really sure what we think or feel.

I thanked my client for his email and responded the best I could. Here’s an abbreviated version of my reply.

. . . . 

To answer your first two points, yes, the timing is unrealistic in my opinion. Centuries of deeply-rooted behavior don’t change in mere decades. And yet, to say there has been no progress at all with racism is a bit insane as well. That’s simply not true (says the middle-class, middle-aged white man that doesn’t experience racism). Just because we haven’t reached the goal doesn’t mean we haven’t made progress.

Your point about police being shot and killed, however, is harder for me. I understand what you are saying, and as one committed to serving law enforcement and deeply opposed to guns and the absurdity of the poorly and hastily written Second Amendment, I don’t want anyone shot at — or worse, killed. Not cops, not kids, not church goers or movie goers, or those that had the courage to simply go shopping in a mall. 

But when it comes to the police, let’s be clear: it’s a dangerous job, and they choose it knowing full well the inherent dangers — and, in fact, seek it out. Many I meet don’t consider it a good day on the job without an adrenaline rush. 

In addition, in my experience and conversations, a surprising majority of those officers support — or at least don’t object to — the proliferation of guns and gun rights over gun control, thereby reinforcing the danger they openly walk into. If you don’t want to be shot, don’t give people guns. (And this from one who serves police and seeks to improve their environment and community relations. And by the way, yes, I understand police don’t write the laws, and they have to uphold them whether they agree with them or not. This includes the Second Amendment.) 

I also take exception to the notion that we hear little about police who are shot and/or killed on the job. If a cop is shot, it always seems to make the news. 

But I’ll tell you what I think is worse than cops being shot in the line of duty. 

More cops die by suicide than in the line of duty, and we absolutely don’t hear enough, if anything, about that. For a nation that largely claims to be pro-law enforcement and pro-guns, we don’t give a crap about the mental health repercussions of those values, especially for those sworn to protect and serve.

But let us not forget: cops aren’t supposed to kill us, they’re meant to be the guardians that protect innocent people from dangerous people. Cops getting shot isn’t the same problem as cops shooting citizens. And cops shooting bad guys in dangerous situations isn’t the issue at all.

These are nuanced discussions, and we need to have more of them.

If we isolate the discussion to a single point, such as how police die in the line of duty, we completely miss the bigger picture. That one point doesn’t tell the whole story, and no matter how sad that one point may be, it’s not the primary factor of their job that is taking their life and destroying their families.

This lack of nuance is rampant among so many big issues like this. Case in point: Right-wing groups insist on pushing the idea that the shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville happened because the shooter was transgender. It’s ABSOLUTELY ABSURD. They are reducing it to a single point that has nothing to do with anything of substance with regards to the problems it represents, so that nothing important and complex gets discussed. That’s the issue: Distractions and smoke screens instead of healthy growth and understanding.

. . . . 

There is so much more that needs to be said on this topic, but I’ll save that for another day.

In the meantime, what I hope you understand is that nuance matters. Our general society doesn’t give nuance the time of day anymore. We are so quick to judge every situation, idea, or problem as right or wrong, black or white, genius or stupid, utterly holy or utterly depraved.

We have to get back to — or maybe meet head-on for the first time — the hard work of asking thoughtful questions, offering the benefit of the doubt, thinking critically but with insatiable curiosity. We must dare to step away from the mob mentality that’s so easy to get sucked into. We need to enter into a frame of mind that asks not, “why are those that oppose me wrong?” but, “in what way are they right?”

Too many of us are being swept away in a tide of complacency. We’re disengaged, careless or lazy in our thinking, and — dare I say — privileged. We’re complicit in the problem, even if we’re lucky enough not to stare it in the face on a daily basis.

I hope we can all learn to check our own assumptions, make space for nuance, extend the benefit of the doubt to those who are often denied it, and become the sort of people who do the right thing, even if it means a radical change of course.

I know this leaves a lot unsaid, including a plethora of points and considerations that add to the complexity and nuance of this issue of cops being shot. I’m not aiming for an exhaustive article here; that would take a book. Instead, I’m inviting you to consider the idea that too many things are analyzed as “right” and “wrong” when that’s far too simplistic an approach.

To paraphrase the inimitable Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” 

Let us seek to know better, to strive for better rather than racing to an incomplete, sound-bite conclusion. We are, after all, better than that.


Photo by Randy Jacob on Unsplash