A young boy wearing a police officer’s cap. A small girl wiping away her mother’s tears.
President Biden telling the grieving family of slain Capitol Police Officer William “Billy” Evans, “Your son, your husband, your brother, your dad was a hero.”
Switching from that gut-wrenching scene in the Capitol Rotunda to a Minneapolis courtroom, where the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin is playing out in all its horror, is emotional whiplash — and showcases the dramatic clash of views about American police. To some, they are protectors; to others, predators. It depends on how they interact with you and others like you.
On one side is the touching portrait drawn of Evans as a kind and dedicated police officer, with a knack for looking at the bright side and a deep love for family, baseball and pranks. A native of North Adams, Mass., Evans was killed on April 2, when he and another Capitol police officer standing in front of a steel barricade were struck by a car whose driver intentionally rammed the barrier. The driver, who was Black, was fatally shot after he got out of the vehicle, holding a knife.
On the other side is the stomach-turning picture of Chauvin, a white officer, with his knee pressed into the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for nine minutes and 29 seconds. That picture of Chauvin, who is now on trial for murder, has come to represent all that is wrong about policing, especially as practiced against Black Americans.
To Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which represents law enforcement officials, the conflicting pictures show why “In a crisis, there’s nothing better than a good cop and nothing worse than a bad cop.” The good ones — like Evans and Eric Talley, the Boulder police officer who died when he rushed into a supermarket where a gunman opened fire — step up in the moment, said Wexler. The bad ones, like Chauvin, are increasingly being caught on video, increasing the pressure for systemic reform. “American people are seeing a side of policing that existed forever,” said Wexler. As a result, “the culture is beginning to change. There’s an impatience with it,” he said.
Yet even amid the alleged national reckoning about police and race — and less than 10 miles away from the courtroom where Chauvin’s trial is underway — a white officer fatally shot a 20-year-old Black man during a traffic stop just a few days ago. The officer, who has since resigned and has been charged with manslaughter, said she confused her gun for her Taser. And a video of a Black uniformed Army officer who was held at gunpoint and pepper-sprayed during a traffic stop carried out by officers in Virginia last December, which just became public, offers another ugly portrait of policing in America. (One of the officers has been fired.)
A guilty verdict in the Chauvin trial could be a catalyst for real change — but only if police see it not as an indictment of one “bad apple” but as a call for overhauling the way they think about their job. For example: Weighing whether their actions are appropriate for the situation; letting someone go today, and getting them tomorrow. Sadly, an acquittal would be incentive to keep the status quo. More than relying on one jury to change the world of policing, it might be better to change how we think about police and how they think about themselves. Not as “good cops” or “bad cops” — or even as heroes — but as humans interacting with other humans, in extreme situations.
“I think that we should consider choosing our heroes much more carefully,” said Tom Nolan, a former Boston police officer and author of “Perilous Policing: Criminal Justice in Marginalized Communities,” who also teaches at Emmanuel College. “Evans was the victim of a tragic murder, as was George Floyd, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and Daunte Wright, among others. For anyone to doubt that so-called ‘blue lives matter’ more than Black lives, one need look no further than to the memorial services held for fallen officers, which stand in stark contrast to the funerals for those who die at the hands of police.”
To Wexler, the question law enforcement officials should ask each other is, “How do you treat people?” The answer determines the picture we draw of police.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.