I have no interest in a “both sides” argument about clear-cut instances of police brutality, and “bad apples” arguments lose ground by the minute. (Also, I care way less about Congressman Bobby Rush’s popcorn than our mayor seems to.) The conversations around police reform, defunding, and abolition have made massive leaps forward over the past two weeks, and some teachers find themselves in a complicated spot. Rather than shame them for struggling with these questions, I’m choosing to find a lens that sees them and reaches out.
Right now, accusations of hatred and vilification fly in both directions: teachers are engaged more and more with calls to rethink and reshape policing as we know it, and police feel besieged by public opinion and massive protests. Both see an increasing distance between the two professions and their respective unions. And amid the growing national conversation around policing, these two occupations still live side by side in many Chicago neighborhoods, often under the same roof. There’s a lot of overlap in families and communities, since all city workers are required to live within the city limits and thus tend to pile up at the edges, where a house with a yard on a quiet side street is more affordable.
The demand to remove police from our schools is growing fast. Many teachers see the impacts of police presence on Black and Brown students, on students with disabilities, on immigrant students -- even when the school resource officer is kind and well-intentioned. (I love both of the resource officers at my school.) This isn’t about the officers; it’s about the students. In twenty-two years as a teacher, I have never encountered a situation at school that wouldn’t have been better handled by a social worker or other wellness professional, and that includes when I was physically assaulted. But alongside calls for wider defunding, police feel it as another slap at their profession.
Many police resented our strike last fall; tensions have grown between our unions over the past several years as the Chicago Teachers Union has taken on larger social issues in Chicago inherent to improving our schools. At the same time, I wonder as a teacher why the police union doesn’t fight harder on these same issues for a better version of their city and profession, one that doesn’t pit police against their neighbors, friends, and family. I wonder, too, why the Fraternal Order of Police doesn’t prioritize everyday worker protections. (If they do, we don’t hear about it, and their recently elected President does not engender confidence.) Police hold fundraisers to buy vests like we hold bake sales to buy books. We need to realize that we are ALL being played.
Teachers also see the impact of policing as it exists now on our students’ lives outside of school. We see the outsized portions of our city budget used to further militarize the police, settle misconduct lawsuits, and pay out the overtime used to keep their union happy(ish) and quiet(er), and teachers stop wondering why we can’t have librarians anymore. Again: this isn’t about police as human beings as much as it’s about what we see kids needing and experiencing.
But let’s talk about police as human beings. I count police officers among my loved ones. I married into a police family. I grew up in a police neighborhood and settled into another to raise my kids. There are plastic blue ribbons on half the trees in my neighborhood, and we call this supporting the police.
But if we really think about what we see as friends and family of police officers, the calls for reform and defunding should be loudest among us. Instead of claiming outsized voices in discussions about protests and police brutality, those of us with first responders in our circles should take this moment to look with more honesty and discomfort at what we have seen -- some of us for our entire lives. And if we’re really honest, uncomfortably honest, we’ll start to see that this profession as it currently exists is killing them, too.
I’ve watched marriages crumble, substance abuse take hold, callouses start to cover an otherwise kind soul. We buried a family member who was only 25, one of so many more police officers who die by suicide than in the line of duty. We are not supporting our police by tying blue ribbons on trees and calling them superheroes. We are setting them up.
For those teachers and others who feel conflicted between the current call to rebuild policing and the loved ones they feel called to defend, I hear you. You’re not wrong when you think of the long hours and mentally devastating nature of police work; you know better than anyone what police work does to a human being. You probably know that the work our loved ones signed up to do didn’t turn out the way they expected. They didn’t join the profession to be reviled and distrusted. I genuinely believe most joined to serve their communities -- just like teachers. And in many ways, they’re backed into a corner in our culture, reinforced by the rhetoric of their unions, isolated from the communities they serve and taught to trust only one another. With-us-or-against-us might be a comforting space for officers and loved ones, but it also intensifies the challenges police face and the devastating impacts on their lives and families.
The call to defund and change policing doesn’t center police officers; but it could be about supporting them, too.
I urge police family members and friends to read some of the explanations of defunding and abolition and imagine what it could mean for those who do police work. Because of the inclination to circle up and defend what feels like a very personal attack, it’s difficult to untangle. But especially as teachers, we are capable of processing that complexity and finding a space where multiple things can be true and in need of our care and attention.
We can support the police by defunding them.