Our Back-To-The-Future Cop Conversation
A former NYPD officer and prosecutor reflects on how, after a half century, we’re still repeating the same themes, and expecting new results.
American policing is on the fast track to paralysis and sclerosis as cops across the country learn to sidestep all but the most critical situations. Meanwhile, police departments are struggling to find someone, anyone, to replace officers heading for the exits as fast as they can.
Last summer, without fanfare or notice, President Obama’s Commission on 21st Century Policing made plain that the notion of policing as a profession was now officially dead. Fifty years after the Kerner Commission and President Johnson’s Commission on Civil Disorders endorsed the long-term goal of equipping every cop with a baccalaureate degree, just one percent of departments make this a prerequisite to hiring. Instead, departments are abandoning requirements that officers have any exposure to college at all, since this modest requirement dries up the recruiting pool. Even without college, criminal and background checks disqualify so many in some places, that in Detroit, for example, only 130 out of 2,300 applicants could be hired.
Police officers who took it for granted that their physical safety could be at risk are increasingly unwilling to expose themselves to the internal, civil and criminal penalties—not to mention the possibility of being publicly demonized, if even a well-intentioned action goes wrong. Cops wearing body cameras are 13 percent more likely to be assaulted—which makes sense given that striking the first blow, or taking any aggressive action, can be more than optically unsettling but mean the end of one’s career. Response times in some cities have shot up as cops try to make sure they don’t arrive on scene in time for an officer-involved shooting.
To do their work, officers cannot interact with citizens as equals. They must have the upper hand. Now, not only do cops no longer have the upper hand, they are no longer even on parity with individuals with whom they come in contact. Routine stops result in people jousting with and even directly taunting officers. Cops making arrests describe circuslike scenes where individuals emerge from everywhere flaunting cell phones, hurling abuse and engaging in borderline obstruction or more.
The noble part of police work done well was the willingness of cops to go into otherwise abandoned places and take risks in ambiguous situations where consensus was elusive as to how much policing was needed. This was, in the rawest, messiest sense democracy in action. But many officers will in the future be doers no more.
After incessant calls for reforms from many people, principally those who have never done the work, the trajectory of criticism and reform spurred on by a mix of legitimate concerns and half-truths and whopping omissions, have created what they think is a masterpiece of written rules and proscriptions, but don’t tell us where the officers will come from to read this script.
This will fall most heavily on the poorest places becoming the last governmental abandonment of residents. In Chicago, a city of 20,000 murders over two and a half decades, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson responded to an uptick in shootings by saying “We cannot arrest ourselves out of this.”Just imagine delivering this news to the well to do white parents of a child murdered as she slept in her dorm at Brown.
The terrible irony is that our empty debate, while it juices cable ratings before they all too predictably move on to the next story and the next video, is resulting in serious damage to the police without any concomitant advancement for the poorest and most neglected they are meant to protect and serve.
The law and order calls of the 80s and 90s are replaced now by claims that policing is by definition abusive, prison an unnecessary anachronism—with nothing to fill the void except historic and philosophical constructs. Those are easy to construct when it is not your children being slaughtered or your neighborhood where noise has denied you a good night sleep for years. We are playing out, yet again, a failed 50-year-old script.
There’s much blame to go around for the sorry place we are in.
For inflammatory irresponsibility and dissembling, who better to look at than Rudy Giuliani, now reduced to benchwarmer and Trump cheerleader status but still a reliable insulter of the black community with a special talent of seizing on the actions of one individual to tar an entire race. The mayor who helped transform New York City has become an éminence grise of the ever older and whiter Republican party that no doubt contains many hushed voices of reason.
Then there is President Obama, who despite his fundamental decency and good will remains after seven and a half years in office in a stuck-groove conversation about how to keep people from being shot by cops or incarcerated—who will leave office having said much but having accomplished little to change those dynamics.
Reining in police use of deadly force—the issue that is driving the national conversation now, one video at a time—is perhaps the most unachievable effort of all. It is extraordinarily difficult to try to micromanage the unscripted and unpredictable encounters cops get into when they go into harm’s way without putting cops and citizens alike in grave risk.
Then there are the disconnected media commentators who seem to think that all crime is a myth as they type out missives from their heavily fortified offices and homes, advancing the idea that all policing is oppression with an utter disregard for any inconvenient facts or consideration of the consequences of their advocacy. Actual hate speech may turn out to be less damaging than constantly repeating clichés that leave out tons of inconvenient facts.
The libertarians who argue, even as acts of atrocious violence and mass murder become weekly American events, against the police “militarizing.” Like so many others, their affirmative public safety strategy can be summarized in no words or less.
The second amendment obsessives who somehow see street crime, suicides and even mass murders as the price to be paid for liberty. With that mentality, perhaps someday whole American cities will be sacked and under siege by gunmen.
More: The reporters and papers chomping at the bit to find a new police scandal but who go mum the minute a story goes in another direction. The lawyers looking to make big names or hit big scores on shaky cases, often built on misrepresentation or suborned perjury, that they try to sell to credulous reporters. The technologists making fortunes on body cameras and tasers and the myth of a better way to police through devices even as nationwide we now solve a staggeringly low number of even serious violent crimes. The think tanks — the same elite that helped us get into Iraq — that transformed articles about an unproven theory of broken windows into a numbers-driven pseudo-science that has put police on a needless war-like footing in too many poor places.
The fringe in the Black Lives Matter movement who seem to dismiss the need for policing altogether, no matter how many times cops have risked it all for their protection as they did once again in Dallas in full view of the whole world. While the provocation of the group’s title is totally understandable in the never ending struggle for civil rights, it has become the wind beneath the wings of many white crackpots and racists, giving them center stage and making them look like sages instead of the fools that they are.
Those clueless police chiefs who keep using outdated and sometimes outrageous practices and avert their eyes to truly dangerous cops — and the politicians who let them do so, through insufficient interest or, more often, a craven willingness to go along with the status quo and think always, always about political survival and aspiration above duty.
Finally, there are those cops who destroyed the good work of their colleagues one degrading and searing humiliation at a time of civilians who’d done nothing to earn that treatment. With airs of studied contempt, they take moments to undo years of tenuous progress.
I have great respect for all those police officers, police reformers and others with the best of intentions, but those who over-simplify risk being exposed by new events.
In place of much insightful commentary about how forward progress is achieved amidst the realities the poor and struggling places, there has been endless restatement of old resentments, clichés and orthodoxies and alluring but empty political sniping and point scoring. After decades of falling crime, and lives saved, some clearly view the humbling — perhaps even the destruction— of policing as an epic achievement.
Democracy is fragile indeed, perhaps even increasingly feeble. In Rio, South Africa, Mexico, vigilantes and thugs rule, while the police are sidelined, irreparably inoperative and corrupted.
In our own country, there are more than a few that relish our state of division hoping to exploit it to allow them to weaken a government that is needed most of all to protect the poor and the vulnerable: black churches, gay night clubs, children at Sandy Hook, ordinary folks at a California Christmas party, marathon spectators. Gun purchases soar and there is a growing cadre of people planning for a great unravelling.
While attention is focused on policing, this is the moment for a bi-partisan 9/11-Commission-type panel right here, right now to swiftly recommend three to five specific public safety issues and solutions with enough granularity that it would force both presidential candidates to address its ideas. Along with re-legitimizing policing, this panel would need to consider national security, because there is every reason to believe federal law enforcement suffers from the same paralysis that cops in the streets now do and it will similarly get only worse. For law enforcement at all levels It is alarmingly easier not to stick one’s neck out and be vilified than to wait to pick up the pieces, but policing issues though important will pale should someone detonate a dirty bomb in midtown Manhattan or Miami.
The nation needs these issues addressed with urgency and offered insights. Otherwise, we will continue what has been a sophomoric, puerile campaign — one that points to a very low road to come under our next president.