It was one small overlooked moment as the streets of America burned.
In downtown Dallas near the convention centre, a protester screamed at a dozen uniformed officers. “How do you live with yourself?” the man yelled at them. “How can you work for something you know is wrong?”
Off to the side, standing near the officers, a member of the Dallas Police Department in civilian clothes and wearing a mask to protect herself from the novel coronavirus was crying.
It is a volatile time to be a police officer in the United States.
They have been attacked by protesters and they have also attacked protesters, fuelling the anger against them. Some have been applauded nationwide after being caught on video shaking hands with demonstrators, hugging them, taking a knee, or marching alongside them to turn tense protests into parades of solidarity. Others have been disciplined, fired or charged after using excessive force on protesters, as their superiors – long criticized for reacting sluggishly, if at all, to misconduct – are now swiftly punishing the kind of heavy-handed tactics that have been commonplace during riots in decades past.
The message from the President is to dominate the streets with force. The message from many of their chiefs and mayors is to tolerate, connect and empathize. The message on the streets, at times, is that they are part of the problem. The message from the news media is watch what you say and do.
All of these messages have collided in real time as police tactics are analyzed and publicized on social media, as the response becomes increasingly federalized and as officers in several cities are pelted with bricks, shot at and rammed by drivers in vehicles.
In St. Louis on Monday night, four officers were struck by gunfire in a shootout between gunmen at a protest and the police. In Las Vegas, an officer was put on life support after he was shot near the Circus Circus Hotel and Casino as police forces tried to disperse crowds that had hit them with bottles and rocks. In Buffalo, N.Y., the driver of an SUV sped through a line of law enforcement officers in riot gear, injuring two of them in an episode caught on video.
“We feel like we’re pawns in a game right now,” said a supervisor in a police department in the St. Louis region who asked that his name not be used in order to speak frankly about the job. “It’s almost like there’s an agenda and we’re being used on both sides, the left and the right, to further that agenda.”
The supervisor said it felt like a more dangerous time to be an officer than it did during the rioting in 2014 over the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Mo., a sentiment echoed by other law enforcement officials.
“In 2014, there were threats of violence, people said all kinds of things,” the supervisor said. “I never felt that nervous.”
Much of policing, like much of politics, is local. But the outrage over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis has upended that notion, inciting social unrest and violence that has put urban and suburban police departments across the country on alert. It has been a challenge for officers, at a time when many are also confronting the coronavirus.
“These type of protests take a significant toll on an officer’s mental wellness, and they add so much stress,” said Manny Ramirez, a sergeant with the Fort Worth Police Department and the president of the police officers’ union. “This is Fort Worth, Texas, 1,000 miles away, but yet these officers have become targets for that rage.”
Mr. Ramirez, 35, was in a command post on Sunday when protesters began hurling frozen water bottles and rocks at officers. One officer was struck on the elbow with a projectile. Another broke his leg while chasing a looter. “There’s got to be some way to ensure that going forward we can have something constructive come out of this,” he said.
In Beverly Hills, Calif., on Tuesday, several hundred chanting protesters were being monitored by the city’s police officers, who closed Rodeo Drive and were flanked by reinforcements in SWAT tactical vehicles.
“I’ve gone home once in the last four days,” said a Los Angeles officer watching the crowd months after having the coronavirus. “My girlfriend had to drop off clothes so I could change. It’s been hell, for everybody. Monsters and Red Bull, that’s the only thing that’s keeping me up.”
As the world watches demonstrations unfold on television and social media, both the best and the worst of American law enforcement has been on display.
Protesters, both peaceful and violent, have been bruised and beaten by officers on the front lines. In Denver, a police officer was fired on Tuesday after posting a photo online of three officers in armoured tactical gear with the caption, “Let’s start a riot.”
In Austin, Tex., a 20-year-old African American protester was in critical condition after he was shot in the head with a beanbag round fired by a police officer on Sunday. A protester standing next to the man had thrown objects at the police, and in response an officer struck the victim instead. Others hit by similar police-fired rounds include a woman giving medical assistance and a pregnant Black woman.
“I’m crushed,” the Austin police chief, Bryan Manley, said during a news conference Monday. “I’ve cried a few times today.”
At a time when tensions are volatile on the streets, such missteps do more than hurt a department’s image. In Richmond, Va., two officers were being treated for non-life-threatening injuries from gunshots. The shooting occurred hours after the Police Department apologized on Twitter to peaceful protesters who were hit with tear gas.
In many ways, the police response to what is happening on the streets illustrates a kind of post-Ferguson era of policing. Officers – not only chiefs but even the rank and file – have embraced the demonstrations and aligned themselves so much with protesters that they march alongside them. In some parts of the country, chiefs have become more politically outspoken and more emotional than they have been in decades.
At a demonstration in Redlands, a Southern California suburb in San Bernardino County, protesters knelt and bowed their heads for an extended moment of silence, to represent the 8 minutes 46 seconds that the Minneapolis officer had his knee on Floyd’s neck. Among those who took a knee was Chris Catren, the Redlands police chief.
“It’s community policing 2.0,” Mr. Catren said.
“In policing, you don’t put a toe in the water,” he said. “You either dive in, or you don’t. When incidents like this happen, for officers all the way across the country, it tarnishes all the work that we’ve done and all the trust we’ve built up with our community, and that’s frustrating.”