Posts Tagged ‘Police officer’

Rise of the Warrior Cop

January 24, 2016

Police officers are not soldiers. Despite a superficial similarity, both soldiers and cops wear uniforms and carry weapons, the skills and attitudes required to be successful in these professions are very different. A soldier is trained to kill the enemy. He often has to shoot first and analyze the situation later if he wants to stay alive. A soldier need not concern himself with the civil rights of his enemies. His job is to destroy them and win the war. A police officer, on the other hand, is trained to keep the peace. For him violence is the very last resort. His job is to protect civilians, not kill enemies. Why, then, are law enforcement personnel increasingly taking on the look and attitudes of soldiers?

A SWAT team is meant to be used in emergency situations, when there is a hostage situation, an rampaging shooter, or a riot. There should be few cases in which a SWAT team is ever used and probably only larger jurisdictions really need one, particularly since small city police forces may not have the resources or personnel or properly train or equip a SWAT team. Why are SWAT teams increasingly found to be necessary by small town police departments and why are they being used to perform what ought to be routine, non-violent duties such as serving warrants or making arrests in drug possession cases or illicit gambling rings? Why are various federal departments using armed agents to enforce administrative regulations?

The fourth amendment to the constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and guarantees that any searches and seizures cannot occur without a warrant issued after a demonstration of probable cause. Generally, this has meant that the police are not to enter a residence without knocking and identifying themselves as law enforcement. Why are no-knock raids complete with flash-bang grenades becoming ever more common and accepted as appropriate procedures? Why are there more and more cases of the police raiding the homes of innocent persons, injuring and perhaps killing people, without a word of apology or accountability?

We are supposed to be a nation of equal justice under the law. How is it that police officers can assault and kill with impunity, can steal under the cover of civil forfeiture, and generally act as if they are above the law they are tasked to enforce? When did the friendly neighborhood policeman become the warrior cop?

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Radley Balko attempts to answer these questions in his book, Rise of the Warrior Cop. Balko traces the history of law enforcement in the United States from the beginning, noting that before the American Revolution and for the first few decades after independence there were no police forces in the United States or, for that matter in Britain. There were country sheriffs, but their role was largely serving court warrants. Law enforcement depended on social pressure in small communities and informal, volunteer town watches and posses. As the population grew and became more urbanized, it became necessary to adopt a more formal approach to law enforcement and the first police departments were organized in the 1830’s. This was controversial, both in America and Britain, as the political cultures of both nations were strongly against having a standing army of soldiers patrolling the streets and care was taken to make a clear distinction between the newly formed police forces and the army.

This distinction began to become somewhat less clear in the twentieth century. Prohibition and later the War against Drugs with fights against well armed gangsters and later drug dealers seems to indicate a need for police officers to be more heavily armed, at least in certain special circumstances. The possibility that incriminating drug evidence could be hurriedly disposed of, seemed to make traditional procedures of knocking and waiting for a suspect to answer a door to be somewhat foolish. The upheavals and riots of the 1960’s showed a need for a heavily armed and specially trained task force, or SWAT agents, to handle extreme circumstances.

Since the 1960’s, tactics meant to be used rarely and under specific conditions have become routine. If one is fighting a war against drugs, than the drug dealers are not simply fellow citizens who have committed a crime, but the enemy who is working to bring down the country. One does not concern oneself too much with the civil rights of the enemy in time of war. After 9/11, terrorism began to take the place of drugs as the enemy and justification for police departments around the country to acquire cool military equipment.

There is much more to be said about this issue, and Radley Balko says it in his book. If you are at all concerned with civil rights, and our country’s slow erosion into a police state, than I highly recommend Rise of the Warrior Cop, though you may be surprised and shocked to learn how widespread and serious the problem of police misconduct has become. Balko lists many, many examples is his book.

Some might accuse Radley Balko of being anti-police. He denies the charge and I believe him. As he notes, the vast majority of police officers are good people. The problem is not really the cops. The problem is that the system we have in place tends to reward the bad cops and to create incentives for even good cops to behave badly, particularly in the sense that often develops in police departments that it is us (the department) against them ( the criminals and increasingly civilians). Balko does make suggestions for reforms at the end of the book, and I hope that someone in a position to do something will heed his warnings.

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Policing the Police

January 3, 2015
There is quite a mess brewing in New York City between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD. First there was the death of Eric Garner after a confrontation with the police over selling untaxed cigarettes. This was a more ambiguous situation than the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in that Mr. Garner had not physically attacked the police officers attempting to arrest him. He was resisting arrest, however, and the grand jury declined to issue indictments against any of the officers involved, probably reasoning that they had not intended to harm Mr. Garner and were only restraining him. Naturally, there were protests in New York, over this and Mayor de Blasio, who had run on a platform of restraining certain police procedures considered objectionable, seemed to side with the protesters, even after they were heard chanting that they wanted dead cops, and two cops were indeed killed. Many officers of the NYPD, especially the president of their union, Patrick Lynch, have come to believe that Mayor de Blasio is against them and they have been pointedly showing disrespect for the mayor and refusing to write tickets. As I said, a mess.

It is foolish and dangerous to take a blindly anti-cop position. The police have a difficult and often dangerous job that is necessary to maintain law and order. Those protesters may have cause to regret their wish for dead cops if they find themselves in the sort of anarchy that might result if the police decide not to do their jobs anymore. A police officer sometimes has to take action quickly on the basis of limited and conflicting information. For this reason, it is wise to be careful about second guessing an officer’s actions in a given situation. It is easy enough to state that he should have done this or that in the comfort of your own home. The officer may not have had the leisure to carefully examine the situation and ponder the best course to take. He must decide quickly if a situation warrants the use of force and he may well pay for a mistake with his life. It is for this reason that grand juries give the police a lot of slack.

At the same time, it is also foolish and dangerous to take a blindly pro-cop position. The police are not angels but human beings and subject to all the follies and iniquities as any other group of human beings. Great power is given to the police in order for them to do their jobs. If a violent suspect resists arrest, a police officer can use deadly force to prevent him from harming the officer or any civilians in the area. Being human, any police officer will be tempted to abuse his power and authority. We must be careful not to let that happen. The police must not be above the law. They must not have a license to kill or to steal. The police must not be worse than the criminals. An officer who abuses his power must be held accountable.

This is why I cannot altogether approve of the actions of the officers of the NYPD. It is gratifying to watch the progressive de Blasio founder as he discovers that his socialist ideology doesn’t work all that well when trying to run a great city, but there are larger issues here. Some have suggested that de Blasio should resign because he has lost the confidence of the NYPD. De Blasio was elected mayor in a fair and free election, as far as I know. This decision by the people of New York City may have been an unfortunate one, but it was their decision to make. The police department does not exercise a veto over the people’s choice, nor can they effectively go on strike by refusing to enforce the law. I can understand their frustration but the public’s safety must be the first priority, even if members of the public are not particularly grateful for the service rendered. I am afraid that the shows of disrespect for the mayor will only make it more difficult for the police and the mayor to resolve their differences and work together to run New York City. For his part, Mayor de Blasio needs to make some effort to show that he understands the difficulties that the average patrolman faces on the job. He has to somehow assure the NYPD that he can be trusted to stand up for them when things get tough. At the very least, he ought not to publicly associate with rabble rousers and criminals like Al Sharpton ( I will not call that scoundrel Reverend)  and he really shouldn’t make public statements implying that his biracial son is in danger from the police because of his race.

Calming a turbulent city is a task that will require tactful and patient leadership on every side. Too bad New York City doesn’t have that just now.

 


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