An Accident of Attention

Anthony Esolen

By Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

Photo Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of second-degree murder in the death of George Floyd. I won’t express any opinion about the verdict because I was not at the trial, and I have not examined the evidence closely. I’ve been advised by a policeman whose opinion I trust that a conviction for manslaughter was appropriate.

It’s the meaning of the conviction that I take issue with. I’ve heard it expressed as a victory for innocent citizens against police brutality, as a step along our way toward a time when there will be, according to some, “no bad cops.”

Let us not think and speak as mere children. There will never be a time when all the cops will be good—or when all teachers will be wise, all priests holy, all employees industrious, all businessmen honest, and all politicians humble servants of the people. We want them to be good, but perfection is not to be had on earth. The wise statesman will find a way to promote virtue as far as it can be promoted, to curb vice, and sometimes to turn a vice or a selfish motive to good effect.

Wise ordinances certainly may help to reform any institution that has grown vicious or corrupt. Are such reforms needed for American police generally? If so, what might they be? Are police too heavily armed? Too distant from the people they serve? We have had, all my life, movements for police reform. Police have long been under close scrutiny—surveillance that most of us would not tolerate for a day. Their training and their rules of engagement have been modified again and again. Only soldiers and doctors undergo the like.

Are policemen disproportionately taken from those who are cruel and brutish? Let us try to see things through the policeman’s eyes for a change. The policeman does what we do not do. His experience is not like ours. He sees us at our worst. Day after day, he deals with bad or stupid people. He must ferret the truth from liars. He must try to calm down the drug addict smashing up somebody’s store. He must confront the kid in the gang who might have a gun in his jacket. He must chase the thief. He must enter homes in chaos. If he works in one of our cities, he sees, regularly, vandals, shoplifters, brawlers, wife beaters, liars, cheats, drunks, junkies, pimps, and whores.

He pays for it, too. The given policeman is more likely to be a victim of murder or non-negligent homicide on duty than we are, all week long. There are a little over one million police officers in the United States, many of whom, of course, work behind the desk and have little interaction with criminals. The rest of the population is about 330 million. That means that, by random chance, one policeman on duty, counting even the paper pushers, should be a victim of homicide for every 330 victims among the general public during those comparable 40 hours in the week. 

Of course, that is not so. In 2020, by my most conservative count, 67 policemen in the line of duty were killed directly by a criminal: 45 by gunshot, 21 by a vehicle, and one by assault. The number is a good deal higher than that, but I will include only these specific categories. In 2019, there were 15,020 murders and non-negligent homicides in the United States—and again, that includes all hours, and policemen in their ordinary status as citizens are not immune from the danger. Assuming that not all hours of the day are equally dangerous—taking, as a conservative number, only 80 as the number of hours in the week when we are exposed to the risk—and putting the ratios together, we see that the policeman on duty at least triples his risk of dying a violent death.

Policemen also do kill people, shooting about 1,000 a year over the last six or seven years. The overwhelming majority of those killed are armed. In 2019, according to The Washington Post, United States police officers shot and killed 25 unarmed white persons and 14 unarmed black persons (I have not been able to determine if there were others, or how many). To put those numbers in some perspective, in 2019, 20 people in America were struck dead by lightning, and several hundred every year die of electrical shock in the workplace.

Police work is dangerous. If it attracts men who have a taste for fighting, that is to be expected. We do not want patsies wearing badges.

I am not saying there is no room for improvement in our policing. I think the contrary. Some of this improvement might help our policemen live to see their grandchildren. For the work is not only dangerous. It ruins your health. I have seen a 2013 study showing that male police officers in Buffalo had a life expectancy 21 years shorter than males in the city’s general population. A 2013 study from the National Institute of Health showed a 22-year gap in life expectancy between American policemen and the rest of us. Still another study showed that a policeman will suffer his first heart attack at age 49, eighteen years earlier than his brother civilian. 

The bad shifts, the many hours spent in a vehicle, the pressure, the misery, the alternation between stasis and full-throttle adrenaline, and, of course, the physical danger of criminals—these add up. You would do far better being a smoker than being a cop. We might well consider how to make police work more human for the officer and thus less dangerous for himself and for those he encounters. But such adjustments must respect the features of the place and the population, and some places will not permit it unless we were to hire more officers rather than keep them all in vehicles so much of the time.

Why would anybody become a cop? I don’t know. I am grateful that there are people willing to do the work. The policeman deserves that gratitude; it is the least we can give.

But why do I write this here, for a Catholic site?

It has to do with the arbitrariness of human sympathy. We tend to see some victims and not see others. The unarmed man who is killed by a cop—we see him, as we should. We do not see the hundred cops, in the hospital, dying of heart disease in their middle age. We can’t “grasp” that; there is no clear and single picture of it. We see things that happen, but we forget about things that might have happened but did not because someone was there to prevent it. We see things that fit the stories we have been told, or that are repeated again and again, but we do not see things that do not fit the story, or that do not fit any story at all.

Sympathy depends on where we turn our gaze. That is unavoidable. It is simply impossible for a single human being to feel for every kind of suffering on earth and for every person who suffers. I have great sympathy for boys growing up without fathers, because I was a boy, and I needed my father in far more ways than I knew at the time or can express now, thirty years after he passed away. I have great sympathy for children wearing out their lives in our hulking and impersonal schools, a bad way to organize things even when the schools do not teach imbecility and madness. I have great sympathy for husbands and wives whose spouses leave them for someone else. 

But the claims on any one person’s sympathy are too many and too great. We do not have the energy for it, or the time, even if we had the God-like breadth and depth of vision that it would require. What is true of the individual is even more true of a society when it is fired by the passions of the mass phenomena. It will be intensely focused upon one thing, or upon one feature of one thing, and it will miss the rest.

And that is why, of itself, feelings cannot be the reliable guide when we decide on a general directive, whether legal or moral. There is simply too much to consider, and a great deal of it we must weigh on its merits, even if it does not engage our feelings—though it may very well engage the feelings of others we do not know. Loving our neighbor—willing what is good for our neighbor—is, thank God, not wholly a matter of feelings. The Church, I have found, is an excellent guide, a corrective for when my feelings are out of kilter, a restrainer of unruly passions, a reminder of our fallibility, and an inspiration for passions rightly ordered and therefore stronger and more effectual.