The increasing isolation of America’s police

Politico has put up a fascinating profile of Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which is the country’s largest police union.

More than anything, the profile highlights how law enforcement is politically positioned in a way that basically immunizes from criticism and oversight. Republicans have long been loathe to criticize police and police unions because they see themselves as the law-and-order party, despite the fact that deference to police ought to run afoul of their alleged dedication to limited government, and that Pasco’s group ought to animate the GOP’s distrust of public service unions.

Democrats have been playing defense on law-and-order issues since Michael Dukakis got creamed in the 1988 election. Any instinct to defend the disadvantaged groups disproportionately affected by police abuse gets drowned out by that and by the enormous influence wielded by police unions.

Consequently, a guy like Pasco can get away with saying some pretty outrageous things in defense of police officers without losing any credibility on Capitol Hill.

For example, I interviewed Pasco several years ago for an article about citizens recording cops with their cell phones. Pascoe believes this should be illegal. In fact, he supported a now-repealed Illinois law that made recording an on-duty police officer a felony on par with sexual assault — punishable by 15 years in prison.

Here’s how Pasco responded when I asked him why he thinks people should be arrested for recording police:

“You have 960,000 police officers in this country, and millions of contacts between those officers and citizens. I’ll bet you can’t name 10 incidents where a citizen video has shown a police officer to have lied on a police report. Letting people record police officers is an extreme and intrusive response to a problem that’s so rare it might as well not exist. It would be like saying we should do away with DNA evidence because there’s a one in a billion chance that it could be wrong. At some point, we have to put some faith and trust in our authority figures.”

It takes some talent to fit so many wrong-headed notions into so few words.

Pasco later added, “Police officers don’t check their civil rights at the station house door.” That’s a pithy soundbite. It’s also wrong on two counts. First, all citizens in a public space — cop or otherwise — have no reasonable expectation of privacy. In advocating for such a “civil right” for cops, then, Pasco isn’t asking that cops be treated the same as everyone else; he’s asking for extra protections. Second, police officers do check of their some civil rights at the station house door. For example, a police officer does not have the same free speech rights on-duty that he has while off-duty.

Since I interviewed Pasco, we’ve seen countless more incidents in which citizen-shot videos have shown a cop (or multiple cops) to have lied, either in a police report or on the witness stand. So the notion that a lying cop is as rare as lying DNA is absurd.

In a 2010 USA Today article on the same topic, Pasco then worried that fear of being implicated by video might cause police to hesitate before using force. That “hesitation” argument is a common one. It’s regularly invoked by police interest groups when they’re trying to undermine a policy that would make it more difficult for police to kill people and get away with it.

Here’s an example from a police chief in East Chicago, Indiana late last year:

More police officers are being killed, because they’re hesitating more before pulling the trigger to defend themselves, [Chief Mark] Becker said.

That hesitation stems in part from pressure created by news media and community activists who are increasingly claiming police-involved shootings are racially motivated, he said.

“There’s a small fraction of people who want to come to judgment before knowing all the facts,” he said.

That public pressure is a factor as police officers make life-and-death decisions within seconds, he said. “That plays out in a police officer’s mind,” Becker said. ” ‘What do I do, what do I do?’ and then all of a sudden he’s getting shot.”

Here’s an example from March, from “use-of-force consultant” who testifies on behalf of police accused of using excessive force. He’s responding to a rare instance of criminal charges that were filed against a local police officer :

“Most often I’ve seen officers die in confrontations because they hesitated to shoot when clearly it was necessary for them to shoot,” [Emanuel Kapelsohn] said. “As a police instructor, one of the hardest things for me to try to teach and train is the balance between the willingness to fire during a brief window of opportunity when if the officer doesn’t fire, he or her partner or bystander or victim may be killed – and knowing that if she fires, this maelstrom is going to befall them.”

In late 2013, Dallas police chief David O. Brown initiated new lethal force training for his officers that would emphasize deescalation. This triggered a furious response and the following letter from the police union.

This termination was not that of just an officer but that of the foundation of police training, which is/was our Deadly Force Policy. Up until Monday, Dallas Police Officers were allowed to use deadly force when they were in fear for their life or another’s. As of Monday, Dallas Police Officers no longer know when they can use deadly force and, if they do, question whether they are going to be fired if they are forced to. This up in the air policy creates doubt and hesitation in an officer about when/if to use deadly force, which ultimately is going to result in an officer and/or a citizen getting killed. This doubt will always result in a hesitation in officers’ response times to citizen’s calls. No longer can an officer quickly drive to a man with a gun, robbery in progress or domestic abuse call because the officer no longer believes he/she can use deadly force, if it is required, without fear of being terminated.

The most recent example comes just today from Baltimore, under the headline, “Violence surges, as Baltimore police officers feel hesitant.”

“In 29 years, I’ve gone through some bad times, but I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Lt. Kenneth Butler, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, a group for black Baltimore police officers. Officers “feel as though the state’s attorney will hang them out to dry.”

Several officers said in interviews they are concerned crime could spike as officers are hesitant to do their jobs, and criminals sense opportunity. Butler, a shift commander in the Southern District, said his officers are expressing reluctance to go after crime.

“I’m hearing it from guys who were go-getters, who would go out here and get the guns and the bad guys and drugs. They’re hands-off now,” Butler said. “I’ve never seen so many dejected faces.

“Policing, as we once knew it, has changed.”

So because a prosecutor has charged the six cops who illegally arrested a man and gave him a “rough ride” in the back of a police van that resulted in his death, all Baltimore cops are now afraid to use force. How does this follow? It would be logical if they were now hesitant to give rough rides — and that of a course would be a good thing. But what happen to Gray shouldn’t impact conscientious Baltimore cops in the slightest. There’s no connection between employing extra-judicial punishment by roughing a suspect up after he’s been arrested and cuffed, and using force to stop a violent person from harming innocent people. To argue that accountability in the former will lead to hesitation in the latter is to argue that we can’t have any accountability for any killing by a police officer, because it may cause other officers to hesitate before shooting people.

Yet examples of police groups making this argument abound. Law professor and former police officer Seth Stoughton explained in the Atlantic last year how this fear of hesitation is embedded in a police officer’s psyche early on in his training, and then over and over again.

There are countless variations, but the lessons are the same: Hesitation can be fatal. So officers are trained to shoot before a threat is fully realized, to not wait until the last minute because the last minute may be too late.

But what about the consequences of a mistake? After all, that dark object in the suspect’s hands could be a wallet, not a gun. The occasional training scenario may even make that point. But officers are taught that the risks of mistake are less—far less—than the risks of hesitation. A common phrase among cops pretty much sums it up: “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

In most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it. Not only do officers hear it in formal training, they also hear it informally from supervisors and older officers. They talk about it with their peers. They see it on police forums and law enforcement publications. For example, three of the four stories mentioned on the cover of this month’s Police Magazine are about dealing with threats to officer safety.

Officers’ actions are grounded in their expectations, and they are taught to expect the worst.

My media colleagues are to blame here, too. I’ve read countless articles since Ferguson in which a sheriff or police chief or police union head is quoted about how America is increasingly turning into a “war zone,” or how police today face threats unlike any other period in American history — usually without challenge or context. But crime, homicides of cops, and assaults on cops have all been in decline for 20 years. That’s rarely pointed out in the story. Exaggerating the threat to cops not only skews discussion about policing issues, it may also make cops more likely to see threats where there aren’t any, with tragic consequences.

Each December we also get stories about how many police officers were killed in the previous year, complete with quotes from figures like Pasco about how dangerous policing is, often with statements blaming protesters, recordings of police abuse, and other “anti-police rhetoric” for the violence. We saw this play repeated just this week with the FBI’s release of data showing an 89 percent spike in homicides of cops in 2014. But this spike only in comparison to 2013, the safest year for police in the modern era in 2013. Even with the spike, 2014 was still the fourth safest year for cops since 1959. Again, only occasionally do these articles include this context about how policing is actually getting safer.

Few interest groups have been as successful at framing the public debate as Pasco, the police unions, and law enforcement officials. Because they have no natural opponents in politics (the way, say, teachers unions do), and because it’s so easy to stir up the fear of crime, they can marginalize their critics, claim injury at the slightest criticism, and send their critics running for cover.

Look at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. He ran on a platform of reining in police abuses. He won on that platform. You’d think that would give him the political cover to occasionally criticize police officers who exceed their authority. Last year, not long after the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner, de Blasio told a private gathering that he has instructed his son to be careful when interacting with police, and to avoid sudden movements, such as reaching for his cell phone. This is good advice: There is a long list of people shot, Tased, and killed by police who mistook cell phones for guns, including, most notably, Amadou Diallo in New York City. Moreover, it’s hard to even see what’s objectionable about that advice. It is, after all, an instruction to listen to a police officer’s instructions, to not complain, and to not do anything that might make the officer feel unsafe.

Yet the police groups went berserk. They protested by turning their back on de Blasio at a funeral for two cops who had been slain while on the job, then abdicating their public duties with a work slowdown. De Blasio’s criticism of the police was tepid at most. But it sparked a revolt in which the police department basically asserted its independence from civilian authority. That’s scary. And de Blasio learned his lesson. After some officers were accused of roughing up protesters at a recent rally, the mayor rushed to the officers’ defense.

Police interest groups have managed to frame a relentlessly one-sided debate. Any accountability proposals risk making cops hesitate before killing bad guys, they say, thus jeopardizing both cops and the public. Any criticism of excessive force articulated by an elected official is taken as criticism of all police officers. Should some lunatic kill a police officer after that criticism is uttered, that official now “has blood on his hands.” When crime and killings of police officers are down, it means increased militarization, marginal accountability, and non-transparency are all working, therefore we need more of those policies. When crime and killings of police officers are up, it means the criminals are taking over, therefore we also need increased militarization, marginal accountability, and non-transparency, so cops can do their job of getting the bad guys.

It’s hard to think of a profession more sensitive, psychologically isolated, and protective of its own than law enforcement. Imagine if all the doctors in a city refused to treat patients because one doctor was unfairly accused of malpractice. It’s unthinkable. Police advocates say this sort of camaraderie is because cops are bonded by the threats they face. Perhaps. But the profession seems to have gotten more isolated and more protective even as the job of police officer has gotten safer. Combat soldiers also face threats, yet it isn’t at all difficult to find former soldiers who, for example, have been willing to criticize, say, Abu Ghraib or other war atrocities. You just don’t see the same tendency to defend that you see in cops.

I suspect part of the problem lies in the fact that policing has been so immune from criticism and oversight from elected officials for so long. When you’re accustomed to only genuflection from political leaders, even a mild rebuke will sting. When you’ve been entrusted to investigate your own with little oversight, or when you’ve been able to negotiate contracts that make it nearly impossible to hold bad cops accountable, it must seem like dire times people with the power to do something about it start to question whether such policies and protections are healthy.

In the end this is a political problem, which means it will require a political solution. Political leaders have long deferred to police interests because that’s what the political climate dictated. When crime was up, people voted for law and order. When crime was down, they voted on other issues. That created a ratchet effect on these issues — when voters fear crime, we escalate the powers we give to cops and prosecutors and erode accountability and transparency. But when we no longer fear crime, we don’t vote any of those policies away. No one angrily votes against a politician for being “too tough on crime.”

This has been engrained in politicians for a decade. Public opinion is turning on many of these issues, but police unions are still powerful, and crime is still easily exploitable. Most politicians believe that there are only votes to be gained by deferring to the police and only votes to be lost by suggesting that police could be more accountable.

And they’re probably right. As the de Blasio example shows, even politicians who have demonstrated that there’s voter support for reform can later conclude that the political costs of standing up to police abuse are just too high. It may take voters actively punishing politicians for refusing reforms (as opposed to rewarding politician who support them) to get real reform to happen. It may take people voting on crime with the same passion that we voted on crime in the 1980s and 1990s, only in reverse. But that would also require a strong interest in and passion for these issues by a group of voters much larger than the groups usually victimized by police brutality. To put it more bluntly: For police reform to happen, white people have to start caring.

Until that happens — until there’s an incentive for politicians to hold police as accountable as any other public service group — law enforcement as a profession will only grow more isolated.
Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”

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