The Broad Brush

The idea of painting with a broad brush is nothing new. Whether one is speaking of cars, watermelons, or movie genres, humans are prone to praise or condemn without specificity. For example, “Fords make the best pick up on the road” is a claim one can hear in television commercials and the local honky-tonk. Of course, Chevrolet fans may take exception to the comment, but who cares what they think? After all, those guys had any sense they’d all be driving Dodge Rams.

There! I managed to use a broad brush and insult at least two groups of male truck owners and women who own trucks. Of course, it is likely, except for a close friend who worships his F250, most people will see that first paragraph for what it is, a way to get your attention and hopefully make you chuckle. However, there is nothing funny about the reality inspiring this piece.

Painting with a broad brush is just a common human trait until it becomes a way of labeling others. Then it rapidly begins to shift to something else, stereotyping, bias, even prejudice. When you or I use the broad brush to label, describe, or denigrate a group of people, our comments’ impact is normally limited to friends and associates. On the other hand, public figures, personalities, politicians, and the media’s use of broad terms and accusations are a bit more concerning.

For example, the item inspiring this piece was a headline or banner for a news story when I opened my home page. The banner read, “Police Stop Black Man While Jogging.” The immediate assumption one makes reading that is some “cop” was harassing a person of color. As it turns out, the incident may have been an overreaction on the part of several ICE Agents.

The problem, however, is the misuse of the term police. The word police is used as a broad brush today, covering all law enforcement personnel, whether they are police officers or not.

Now, you may be thinking I am the ultimate hairsplitter with this bull hockey. That is your right, but ICE agents are not police officers. Neither are FBI agents, DEA agents, or any of the plethora of NCIS agents portrayed on television today.

Police officers are the men and women who patrol our streets, investigate accidents, and respond to missing persons’ calls. They handle domestic disturbances, welfare checks, and take theft reports, along with many other activities. Yes, they might stop a jogger of any skin, tone if the person matched a suspect description, seemed suspicious in some other way, or created a safety hazard.

For the record, in this case, if the story was accurate, the ICE agents may have been pushing the limits of probable cause in stopping the jogger. The fact they did not detain him, even though he was reportedly uncooperative, may indicate the stop was not appropriate. It may also suggest they made a mistake and realized it after questioning the individual. Still, the headline’s wording and tone made any reader quickly assume “they” did it again. “They” harassed some poor guy because of his skin color. That generalization is unfair and unsafe.

I could stop at this point. I could, but another story caught my eye when I opened my browser the morning I first planned on posting this piece. A headline and the story which followed implied “law enforcement” has an inappropriate relationship with right-wing extremists. In reality, the report covered one sheriff’s actions in Michigan. It appears the Sherriff has some form of relationship with a band of yahoos arrested for plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

The story also claimed the Michigan sheriff was a member of a questionable sheriff’s association. The article alleged the association is a right-wing extremist group itself. If it is as far out there as the article implied, it is a bit concerning, but one should keep in mind, more than 3,000 sheriffs are serving in the United States at this time. Of that number, only 161 are allegedly members of the organization.

Even indirectly accusing all sheriffs, much less the rest of law enforcement, of being in bed with extremists is a bit much. If a bigoted right-wing crazy is elected sheriff, it is because most of his or her constituency shares at least some of those views.

Here is the bottom line. Using the term police in a headline accusing a specific department, agency, or officer of misconduct is a form of broad-brush thinking and finger-pointing bordering on stereotyping and bigotry.

Law enforcement entities are not all “police,” and they do not all have the same mission and authority. ICE agents, for instance, do not meet you at grandma’s house to see if grandma is okay. FBI agents do not investigate automobile accidents. DEA agents do not respond to missing persons’ calls.

Sheriffs and their deputies perform many duties similar to police chiefs and their officers, but there is one significant difference. Sheriffs are normally elected officials, answering only to the voters.

Equating these individuals, offices, or designations with the hundreds of thousands of men and women serving as police officers in the United States shows ignorance, prejudice, or both.

Police chiefs and the officers they manage answer to the mayors, city managers, city councils, and the citizens of the municipalities in which they work. They are the ones who respond to your home when someone is peeping in your window. They respond when someone steals your kid’s bicycle.

The vast majority of police officers have no more respect for extremists of any sort than those victimized by said extremists. In fact, police officers are often the targets of the miscreants with whom they are being compared.

© – 2020

About S. Eric Jackson

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