Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed December 1995
Copyright ©1995 by Rhett S. Jones

Like any minority group, cops deserve fairness, not prejudice

By Rhett S. Jones
Rhett S. Jones is a professor of history and Afro-American studies at Brown University.

"The individual police officer is a minority, as is the police as a group, with little control over his way of life or the policies of the department for which he works. He is the victim of prejudice and discrimination by the people who are supposedly paying him to protect their properties and rights. ... The laws which he is sworn to uphold have been filled with loopholes to make a way for the [lawyers] to make a living."

In 1966, I taught a sociology course at the Rock County campus of the University of Wisconsin. This two-year branch of the university was located in Janesville, a city supposedly closed to African-Americans: Blacks could neither work nor live there. Except for the one I saw in the mirror, I seldom saw another black face in the three years I taught in that city. All my students were white, truly brilliant people who had to meet the high standards of the University of Wisconsin to enroll, but for one reason or another did not or could not enroll at the main campus in Madison for their first two years of study.

I assigned a short paper on minorities. Most students wrote about blacks, some about Jews and a couple about Native Americans. The quote with which I began this commentary was written by a policeman who surprised me by writing about the police as a minority. Elsewhere in his paper he clearly demonstrated that the police fit the sociological definition of minority I used in the course. For those present and former students who wonder what their professors do with their papers, we photocopy and save the best of them. I've saved this one for nearly 30 years. In the wake of recent high-profile court cases, especially the O.J. Simpson trial, whites and blacks seem polarized over police behavior, so I thought it might be useful to allow this member of one minority group to speak for himself. His reflections are as relevant today as when he wrote them.

"Many police possibly do take their resentment out on other minorities who do not have the backing of the courts. ... As is often the case, an officer makes up his mind whether to arrest or not in a matter of seconds and it is later argued for days or weeks at a time if he was right or wrong. Many times the officer does not intend to arrest on first contact, but is more or less forced into it by the action of the party involved." But being a policeman is a "job that looks easy and attracts many who are looking for a soft job or revenge on someone or some group of people, and as it is difficult to hire enough good trained personnel, these members are kept on in spite of their faults." And on the relationship between blacks and the police: "Therefore we have the two minorities bringing about the very things they are fighting for. There is prejudice on both sides."

Serving on a police force and being black are not, of course, mutually exclusive categories. There are thousands of African-American police officers who believe along with my student that "society condones much of what big business does" because big business "gives them their jobs and comfortable way of life. Big businesses in turn, with the aid of people who work for them, control the lawmakers. They have laws passed for their benefit and [had] the present laws changed to suit their needs. The police are sworn to uphold all the laws or resign from their profession. Many times they have to enforce laws they know to be unjust or do not believe in themselves."

Like my student, most police officers are neither racists nor fascists, but shrewd men and women who well understand how American society operates because each working day they see its down and dirty underside. Every day they put their lives on the line for us, making split-second life-and-death decisions. But "if they use too much force in making an arrest, they are accused of police brutality and if they are unable to make an arrest they are said to be inefficient. If they accept a favor for doing a good job they are accused of taking bribes."

Enough! It is time to stop judging all our police officers -- in Los Angeles or Philadelphia or anywhere else around the country -- by the actions of a few of their ugly colleagues. Instead, the next time you see a police officer, say "Thank you."