May 4th 2015

A Troubling Response to Brutality

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

The news on both left and right has been awash with stories of police troubles, each of course with a different angle. On the left we have exposés of police abuse, brutality, corruption and the deaths of suspects in custody or being arrested; on the right the focus is on street riots, lawlessness and violence against the police. We have seen stories from Ferguson, Albuquerque, New Orleans, South Florida, Baltimore,Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle. The number of cases seems to grow daily; perhaps we are simply witnessing greater exposure due to heightened awareness and the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, or perhaps the problem is escalating, or perhaps the reality is some combination of those two factors. In any case, we have a problem that demands attention.

We need police; society would quickly descend into dystopian chaos and anarchy in their absence. Most police are honorable, and the majority of officers go to work each day with the idea of protecting the public with integrity. Police have one of the toughest jobs on Earth, waking up every day to the threat of violence and danger. But that fact is no excuse to ignore or protect those bad apples who abuse their power and bring shame to law enforcement.

Nobody should be shocked that we find abuse and corruption in police departments; that is a natural part of the human condition. We must always be vigilant against this, and we constantly need to minimize and weed it out, but we should always expect our darker side to reveal itself in every institution. None of us should be surprised that racism is a problem in law enforcement; racists exist in nearly all human enterprise. Even while offering condemnation, no one could claim astonishment that unhappy residents resort to violence and inexcusable attacks on fellow citizens in the face of abuse that seems to go unpunished.

No, nothing about these stories is particularly unexpected, even in their inherent tragedy and sad commentary on our society. But the extraordinary nature of law enforcement's insular institutional blindness and the triumph of tribalism among police demand more attention. We see little emphasis on what might be the most important aspect of the right-left divide over the nature of police power.

Left and right bring with them bias that is deeply flawed. On the left, protestors tend to paint all police as corrupt and abusive, failing to isolate the bad from the good. On the right, conservatives defend the police no matter the transgression, failing to excise the bad from the good, while accusing the left of hating the police because they wish to cull the bad. Even in the face of extraordinary polarization in our society, this divide is a bit bizarre because in the end both left and right could agree, even for different reasons, that bad police should be removed from the force.

Alas, extremism has triumphed once again, and we hear tone-deaf statements fromGene Ryan of the Fraternal Order of Police concerning the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Remember, to put the following comments in context, Gray died in custody from a severe spinal cord injury; he was healthy when arrested. Video cameras caught Gray, who was not committing a crime, being handcuffed and dragged and thrown into a van by police, while screaming in pain. This is not an isolated incident: Baltimore has settled more than 100 cases of misconduct against the police department; even if a substantial portion were bogus or trumped-up, there is a trend that cannot be ignored.

With that in mind, consider that Ryan asserted that there's "no indication of any criminal activity whatsoever." That claim does not pass the smell test. There's nothing suspicious or worthy of investigation when a handcuffed suspect dies from a violent spinal injury in the hands of the police? Ryan went on to complain that the protestors wanted cops "imprisoned immediately" without due process -- not recognizing the terrible irony in that Freddie Gray, without committing a crime, was going to be "imprisoned immediately," as is routine after an arrest. The due process so adamantly (and correctly) insisted on by Ryan was not provided to Freddie Gray, cut short by an untimely death. Ryan went on to say that arresting the officers suspected in causing Gray's death "set a bad precedent" and a rush to judgment. Arresting suspects of murder is a bad precedent? Is not every arrest by nature a rush to judgment since the arrestee remains innocent until proven otherwise? Is arresting suspects only a bad precedent when they are police officers? And if so, under what circumstances would it ever be acceptable to arrest a police officer accused of a crime? In a conservative world keen on law and order, it is a bit outrageous to claim that arresting crime suspects is a bad precedent, whoever they may be.

There was also the implication from law enforcement leaders that the arrest of the officers in Baltimore was politically motivated. Well, yes, that is almost certainly the case. But a decision not to arrest those officers would also be politically motivated as well, culling favor with conservatives; lamenting politics impacting an issue so charged with emotion and headlining the nightly news is hardly interesting. Let's concede that political considerations overlay the entire issue. That does not make the arrests any less righteous.

Chuck Canterbury, National President of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the following:

Nobody hates bad cops more than other cops, and the FOP doesn't have any sympathy for a cop who crosses the line. That being said, every U.S. citizen, including cops, teachers or, heck, even politicians, have a right to the presumption of innocence and to due process.

Initially, this seems entirely reasonable. But if the FOP hates bad cops, why do we see such a paucity of examples of the FOP or police departments publicly condemning a bad cop? What exactly would trigger this response against a bad cop? How about the death of a restrained suspect who suffered a severe spinal injury? Shooting an unarmed man, on the ground on his knees? Shooting an unarmed suspect in the back while running away? If not that, what would be sufficient for the FOP to acknowledge that a cop was actually bad, not just concede in theory that a bad cop should go? What happened to the presumption of innocence and due process for the folks who died at the hands of rogue police officers?

And this brings us to the most surprising aspect of the entire story: I agree completely with Canterbury that nobody should hate bad cops more than good cops -- but in spite of the rhetoric, they do not. They inevitably rally, personally and institutionally, to the defense of any cop no matter the transgression or how heinous the alleged crime. And that is a huge mystery, even given the natural urges of tribal loyalty. Good cops should absolutely despise a bad one; good cops should acknowledge that in any human enterprise there will be bad eggs, and that such rot should be vigorously cleansed. Recognizing the problem and acting on it does not reflect badly on law enforcement; indeed, a bit of transparency would go a long way towards creating good will among the public. The existence of brutality and corruption by themselves do not condemn a police force; these failures are found everywhere. Instead, it is the urge to protect the bad apples, to cover up, ignore or diminish the brutality and corruption that leads to distrust, animosity and anger.

Unfortunately, police have a tendency to adopt a siege mentality, circling the wagons on every occasion of potential wrongdoing. Then they wonder why the public has a growing distrust of police departments, even as they defend the indefensible. Police must stop defending criminals in their midst if they hope to regain the public support they should so clearly have. The public rightfully reacts with alarm when those entrusted to protect instead harm. What recourse is there other than peaceful protest? The reaction would be quite different, and the urge to violence much diminished, if police accused of crimes were arrested like any other suspect -- and given due process, just like the rest of us should be.

Hypocrisy in the ranks also contributes to diminished public trust. By definition, police work depends on the idea that good people respect legitimate authority. That notion is why most interactions between police and civilians work well. We respect the authority of the state and our government institutions represented by the badge and uniform. Yet we saw not long ago an example in which police blatantly flaunted their disregard for authority even while asking us to accept theirs.

At the memorial services for fallen officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in New York, hundreds of police officers turned their backs on their ultimate boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio. This in spite of a specific request from Police Commissioner William Bratton to refrain from such protest at the funeral. So those who turned their backs defied their immediate supervisor and his superior, showing an astonishing disrespect for authority. And the impetus for the protest is itself revealing about the insular siege mentality mentioned earlier. The protesting police were incensed that, earlier, Mayor de Blasio had not, in their opinion, condemned with sufficient rigor public protests over encounters between police and unarmed civilians. One such encounter had led to the death of Eric Garner. Again, the irony of the police insurgence against their own bosses while lamenting lack of public respect for police authority in the face of a suspicious death was apparently lost on much of the rank and file.

If police wish to gain the trust of those they are sworn to protect, there is a simple initial step. To the police I say: Respect the lives of private citizens as much as you hold dear the lives of your comrades. Freddie Gray was not convicted of a crime; he was an innocent civilian who, by dying in custody, was deprived of the due process so passionately called for by the police for those officers charged with killing him. Just as you came out in large numbers in solidarity for police officers killed in the line of duty, at least try to understand that the death of a civilian evokes in us a similar response. Take the emotion and angst that is felt from the loss of Officers Ramos and Liu, and understand that we civilians feel not only the loss of those fine officers as you do, but also equally for the loss of Gray, Phillip White, Kelly Thomas, Jorge Azucena, Jesus Huerta, Herman Jaramillo, and every one of the multiple dozens who have died in custody or while being arrested. By definition, no matter if these people meet or not our criteria for good or bad, they are innocent because none had yet been proven guilty in our courts and, like the police officers arresting them, deserve due process. And if good cops really hate bad cops, then you should stand tall with us in asking that the police officers responsible for the death of civilians in custody be held responsible for their crimes, just as you wish those who harm police to be held responsible. You should see no difference between the two.

Developing an "us-vs.-them" mentality is understandable given the daily depravity that police witness. There is an endless supply of nasty, mean, dangerous, horrible, violent, degenerate human beings out there, and interacting with the worst of us every day cannot help but lead to deep bonds with fellow officers, creating a profound and lasting camaraderie not shared by or understood by civilians. We do not deal with the dregs of our society, because police do so on our behalf. But this offers no justification for police taking the law into their own hands; it is their special burden to administer justice in the face of witnessing daily injustice. That is their job, and those who violate that responsibility must be held responsible.

Arresting police officers accused of a crime is not a "bad precedent" at all; it is the right course of action, and an essential step in establishing public trust in law enforcement. We could avoid almost all our problems if the police would apply the same standards of response to violence against police as they apply to police violence against suspects in custody. Fairness, equal treatment under the law and mutual respect are not radical concepts, and not too much to ask from those who protect us.



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