Ever make a big mistake by making an assumption that turned out to be embarrassingly false? I’ll bet you have. I bet we all have, at one time or another. Ever been on the receiving end of a false impression? Again, I’m going to bet you have. They’re pretty common, especially when the consequences are minimal. Among the many lessons I learned on the job as a police officer was things are not always what they seem. And I can think of endless examples.

Recently, there was a well-publicized case of a high school teacher that everyone considered a tough disciplinarian. Unbeknownst to everyone who knew him, he volunteered at a local hospital where he spent time holding and cuddling newborn infants that needed special care. His students were astounded when they found out.

It shouldn’t be surprising that cops are forever misunderstood and fall victim to a gross amount of stereotyping. It can easily be argued that they are one group that the PC crowd still allows to be scandalized by the broad brush of prejudice. They certainly do share many of the same traits…the job demands it. But, they also provide an ample supply of interesting contradictions.

There was a rather macho SWAT officer who sustained an injury on the job and had to be reassigned for the duration of his recuperation. Much to the dismay of some on the department who doubted the depth of his social skills, I talked him into teaching the D.A.R.E. program in the elementary schools. He was not only well liked by the teachers and students, but received community awards for his work.

A veteran cop who was often teased about his apparent homophobia became the guardian angel for a teenage transvestite who came to his attention when he was bullied at school and got into a fight. The kid was living alone near the school, because his family had abandoned him. The officer checked in on him from time to time, made sure he had enough to eat and got him some help from the county’s social services.

I remember a lieutenant who went out of his way to be officious and overbearing who sneaked out of the office to feed stray cats in the back parking lot. When he was spotted doing so, he pleaded with the witness not to tell anyone. He felt the possible revelation would damage a reputation he was convinced he had to maintain.

And there was one burley sergeant with a well-deserved reputation for being a tough character who I saw hand-carry a bug outside that he caught in his office. He took it over to a bush and gently released it onto one of the leaves. I unintentionally startled him as he was brushing off his hands. When I asked him what he was doing, he just pointed down at the insect and gruffly said, “It’s a bug, dummy. It belongs out here.”

For several years, I was assigned to the Chief’s Office as a coordinator for his Community Liaison Team. It was one of those multi-faceted jobs that demanded I wear a lot of different hats. One of my responsibilities was fielding questions from the press as a public information officer and from the citizens as the Chief’s representative. I remember telling the boss one day that we must have been doing something right, because I had been called a Nazi and a communist within the same hour. I figured if I was being accused of membership on both sides of the political spectrum, I was likely maintaining some equilibrium.

Of course, cops aren’t the only ones who suffer from prejudice. It seems a necessary characteristic of any group that is identified as a minority…even in the land of the free. Why? Does the majority rule that dominates the elective process of a democracy help to legitimize some of the remnants of archaic oppressive systems? For centuries, governments were largely founded by violence and sustained by fear until a new idea took hold in the frontiers of America a little over 200 years ago. 200 years seems like a long time, but in the course of human history it’s a blink of an eye. Is it little wonder then that significant chunks of the world still find the whole thing hard to understand, let alone adopt? Although we may pride ourselves on our achievements, Americans themselves are still wrestling with these issues…on a personal, as well as political, basis.

Doesn’t it seem that snap judgments are especially in vogue nowadays, despite our pleas to the contrary? The broad use of social media has made it worse. I’ve encountered many instances of blatantly unsubstantiated accusations and outrageously brash condemnations from people who are completely unfamiliar with those they are defaming on Facebook and the like. There’s a certain kind of anonymity involved that absolves the violator of the negative consequences they would encounter in a face-to-face confrontation and generates what I call “keyboard courage”—a propensity to bully and intimidate from a distance provided by their electronic gadgets without accountability. Like everything else, technology enhances the positive…and the negative.

No one has ever been truly immune from this garbage. Perhaps those who continue to scratch under the abrasive garment of prejudice can take some solace in the notion that the injustice affects the great as well as the weak. Even Jesus, the Son of God, was dismissed because of it.

“Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked.”
–John 1:44-46

Given the universal and well-known nature of bias, bigotry, and discrimination—along with their consequences—why is it so hard to kick loose of these really old and really bad habits?