There’s a difference between empathy and sympathy.
When I empathize with someone, I try to consider their circumstances and what they’re going through. I try to understand their motivations and why they’re doing or saying what they are. Empathy helps me be more understanding and patient when problem solving or listening to another.
Sympathy is how bad I feel for someone who underwent a tragedy or bad experience. My sympathy becomes pronounced if someone experienced a misfortune through no fault of their own.
However, my sympathy all but disappears when something bad befalls someone who put themselves in that situation.
For example, the two protesters who were hit by a car because they were protesting in the middle of the I-5 freeway in Seattle, in the dark, wearing dark clothes. And, did I mention… standing in the freeway. Those people? I have no sympathy for them. None.
I realize one died of their injuries. But it was totally avoidable. Who told her to go protest in the highway? And why did she think that was a good idea?
Similarly, if you do something to attract the attention of the police, and you try to run, take their gun, give them a sucker punch, use their taser against them, or generally not follow directions, I’m afraid I can’t get too sad about the results.
We all make mistakes in life, and hopefully, we all get the chance to learn from them. People who’ve ended up in physical altercations with the police don’t deserve to die because of their mistake. Hopefully, they live to learn from it.
But whenever you start messing with an officer who’s job is to throw themselves into uncertain situations with people who could literally be capable of doing anything to them, you have to know that anything can happen.
Most of us are blessed that during the course of our normal day, we’re not thrust into situations in which we could be killed. We don’t have the constant fear that comes with knowing the next time you get called to a scene, it could be the last thing you do.
However, all of us are protected by people who do experience this… for a living. We take our safety for granted because of the people who wake up and go to work not knowing what kind of people they’re going to encounter that day.
And if you’ve been watching the news or social media lately, you’re learning pretty quickly that there are people out there capable of extreme, unpredictable, and unprovoked violence. Now imagine that you were walking into those scenes, potentially multiple times each day you work. Do you think you’d be a little tightly wound while at work?
In general, I don’t think we do a very good job empathizing with our police officers and the constant stress they face daily. That doesn’t excuse them from killing someone, whether on purpose or by accident. But it should help us understand how it can happen.
Meanwhile, I think we’re too quick to sympathize with people who do something aggressive or make a wrong move in front of an officer who may have had a very tense day.
This doesn’t excuse the few who have died at the hands of a police officer. But it should help to understand what kind of experiences they have every day – especially now, when some people have gotten very bold in their actions toward police officers.
There’s certainly room for police reform and more dialogue between communities and the officers who protect them, but I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who commit a crime, however small, and then end up in a police altercation that could have been avoided by simply not committing the crime.