Running an errand this week, I watched two Phoenix police officers offer a bottle of water to a homeless man grabbing some shade outside a local grocery store.
One of the officers was still there when I came out and I said what I always say when I pass a cop on the street.
“Thank you for your service. Stay safe out here.”
He thanked me for thanking him. We went our separate ways. The moment stayed with me, however. Remembering it called to mind a number I looked up not long ago.
That’s the average hourly wage for a police officer in Arizona, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s a good living in a state where the average worker makes less than $24 for an hour’s work. Police work typically comes with decent health insurance, the opportunity to advance into management, and solid retirement benefits.
It’s also a job I couldn’t imagine doing — not now, not in the 21st century, not in the present moment we find ourselves in as a Valley, a state, a nation.
Not for $31.08 an hour. Not for 100 times $31.08 an hour.
A caveat: As I have explained before, my day job involves helping people and organizations tell their stories and answer reporters’ questions.
My clients include virtually all the state’s law enforcement organizations. That means, among other things, I am paid to help tens of thousands of cops explain the truth about their profession.
It also means I generally support and respect the men and women who do the job — a job I could never fathom doing myself. Not for $31.08 an hour.
My rationale for chickening out has little to do with the danger police officers face every day — though that danger has never been more real.
Instead, when I think about not being a cop, I think mainly of the frustration occasioned by working in a profession where everyone else is an expert despite never walking a day on a beat.
I think, as well, of having my work judged not by what I do myself, but by the conduct of a handful of my colleagues — a minute of video here, an allegation of abuse there.
I don’t think I could handle it.
In fact, I doubt many of us could. Americans as a general rule value personal responsibility, individual accountability and the concept of innocence until guilt has been proven — except when we judge an entire police department or the entire profession through the lens of a single frozen moment in time.
Then, instead of rational thought, the screaming begins. “The Phoenix police this.” “The Mesa cops that.” “The Tempe police this.” “The west side cops that.”
Before you start screaming, please understand I am not excusing a single bad act committed by a police officer, nor am I arguing that any cop should be above the law.
Bad acts committed in uniform should be punished accordingly, using the same investigative and prosecutorial tools and laws that govern holding accused criminals responsible for their crimes.
My point? That we appear to be choosing sides these days. There are those who view every police officer as inherently evil. There are those who believe wearing a badge entitles the holder to be judge, jury and executioner.
Then there’s the rest of us.
We think that putting yourself in harm’s way to protect a community merits respect, not disregard. We see the man, the woman, not merely the uniform, not merely the video snippet. We think that maybe cops who work an hour deserve better than 31 bucks and all the disrespect an angry mob can muster.