“You made it. And… you’re f*cked.”
Delivering a commencement address only he could get away with, Robert De Niro made headlines recently for his words to the newest graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Harshly pragmatic and encouraging at once, De Niro gave public voice to the inside thoughts most of his target audience had probably been having as graduation fast approached, and very likely paraphrased what they’d heard from parents, family, and more “practical” peers in innumerable private conversations about their academic and career ambitions.
“You discovered a talent, developed an ambition and recognized your passion. When you feel that, you can’t fight it. You just go with it. When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense. You aren’t just following dreams, you’re reaching for your destiny. You’re a dancer, a singer, a choreographer, a musician, a filmmaker, a writer, a photographer, a director, a producer, an actor, an artist. Yeah, you’re f*cked.. The good news is that that’s not a bad place to start. Now that you’ve made your choice or, rather, succumbed to it, your path is clear. Not easy, but clear. You have to keep working, it’s that simple.”
De Niro’s words are particularly topical in a time when students of the arts and humanities face increased reproach for their pursuit of “impractical” degrees with risky “return on investment.” This criticism is nothing new – I heard plenty of it nearly thirty years ago when I switched my undergrad major from respectable chemistry to history (“What are you going to do with that? Hmm, I dunno), and again a decade later when I decided an advanced degree in social work would be a great idea – but has been especially sharp and widespread of late. So when an artist of Robert De Niro’s achievement and status encourages them to not only pursue their passion, having “succumbed to it,” but to see being “f*cked” as a good place to start, his are words worth heeding no matter what your passion is.
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We in law enforcement are living and working through a period of unprecedented scrutiny and rapidly expanding criticism of our tactics, policies, application of law, and even mindset. High profile and often controversial events – officer-involved shootings, in custody deaths of suspects, and alleged abuses of police power – have helped create a climate of hostility in many quarters, and growing suspicion even among many who’ve traditionally been supportive of our work. The pervasiveness of cameras, power and scope of social media, and greater than ever reach of traditional media forms have combined to globalize news that not so long ago would have lived a short life on a small and generally local stage. Today, a fatal police shooting in a St Louis suburb or a resisting suspect collapsing and dying on Staten Island becomes a living event, growing legs and quickly assigned agenda-driven meaning and implications. Whether officers are justified or not is lost as the court of public opinion passes judgement.
With widespread coverage of even relatively minor but potentially controversial events the polarization of public opinion about the police grows. As we’ve seen on display in modern politics, there is little room for nuance, objectivity, evaluating each incident on its own merits, or appreciation of life’s gray areas. And when an officer makes a mistake, behaves criminally, or is otherwise in the wrong, among those most critical of police there is little if any distinction between the clearly guilty and anyone else who carries a badge; to them, a cop is a cop is a cop and the failings of one are indicative of a corrupt nature in all.
That we know this is untrue is of little solace; to the good, hardworking, and dedicated majority of officers the anger and contempt from critics is demoralizing. The disinterest in opposing points-of-view that might add perspective to, or an entirely different way to think about, a debate is baffling. And the sense we are becoming less and less a part and representative of the society we protect – instead turning more into a force acting on a resentful and untrusting public –causes emotional isolation.
Dedicated cops are losing their passion when it is most needed. Many veteran officers are counting the days until they can pull the pin and walk away, angry at society for the changes imposed on the job.
A lot of cops are looking around and starting to think, “Well, we’re f*cked.” Seeing and hearing near-constant criticism, swimming against a tide of negativity, and anticipating possibly stifling changes that come from growing public doubt and oversight make it a kind of reasonable sentiment.
And, like De Niro said, maybe that’s not a bad place to start.
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Law enforcement is not going anywhere; it is an essential component of a healthy society and only fools and nihilists believe otherwise. Even our biggest critics want effective, professional policing. Unfortunately, most of those critics and many of our allies have no idea what that really means, how to hold onto it where it exists, or what to do where it does not. Good intentions with bad follow through risk creating more problems than they fix. Improving policing where necessary, and preserving what already works, is going to fall on the dedicated professional cops who know the job most intimately.
Reimagine the words of De Niro’s speech directed at cops instead of graduating young artists. It fits. But policing is more than just passion; it is, for most dedicated cops, their purpose. It’s time they find renewed commitment and direction for that purpose
Law enforcement as a profession finds itself facing serious challenges, and we as cops do too. Accepting and embracing those challenges is essential and, while any single one of us cannot act on behalf of an entire vocation, we can take the steps necessary to take care of ourselves, act as an honorable representative of cops everywhere, and rediscovering our purpose. In our next article we will examine specific steps to achieve this goal.