In Steve Edwards’ wonderful essay, “When Are Men Dangerous?” he posits that question through a number of vignettes that show men being dangerous, then questions the foundations of those incidents to disassemble their inner workings. The questions he asks are not only worth asking, but asking repeatedly.
Having been a police officer for nearly twenty years, one piece of this essay in particular grabbed my attention.
“I’ve only really gotten yelled at once,” he said, grinning and brushing it off. “We’re supposed to carry two pens in our shirt pocket, and I had a black one and a blue one. Turns out they’re both supposed to be black.”
I laughed reflexively at the punchline. But as we kept talking, and even afterward, on the chilly walk back to my office and the rest of my day, the detail about the pens gnawed at me. He was being indoctrinated and didn’t know it. Or maybe he knew but felt as though he had no choice but to live with his decision. Maybe he thought that on the other side of his training, the pressures would ease. Unfortunately, you can’t escape an ideology by hoping it changes. You end up becoming it instead. Perpetuating it. You normalize stories that in other settings might set off alarm bells. What if I yelled at him about the color of his pens?
Edwards, whose work I had never encountered until today on Lit Hub (a website I whole-heartedly urge you to read every day), is a teacher at a small college and his classes are full of 19-year olds trying to figure out who they are. The student he’s talking to in that passage was training to be a police officer and had written essays about honor and integrity, the sacrifice of duty, all of the standard things a young police officer writes about.
Where the student in that essay was looking out over the horizon of an entire police career, having no idea what the reality actually was, I am on the backside of that career, and know the Two Pens intimately.
Everything has context and Edwards is correct, had he-as a teacher-yelled at a student for having different color pens, chances are exquisite he would have been disciplined, but differently than the police recruit. The recruit was yelled at for not following a petty rule where Edwards would have been counseled for having such a petty rule. (That’s an assumption on my part because I’ve never been a college teacher other than as guest writing instructor or as a guest police instructor.)
Initially, I chuckled about the Two Pens because the court system, at least where I am in north-central Illinois, actually prefers blue pens to black. Why? Blue ink makes the original of an official document clear. Obviously, that has changed given the ease with which copiers and computers can hand out color copies but generally, copies of an official document are black.
But the issue also illustrates, as clearly as a pen and ink drawing, police culture.
There is no rational argument, in any training manual for any department anywhere in this country, for two pens. Why are two better than one? Wouldn’t three be better than two? Pens are small, five or six could be comfortably carried in a uniform shirt pocket.
So why two?
It’s small, petty rule and, as Edwards points out, recruit officers laugh it off, not realizing that Two Pens teaches obedience to the rules. Obedience then becomes the first step into ideology and ideology is where policing has run aground.
Ideology, manifest through indoctrination is, I believe, what kept J. Alexander Kueng from telling Derek Chauvin to get off of George Floyd’s neck that terrible day in Minneapolis. Kueng had learned the lesson well. The older officer, the senior officer, in that specific case the field training officer, is always right, regardless of what your gut and heart and head might tell you.
I’m sure Kueng wanted to be an officer for the same reason the student in Edwards’ essay wanted to be an officer. In fact, in the New York Times podcast The Daily on this very issue, the reporter talked to people in Kueng’s life and he had grand ideals for, if not changing the world, then certainly making his piece of it better.
Instead, he got sucked into police culture, which is one of the most intensely powerful forces I’ve ever dealt with in my life, and obedience to that culture led him to prison for helping to commit murder.
That’s what rings in my head about Kueng and Thomas Lane (the other rookie officer in that incident) constantly. Kueng joined to help people and now he will stand trial in mid-June for aiding and abetting murder.
In other words, Kueng became the dragon he set out to slay, and he did it because of the Two Pens.
I have spent nearly twenty years believing that no one could possibly change police culture, especially new officers who are generally the officers most excited about changing their world. My reality and the era in which I’ve policed, has been that new officers simply don’t have the voice to be taken seriously. Spiritually, new officers are part of, whether they want to be or not, a police culture and ideology that indoctrinates them to believe that veterans are right and newbies are newbies, and never the twain shall meet.
Yet, now it feels vaguely like spring time. Temperatures are rising whlie days are lengthening, and I see new shoots of grass breaking the surface. George Floyd may well have been the wildfire that ravaged policing to insure new growth. Don’t misunderstand me, I support police and believe society needs policing, but I also believe policing needs to burn. Police culture must have that new growth.