It’s time to get law enforcement in this country back under meaningful civilian control.
You think it already is? Then just read this remarkable piece by a Los Angeles police officer, published in The Washington Post:
Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?
That’s just one small section from a long piece that makes clear that the writer believes it’s his world, a world that belongs to his fellow cops, and that the rest of us just live in it.
Now, I’ll grant him right up front that he does offer one piece of advice that anyone, irrespective of circumstances, should take to heart unless you’re badly hurt and/or desperately need help: “Don’t even think of aggressively walking toward me.” And even if you are badly hurt and/or need help, if you’re going to walk toward a cop at all, shouting, “Help! Police!” until the cop responds to you would be a very good idea.
With that out of the way, let’s unpack the rest of his imperative.
He starts by stating that failing to “do what I tell you” could get you shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground.
He does not allow for the fact that he might be issuing these orders while lacking relevant information, perhaps even information pertaining to his own safety. He does not allow for the possibility that his orders might be given on shaky, if not nonexistent, constitutional grounds. “Don’t argue with me,” he says. Unconditionally.
But, you say, cops never, or almost never, give orders they don’t have the right to give.
Horseshit, say I. In 25 years of daily journalism, I lost count of the number of times I was ordered off public streets, sidewalks, or other property by local, state and federal authorities. I don’t mean ordered back behind police lines or barricades. I mean ordered off property on which I had a perfectly good legal and constitutional right to be.
The example that sticks out most in my mind was during televangelist Jim Bakker’s fraud trial, 25 years ago this summer. Early in the trial, Bakker had what later was revealed to be an anxiety attack. Court was recessed and Bakker and his lawyer went to his lawyer’s office. But the judge had other ideas and ordered Bakker taken into custody and taken to the federal mental hospital in Butner for observation. So the assistant U.S. marshals went to the lawyer’s office, which was in a restored old house. Naturally, reporters and producers jammed the sidewalk — but it was a public sidewalk and the agents had all the access they needed.
Nonetheless, they and local officers started ordering reporters off the sidewalks. But I had an ace in the hole: Next door to the lawyer’s office was my father’s office condo. So I stepped across the property line — and was promptly told to leave. Dad, who had noticed all the commotion, came out of his office to see what was going on and, visibly irritated, told the officer I had every right to be where I was. The officer looked him up and down and, apparently deciding that a dispute with a 59-year-old white man in a $500 suit was not one he was likely to win, walked away, looking back over his shoulder at me as he did so. (Dad then sighed and said, “When are you going to get a real job?” before walking back into his office.)
“Don’t call me names.” Really? Really? Officer, did your mama never teach you that sticks and stones might break your bones but names will never hurt you? Especially when you’re behaving badly on the public dime?
“Don’t tell me that I can’t stop you.” Sorry, but if I’m where I’m allowed to be and am breaking no laws, particularly if I’m functioning as a journalist (and you DO NOT have to be working for a mainstream news outlet to be doing so; freedom of the press belongs to the people), if you want to stop me, you’re going to have to arrest me. And the odds are very good that I’m going to have some kind of recording device, perhaps more than one, going as that happens.
“Don’t say I’m a racist pig.” Fair enough; don’t act like one. Over the years, I heard more than a few white cops say racist trash, knowing that I could hear it and knowing that I was a newspaper reporter. And if there were more than a few who felt comfortable enough to talk like that with a reporter around, I wonder how many more were saying stuff like that when I wasn’t.
“Don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge.” Read another way: Don’t threaten to hold me legally accountable for my actions, even though that’s your perfect constitutional right.
“Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary.” Deal, as long as you’re not screaming at me when I tell you. Because it’s relevant. It matters. You are a public servant, not King of the Goddamn Streets.
I am not a law enforcement expert by any means. On the other hand, having spent a lot of time with cops over the years as a reporter, having seen some of what they see and smelled some of what they smell, having even witnessed a perfectly justifiable use of deadly force by sheriff’s deputies to prevent an armed man from harming others, I do know a little more than the average civilian. I get that it’s a tough, dirty and potentially dangerous job even on a good day. I get that cops are underpaid. I get the politics. I get the trickiness of the public relations and the even more important community relations. And I have a lot of respect for good cops.
Too much, in fact, to have any at all for bad ones. And there are some bad ones out there, including the writer of this Post article. The writer says no cop goes to work wanting or planning to shoot someone, which, the very rare very corrupt cop aside, is probably true. But he glides right over the fact that short of killing, a nontrivial number of officers wouldn’t mind very much if they got to get into a fight. You can deny it, but I’ve seen and heard it myself.
That attitude, that overweaning sense of entitlement, is problematic on a number of levels, but perhaps the most important one is that it’s simply un-American. It is exactly the kind of thing that the men who wrote the Bill of Rights were seeking to protect us from and that Supreme Court majorities in cases from Gideon and Miranda to U.S. v. Jones have said is impermissible.
And the Bill of Rights and those court rulings and more are incontrovertible evidence that the American people have never entered into a social contract that makes a cop on the street the absolute arbiter of anyone’s life and freedom of movement. More and more people, sick and tired of being sick and tired, are rising up and telling cops that in no uncertain terms. And they ain’t all black, either.
To be sure, the state of policing today is not all the cops’ fault. A lot of corporations made a lot of money selling military equipment to the government, and then when the government began donating surplus equipment to states and localities, were the cops going to say no? And after 9/11, a lazy but pervasive mental shorthand took hold: We’re in a war on terror, terror could strike anywhere, so we’ve got to be prepared to do battle. But in too many cases, the requisite training on how and when to use that military equipment didn’t accompany the goods. And thus we were faced last week with the sight of a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in an armored vehicle pointing a machine gun loaded with live ammunition at peaceful protesters.
Now, when I was no older than 5 and going dove hunting with Dad and some other relatives (I wasn’t actually hunting, but I did get to hold and carry a shotgun), he distinctly told me never to point a firearm at something unless you intended to shoot it. I bet your dad told you the same thing. So if you’re a resident of Ferguson, protesting peacefully or maybe not even doing that much, and a cop who supposedly has sworn to protect and serve you is pointing a machine gun at you, what are you supposed to think?
I’m thinkin’ there’s one cop who needs to lose his badge.
So you’ve got a nontrivial number of cops out there who think the Constitution doesn’t apply to them, that your civil rights don’t matter, and who have lots of very dangerous toys but no real idea when deploying those toys might do more harm than good. (The writer of the Post piece, with his emphasis on wanting to de-escalate situations, would be more believable if he acknowledged the reality that people in Ferguson, Mo., and many other places in America want a police force and not an occupying army.)
At no point in its history has the kind of policing the writer embraces above ever been part of the formal social contract. Oh, sure, it happened, but it did so in violation of the country’s own contract with itself. And it needs to stop. The police themselves will benefit from a population that doesn’t have so many examples of cops behaving badly to look at.
So how do we get there? We start requiring federal, state and local law enforcement to operate in a state of complete transparency with respect to how they do their jobs. We decide that no such person is entitled to any right of privacy with respect to his performance of his official duties. We make it all public, good and bad. We mandate independent investigation at the federal level of all officer-involved shootings.
Yeah, it’ll take a little time and money. Worse, it will require changing some attitudes that are generations old and baldly used for political purposes today.
But if we go that route, I can pretty much guarantee that law enforcement officers’ relationships with their communities will improve, and as a result their jobs will become at least a little bit safer and easier. And I think we can all agree that that would be a good thing.