A couple of weeks ago, I was on the phone with a lawyer in Atlanta for a story about mayoral politics here. Policing has become the issue in the upcoming mayor’s race, and early last month, the City Council green-lit a plan for a new $90 million training site for cops and first responders. “It’s a morale boost for the police,” the lawyer told me, a remark that might sound like a withering appraisal of the city’s motives — why would you ever spend $90 million just because the cops are sad? — but that’s actually an almost verbatim recap of why it’s being done, according to local officials. “As long as I’ve been working,” the lawyer went on, “since 2008,” the police have “always complained about a morale deficiency.” And the reasons have “changed. Sometimes it’s, ‘Oh, they don’t pay us enough.’ Sometimes they don’t like their leadership. They never come out and say, ‘We are just satisfied.’”
It was one of those simple-yet-revelatory observations that you feel like a fool for not making yourself. Zoom out a little, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any news story about the state of American policing since 2020 that doesn’t feature some variation on the word demoralized.” They’re demoralized in Atlanta and demoralized in Salt Lake City. They’re so demoralized in Burlington, Vermont, that a recent officer survey found that more than half of respondents were looking for new careers. “The job used to be fun and occasionally satisfying and rewarding,” one officer elaborated, “but now it’s constantly miserable.”
The pitiable psychic condition of America’s cops was supposedly brought on by the bad rap they got last summer, after one of them got caught on video killing a man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck in Minneapolis while his colleagues just watched. It got worse after a bunch of other cops in other cities used batons, rubber bullets, and tear gas to rough up people who protested in the streets because they weren’t happy about Floyd’s murder. Tales of woe and low morale can now be found on the lips of practically any sympathetic observer you’d think to ask — officers, police-union heads, elected leaders, pundits — and are being used with ever more frequency to explain a range of unsettling phenomena. The cops feel demoralized, so they’re “pulling back” and not helping people who ask for their help. They feel demoralized, so they’re resigning from their local departments in unprecedented numbers, portending a dangerous shortage of law enforcement, according to several officials and boosters.
Recent labor data suggests the latter isn’t actually happening — local departments lost less than one percent of their employees last year, and federal and state departments actually saw increases in their ranks, according to The Marshall Project. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is throwing its political weight and billions of dollars behind a nationwide police hiring push, which, if nothing else, would seem to validate the fundraising strategy of pretending that demoralized cops are quitting in droves.
This discrepancy in labor data is just one way the popular narrative and reality aren’t adding up. Maybe the biggest is the idea that we’re dealing with a new problem, stemming from the fallout from Floyd’s murder, and one that can be resolved in a way that makes cops happy and democratically accountable at the same time. Historical coverage of this issue, in fact, suggests the opposite: A Washington Post story from 1993 describes a “once-proud Los Angeles Police Department” that suddenly found itself “demoralized” and “embarrassed” after the 1992 riots. It should go without saying that the “proud” era being hearkened to was defined by the exact kind of wanton violence, racism, and lack of accountability that fueled the riots in the first place. A story from the same paper in 1996 describes a demoralized Washington, D.C., police department, reeling from budget cuts at a time when crime rates were plummeting nationwide and D.C. cops were solving them at roughly the same rate as they were before the reductions. Meanwhile, cops in New York swaggered “in action and attitude,” fulfilled budgetarily and braying the gospel of “broken windows” policing, a once-vaunted method that’s now best known for the aggressive punishment of poor and sick people over petty infractions.
It’s telling that New York cops were only riding so high after weathering a dip in morale. In 1992, the city’s first Black mayor, David Dinkins, was in the process of trying to change the composition of the Civilian Complaint Review Board so that it was totally composed of civilians, instead of 50 percent cops. This small measure of democratic oversight proved to be unbearable for many in the NYPD. Thousands of off-duty officers descended on City Hall for a drunken riot, characterized by its liberal use of racial slurs and the participation of Rudy Giuliani, then a former U.S. Attorney and failed mayoral candidate. Giuliani would go on to triumph in the next mayoral race, ushering in the very era of trampled civil rights in New York City that the Post described in such laudatory terms in 1996. In other words: Cops? They’re like us — happyish when they’re getting worshipped, unhappy when people are telling them they’re doing a bad job.
So we find ourselves in a conundrum: Many Americans are unhappy with the job cops are doing, and our media and political organs are telling us we should give the cops more money and perks to make them feel better about us saying so. Federal lawmakers are tripping over themselves to prove which party is more cop-friendly. Republicans in the battleground state of Georgia are laying the groundwork for making support for the police a key issue in the looming gubernatorial rematch between Governor Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams. As a result, policy and budgetary decisions of tremendous import and volume are being made, at least nominally, on the basis of what the police say their emotional state is, with little respect to how much money and esteem they already enjoy. Historically large pay raises and bonuses, recruitment blitzes, and promises to build verdant new campuses to train cops and make them feel more beloved in Atlanta are just some of the ways this is materializing here.
Needless to say, the capacity for bad-faith claims is boundless. It’s rational to conclude that dissatisfied public-sector employees are likely to result in a diminishing quality of public services, which is bad. But history has demonstrated police satisfaction to be unreachable, if not downright illusory, and placating cops endlessly is a recipe for continuing to reward them for making us mad.
More than a referendum on the peculiar state of American policing today, this seems to reflect something more fundamental, and more intractable, about the profession itself. A lot of it can probably be boiled down to this: Policing isn’t supposed to be fun. The very basis of the unwavering esteem in which we’re told we should hold cops — the idea that their job is really dangerous, and marked at every turn by encounters with everyday people at their absolute worst moments, so that anyone who does it is by definition brave and noble — is a pretty good indication that the job is also miserable. If the real reward of it comes from what the current discourse is telegraphing — from having barely checked power and enjoying public worship that’s impervious to their actual quality of work — that’s a sorry reason to give someone a gun and a badge, let alone the amounts of money they’re currently being promised.
So while we’re on the topic of feelings, here’s another one: I might feel better about the fact that we’re still doing this brand of politics, which last summer’s “reckoning” sometimes looked poised to do away with, if it was pushing toward a goal that seemed attainable, and tenable, rather than one that’s obviously going to reproduce the same problems.