True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
Here we go again. Yesterday in Baltimore, we heard the results of another Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into yet another police agency, saying essentially the same things that they’ve been saying for decades to numerous departments: Your police department is exhibiting patterns and practices that violate the civil rights of citizens. There are currently over 20 agencies nationwide under DOJ scrutiny. How many more DOJ consent decrees are needed before we understand that the problem isn’t one police department tarnished by “a few bad apples?” Police and community tensions have flared up for generations, but somehow we just can’t seem to get it through our heads that those tensions keep exploding because of the persistent perception of injustice in poor communities of color. There are always two sides to any story, and our side of this problem is the culture of policing has to be examined or we are never going to stop the violence.
My friends, my intent is not to lecture. As I have said on numerous occasions, I see this as an appeal to every good, decent cop, who works every day to do good in his/her community. The way for law enforcement to get beyond the continuous bad press is to finally tell ourselves and each other that enough is enough. Because lashing out against the DOJ or anyone who remotely says there might be a problem, branding them as cop haters is not the answer. It will not solve one single problem and it will not do anything to help change the perception of hundreds of Youtube videos that immortalize the indefensible actions of those who should not wear your badge.
Back in 1973, the Knapp Commission Report, which investigated corruption and racism in the NYPD (because of Frank Serpico), named two types of cops: meateaters and grasseaters. Basically, the meat eaters are the small number of bad apples and the grass eaters are the rest. In 1991, the Christopher Commission Report gave a very similar review of LAPD, following the outrage over the Rodney King beating. The commission even called the LAPD a “bastion of racism and bias.”
Following the Rodney King beating and the initial acquittal of the four white police officers, the debates over justice raged along mostly racial lines. Law enforcement was generally quick to place the blame on King for his prior actions. We do that a lot, even now. I was guilty of it myself a few times when I wore a uniform. If Rodney King had simply stopped it would have never happened. True. But if the four primary officers would have simply gone hands on and cuffed him, or if just one of the 15 officers on scene had lifted a finger to intervene when the beating began, then it also wouldn’t have happened. Those 15 cops could have kept their buddies out of prison. Somebody on scene should have done something.
What was more telling about LAPD at the time were the racist computer messages flying car to car. Sadly, we’ve seen this again recently in San Francisco, Ferguson and now, Baltimore. (Lock up the black hoodies) Sugar coat it however you want. When people feel free to express that kind of bias openly, it’s a problem.
So, the King video, just like some videos today, shocked the country because we don’t want our police behaving this way. Most agencies took note and everyone in law enforcement vowed to get better. Throughout the 90’s, the focus was on more education and professionalism in policing. It was the catalyst for police unions in larger cities to demand higher wages, arguing that a better paid agency would attract better candidates. Here we are in 2016, almost 30 years later, and we seem to have the same problems we’ve always had. When, exactly, are the real changes going to come? I’m not talking about individual agencies changing policies or jumping through hoops in order to satisfy the feds. I mean real, systemic change that recognizes that all the reforms in the world will never work if we don’t look at the history of bias and uneven enforcement that has been the driving catalyst for conflict between police and minority communities.
We have been ignoring the real issues for decades. Our police leaders have done nothing but give us one gimmick for a fix after another, while at the same time failing to actually intervene in the day to day behavior of bad officers. Very few states have mandates to decertify even cops who commit criminal offenses. Where is the outrage of police leaders on that? Those rogue, rude, biased or simply uncaring officers are cancers inside far too many agencies. They erode morale, cause internal friction, disrespect citizens (most of the time aren’t complained on), taint investigations, undermine real community policing, and here’s the biggest problem—they create an environment of mistrust and anger at police. You are less safe because of their actions. Think about it. They piss a guy off, rough him up, or in the worst case, do something criminal. How is that guy going to behave towards you when you are the next cop to deal with him? The ripple effects are even more damaging.
Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr., recently published a paper on policing and use of force. He shocked many by concluding that statistically police shoot more whites than blacks. Many of my friends pointed to that headline as vindication of policing, and proof that the media is driving a negative, false narrative. To be clear, I think the media is driving questionable narratives in lots of ways, but that should be no surprise to a cop. But, if you take five minutes and actually read the article, you get a very different message. Yes, Dr. Fryer concludes that police killings are not necessarily racially biased, but he also found that people of color are disproportionately subject to force during encounters with police, even when they are not a threat. [highlights here]
This ignored distinction is a very important detail.
According to Fryer, bias in law enforcement is “real and harmful in many ways, causing cynicism and disillusionment, especially in boys of color.” He says his findings support a UCLA paper that also found that police were more likely to use force or Tasers on people of color. These incidents “happen thousands of times a day” and Fryer argues that makes them just as important as shootings because they “speak to dignity.”
I’ve said repeatedly since my days as a patrol sergeant that bad cops make good cops less safe. I believe this viscerally. This applies to the every day encounters, not just shootings that make the news. The worst criminals will always be a threat to your life. In those cases, no one expects you to hold anything back when your life is in danger. I’m talking about the other 90% of the calls or contacts. I’m talking about professionalism that doesn’t demean or degrade. Dignity matters. You are the professional. Treating someone with contempt versus professionalism might be the difference between a safe, uneventful encounter, and a combative subject who has decided he’s taking out his built up anger and rage on you.
Good police must take back the profession. The list of violations and abuses of power exposed in Baltimore should make every good cop angry–not at the DOJ or the Mayor of Baltimore–angry at the cops who bring distrust and anger on you. It’s time for a change in mindset. Instead of shaking our heads at the bad apples, it’s time to purge them from the basket. Day to day they must get the message from their peers. Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said, “Those who choose to wear this uniform and choose to blatantly disregard someone’s rights absolutely should be uncomfortable because we are not going to tolerate it. It’s your actions that are fostering fear and resentment in our communities and making it extremely difficult and dangerous for the vast majority of honorable men and women who serve in our very noble profession.”
I couldn’t agree more, Commissioner.