Part I: Why People Are Inclined To Support The Police
There have been a number of stories in the news lately in which prosecutors have considered and then failed to deliver indictments against policemen in cases where they have killed people. There’s been a fair amount of outrage about this, some of it justified, some of it not. One of the things that has generated so much outrage is that, through it all, most people have supported not indicting these officers. I think it’s worth considering why.
Police are in a difficult position. We, as a polity, pay them to insert themselves into situations that we do not feel ourselves well able to deal with, whether that means domestic disputes, fights between gangs, the mentally unstable, or runaway cows. In return, they get the generic “gratitude towards those in uniform” which our society includes among its civic pieties, but not necessarily huge amounts of comprehension of what they deal with which day (which, of course, varies a huge amount from city to city. What a small town policeman deals with is going to be a lot different from what an LAPD officer in Watts deals with.)
A basic understanding of this is, I think, why in general people are willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt (and then some) most of the time. The police are out there dealing with stuff so that we don’t have to, and there’s an implicit understanding that it would be rather churlish to turn around and prosecute them criminally if they make a misjudgement in doing their job. It’s one thing to go after the obvious “corrupt cop” cases which involve drug dealing, extortion, etc. People see this as a clear abuse of power. However, when the killing can be framed up in terms of “the officer thought he had to do this in order to protect himself/do his duty” people are unwilling to send him to jail.
I don’t think this is entirely unreasonable. It doesn’t hurt to recall that police do deal with genuinely bad situations, something which seems lost on those who’ve been going around proclaiming that police intervention makes every situation worse. One resource that I found interesting in this regard is a site which the Dallas Police Department put up in order to provide public transparency, which describes the circumstances and outcome of every officer involved shooting in Dallas in the last two years. Not only is this a noteworthy example of providing public accountability and transparency, it also allows us to get a view of what the whole range of officer involved shootings in a major city looks like, not just the few that manage to make the news cycle. You can access the whole list here. But here are some samples:
On Wednesday, October 1, 2014, at approximately 5:14 P.M., uniformed patrol officers in marked vehicles answered a Robbery call at a business located at 4807 Maple Avenue. As detectives and uniformed officers were searching the wooded area near the shopping center, the W/M/48 suspect was located. The suspect reached down, as if retrieving a weapon and one uniformed officer fired one round at the suspect missing him.
The suspect was not injured.
Suspect was armed with an airsoft handgun.
The suspect was charged with Robbery.
No officer was injured.
One officer fired 1 round. Involved Officer: W/M 2 years, 6 months service.
On Sunday, March 10, 2013, at approximately 12:29 A.M., uniformed patrol officers in marked vehicles, responded to a Major Disturbance Emergency at 3303 Southern Oaks Boulevard. A witness gave a description a former roommate to the officer and stated that the B/M/35 suspect had kicked in the door to her apartment earlier in the day and then returned and refused to leave. The officer located the suspect at which time the suspect began physically assaulting the officer. The officer deployed his Taser on the suspect, but it did not stop the assault. The suspect began choking the officer, with his hands from behind and lifting him off the ground. The officer fired his weapon at the suspect striking him.
The suspect was pronounced deceased at Baylor Hospital.
Suspect used his hands to choke the officer.
The officer was injured.
One officer fired 9 rounds. Involved Officer: W/M 4 years, 8 months service.
On Sunday, August 10, 2014, at approximately 6:03 P.M., a uniformed officer working off-duty at an Extended Neighborhood Patrol assignment driving a marked vehicle responded to a call regarding a W/M/26 walking along 100 N. Windomere Avenue making lewd comments to women. The officer located the suspect and began following him waiting for additional officers to arrive. The suspect was walking in the street at 400 S. Rosemont Avenue when an approaching vehicle occupied with a family stopped. The suspect attempted to enter their vehicle at which time the officer exited his vehicle and pointed his firearm at the suspect while issuing verbal commands. The suspect then charged the officer who fired his weapon. The suspect was struck five times. The suspect was pronounced deceased at Methodist Hospital. Suspect was unarmed.
No officer was injured.
One officer fired 5 rounds. Involved Officer: L/M 7 years, 3 months service.
On Thursday, August 21, 2014, at approximately 6:40 P.M., an off-duty officer in plainclothes, was on his way to a family function when he observed an altercation at 4800 Veterans Drive. A female victim was shot in the face while stopped at the intersection by a B/M/20 suspect. The officer then acted to stop the continued aggravated assault on the victim. The officer fired his weapon striking the suspect one
The suspect was injured and transported to Methodist Central Hospital.
Suspect was armed with a .357 magnum revolver which was reported stolen out of Fort Worth Texas.
The suspect was charged with Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon. The victim survived her injuries.
No officer was injured.
One officer fired 3 rounds. Involved Officer: L/M 3 years, 1 month service.
Part II: The Problem With Supporting The Police
While there are good reasons to object when people assume in every case that police must have acted in the wrong, it is also problematic to assume that in every case police acted rightly. Police are, after all, people, and like other people police officers do things that are good, bad, or indifferent. Thus, it becomes problematic when people “support the police” in the generic sense of always assuming that when there is an altercation in which a police officer kills or injures someone, the police officer was in the right.
Too often, both those who reflexively defend the police and those who reflexively condemn them see “the police” as a monolithic group rather than as a group of individuals with their own experiences and moral choices. Neither one of these approaches is good.
What makes having a balanced view even more difficult is that those of us who aren’t police lack some of the experiences that would doubtless help in reaching a reasonable conclusion on whether police in certain situations behaved reasonably or not. This barrier of experience, between police insiders and civilian outsiders, is one of the things that anthropologist Joan Barker talks about in her fascinating book Danger, Duty, and Disillusion: The Worldview of Los Angeles Police Officers. (Though twenty years old at this point, the book is definitely worth a read and gives some really interesting insights into the experience of working in a big city police department.) Since there are strong cultural reasons for police officers to hang together when dealing with outsiders, this creates a situation in which civilians are not necessarily well equipped to judge policing situations, while police themselves are hesitant to speak up about each others behavior. Needless to say, this isn’t a good situation for anyone. It is not good for police officers to be grouped monolithically in with those who abuse their power and position. And it is not good for the rest of society either to constantly suspect police officers, or to defend every action they take, regardless of the merits.
I don’t think there’s a quick and easy solution to all this. Probably one key element is having a healthy relationship between the city population, it’s city government, and the police department. Given that, I suspect that a strong internal review process in which police leadership is successfully held accountable by city government for disciplining and if necessary taking off the streets cops who use excessive force is more likely to be successful than sporadic interventions of media attention and criminal prosecution. Such a situation would be constantly in danger of spinning off balance and failing to achieve it’s objectives, but then, as I said, it’s necessarily a difficult balance to maintain.