What do the Zadroga Health and Compensation Act, 21st Century Policing, and a murdered policeman in Houston have in common? They speak to our current national uproar over the first responders we turned into heroes after 9/11. With another anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks approaching, the image of police as heroes has been tarnished by politics.
Are the police most useful as spending vehicles, heroes, or villains?
Police first responders: the toughest job of all
EMTs save lives. They are who you want to see coming when you smash up your car on the freeway. Fireman haul people out of burning buildings, a job many of us would go weak at the knees even thinking about.
Then we have the police.
Police save lives, too, but there is not much glamour in being a cop. The police have the toughest, some would say worst job of all. They are the ones who put handcuffs on your wrists after the EMTs have patched you up because that last drink put you over the limit. The police arrive first when someone lies bleeding in the street and not a single bystander can remember seeing anything happen. They are the ones we ask to shield us from the worst, most amoral elements of society even at the cost of their lives. If that isn’t enough, we ask the police to exhibit restraint and professionalism far beyond the limits of endurance.
That’s a tough job, but not so tough that people who have never even been in a police car can’t make it more difficult.
9/11 heroes when Washington wanted them
When America needed heroes after 9/11, we found them. The country revered its first responding police, firefighters, and emergency health workers.
We also needed heroes after the Boston Marathon bombing. Once again, we had our first responders, including the policemen who dispatched one of the terrorists and saved us the expense of a trial and imprisonment. Barack Obama praised those who managed the tragedy:
… how grateful we are — how grateful we are that in the face of chaos and tragedy, all of you displayed the very best of the American spirit.
You displayed grit. You displayed compassion. You displayed civic duty. You displayed courage. And when we see that kind of spirit, there’s something about that that’s infectious. 1
Gratitude, it turns out, only goes so far. We went from being rescued to politically motivated charges of excessive force and community distrust, partisan propaganda that goes back to the Clinton presidency and the 1999 Justice Department Conciliation Handbook for the Police and the Community.
Despite token nods to the violence against these first responders and the role of the police in keeping Americans safe, the tone behind Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force is hard to mistake:
There is increasing unrest in our urban communities about policing. Protests in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore were the outgrowth of the use of force by police officers stopping a suspect. Although no charges were filed against the officers-in-question in two of those cases, it is clear that there is widespread disagreement about the actions of police in those instances. What started as peaceful protests, turned into violent riots, where again, the police reaction to those riots was brought into question.2
Police first responders are turned into heroes when Washington needs heroes and villains when political necessity demands a race war. One thing is certain, though. Heroes don’t need body cameras.
Villains wear body cameras
Political trends come and go. The excessive use of force by police is popular again, thanks in part to the Justice Department’s desperate efforts to recast crime in America as the fault of draconian sentencing and overaggressive, race-based policing.
Out of his element and naively endorsing the Democratic Party line, Rand Paul threw in on the body camera debate alongside the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund:
Body cameras will benefit the brave men and women who serve in our police force and the people they protect,” said Senator Paul. “The use of body cameras helps officers collect and preserve evidence to solve crimes, while also decreasing the number of complaints against police.3
What body cameras will do is spend more money on local police departments already judged guilty by politicians, the media, and special interests before charges have been filed or evidence reviewed (see: Value of Life is Decided by Protest and Politics). What cameras won’t do is stem the tide of forgiving crime based on race. We already know that police dash cam videos are open to interpretation. Body cameras will not be any different, but they will help us dodge the ugly truth about violent crime and people of color (see: Politics and Responsibility Fail in the Black Community).
Beyond the hero vs. villain debate, there is another side to how politics uses first responders. This one applies to the whole spectrum, from ambulance drivers to firefighters to law enforcement officers. When we need tokens to spend on, we need only go back to September 11.
More stalling on first responder Zadroga Act
While the nation struggles to decide how it feels about the police, the Zadroga Act renewal languishes despite garnering some Republican support. The 2010 bill was a sweeping vehicle to compensate first responders and victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks for a daunting list of conditions (click here to read the conditions certified as related to the World Trade Center attack).
Lawmakers like New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand have turned police into token heroes because a spending bill is on the line:
Over 80 NYPD and over 100 FDNY personnel have reportedly died from their 9/11 illnesses since 9/11. More police officers have died from 9/11 related illnesses than perished on 9/11.4
That doesn’t mean these first responders can’t be villains at the same time, as this New York congressman suggested:
Rep. Jeffries said: “The overwhelming majority of all police officers are hardworking individuals who are on the job to protect and serve. Yet, it is undeniable that our country is in the midst of an epidemic of police violence that has badly damaged the relationship between law enforcement and communities throughout America, including in New York City. The chokehold is a poster child for violent police tactics.5
How can violent police tactics and an undeniable epidemic of police violence happen when the overwhelming majority of officers are not to blame? Because sometimes politics needs a villain. Sometimes politics calls for heroes. Sometimes being a token fits the bill. For the first responders with the hardest job of all, that’s a tough spot to be in.