Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of very negative press towards law enforcement in the media and blogs, generally centered around either police resistance towards civilians recording their work or police use of force, with one complaint usually leading to the other. Take, for example, the analysis of documents leaked by LulzSec on the Arizona Department of Public Safety concern about iPhones, two Gawker articles yesterday on police victimizing innocents, in one case arresting a man for looking too much like a police sketchand another on the tazering of a disabled youth, and commentary on The Atlantic blog of author Ta-nehisi Coates. I’m not interested in defending bad police work, and some of the concerns are valid, but has the entire profession of policing deteriorated so rapidly? While the increase in annual police officer deaths may suggest officers are growing more lax about their personal safety, there is nothing to indicate they are doing the same about yours. So why is everyone beating up on the police?
As Fred Leland often points out, wearing the badge comes with higher standards, unique risks, and greater responsibilities. Everyone makes mistakes – a chef may mess up your order, a plumber may puncture a pipe trying to fix it – but when a cop makes a mistake, somebody could get hurt, whether an officer, bystander, or suspect, falsely arrested, or, in the case of the department or municipality, land in a high-liability law suit. The stakes are high and professionalism means more than proper attire and certifications. Before we condemn the entire profession of policing, as so many commentators are wont to do, let’s take a look at what we ask of our officers.
In the taser case above, for example, the Ohio cops in question did not seem to be acting with professionalism. They misread a teen’s mental disability, compounded by a speech impediment, and ended up using unnecessary force. Even if it was an honest mistake, being able to identify mental impairments, whether due to disability or intoxication, is a crucial part of the job, as, for example, mentally ill persons are present in 65% of officer-involved shootings nationwide. If those cops weren’t prepared to deal with the mentally ill, disabled, or otherwise impaired, that’s a professional failing.
The second Gawker article is a little less clear. The article portrays the police as buffoons who arrested Lanell Dowling for looking identical to a police sketch of a violent mugger terrorizing his neighborhood. Dowling was identified by four victims, who the author and commenters quickly assume to have been prepped by police, and unfortunately was in jail for 7 months until evidence surfaced that provided an alibi. I don’t know what the other evidence for his arrest was, or if there was any, but four possitive identifications is not trivial. As the only commentor not jumping to the conclusion that the NYPD was eager to just put another black man behind bars noted:
“….Dowling was I.D.’d by the four victims, but they were older women who’d probably been versed on how they’d turned up this remarkable sketch doppleganger, and all they needed to do was give it the thumbs up to feel safe forever.”
God knows you can’t trust “old broads” to use their faculties or trust their own judgement.
What the fuck is wrong with you?
But what really led me to examine popular opinion turning against law enforcement was the discussion following Coates’ commentary on “Defending Awful Policing,” pointing out the flawed logic of those defending the Rochester Police Department in arresting (then releasing) a woman who was taping a traffic stop from her own property. Coates is a very smart, worldly, well educated guy, as are most of his commenters (this isn’t Youtube, it’s The Atlantic), but while he is justifiably critical of the officers in this particular case, the comments section quickly devolves into almost 200 blatant attacks on law enforcement as an institution. For example:
“Every time a police officer walks up to a driver’s window, the driver should be aware that today is the day s/he could get shot.”
“We’re insufficiently oppressed, insufficiently unemployed, and sufficiently impressed with authoritarianism as the solution to why we can’t personally punch a hippy – they do it for you. If someone actually polices the police, hippies might get away with not getting punched!”
“Maybe this sort of stormtroopers-as-heroes twist will ratchet down some if the Dept of Unamerican Activities – oops, Homeland Security, ever gets disbanded. Until then, expect more us v. them.”
“I don’t know that they are always on, but I know that dash cams and belt tapes are both standard for the Albuquerque police force.
Doesn’t seem to stop them from shooting folks . . .”
I want to examine the last one in particular. Albuquerque just came out with a big study on use of force, which I will write much more on shortly. Dash-cams are used, but they are not standard. Belt tapes, however, are standard, as are cameras on police uniforms. And the commenter is correct, APD does have an unusually high rate of police shootings and use of force, despite some very progressive training, procedures, and monitoring, a mystery that the report tries to examine. But let’s look at the nature of these shootings. In 84% of all incidents involving deadly force the officers were confronted by subjects with weapons. In the other 16%, subjects were thought to be reaching for weapons. Still, APD decided their use of deadly force was excessive (and I agree) and had the Police Executive Research Forum conduct an extensive review of their practices.
Make no mistake about what the Albuquerque Police Department asked its officers to do – find ways to avoid using deadly force, and any force if possible, on armed suspects. How many of us, confronting an armed adversary, would hesitate to use our weapon to protect outselves and others? This is where law enforcement stands out. The standards of professionalism are such that good policing means further reducing use of force even there, and if force is necessary, reducing injury and fatality as much as possible, sometimes at personal risk.
That’s not to say there are no bad cops. There are, and concern in places like Rochester and Arizona over being taped are excessive, especially in an age when more and more departments tape themselves. But police perform a necessary duty, and the majority perform it honoraby and competently, though some can’t see this as, when it goes wrong, the results can be disastrous, just like in medecine. Yet the internet doesn’t rejoice when hospitals are downsized…
By Alex Olesker