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Editor's Desk: The Rush to Judgment

Author: Randall D. Larson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-08-20
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We're hearing a lot in the media these days about police brutality, about the militarization of police, about racism and all of the ugly accusations that confront law enforcement, particularly in the wake of events on Ferguson, Missouri, which is experiencing a second week of rioting and violence against police in the wake of a shooting of a young, unarmed black man by a white police officer.  The emotionally-charged reaction to what happened in Ferguson, an event which has now reached international notoriety [latimes.com], has torched the flames of anger, accusation, and hatred against police in general, even when what actually took place is not yet fully known.  The ongoing debate over police brutality amongst the public and the media has had its flames once more fanned by this unfortunate event. 

It’s a sad fact that abuses of police power do occur and are rightly publicized (and perhaps exploited) by the media, ever-vigilant to point out government impropriety.  These abuses are to be properly condemned and derided and their perpetrators correctly disciplined; but it’s important to understand that not all police officers or agencies behave in the way the media and commentators, usually without having sufficient facts about the event in question, tend to paint them.  Yet, from the contempt and vicious verbiage spouted from the media, from online pundits, from bloggers, Facebook posters, twitterees and the like, most if not all of whose information is gleaned from the opinions of similar-minded others among their Friends list rather than from proper and thorough fact-checking, one would think every person who wears a badge is deserving to the same judgment.

Those who know, work with, or have had more than just bad experiences with the police, understand that the vast majority of cops are honest men and women who chose this profession in a commitment to help people, to provide peace in the midst of violence and social discord, and who are outraged by the abuses that disgraces the honor and value of their profession.  It is perhaps understandable that those, then, who have only had bad experiences with police will form a different opinion; yet reasonable thinking should suggest that one’s own experiences from a small percentage of law enforcement officers, and cannot be used as evidence that all such officers share the same kind of conduct – good or bad.

In the rush to judge, the public in what they see as righteous anger condemns all.  In turn, the agencies in a rush to save face exonerate themselves – both doing so largely before all the facts are known, and the media seems to take whatever side is most easily exploited to attract viewers, readers, and social media followers. Police are being condemned for acquiring militaristic equipment [theblaze.com] even when the increase in the heavily armed criminals they are required to mitigate, not to mention the rise in public/school shootings by heavily armed perps they are required to save the public from, all of which has required an increased measure of equipment and tactics to combat these threats.  Last Week Tonight TV host John Oliver’s amusing but passionate take on this topic, while lacking a clear understand of what police really have to contend with in today’s heavily-armed criminal community, nonetheless makes some valid points, certainly from the public’s perspective [watch it at washingtonpost.com].  And President Obama voiced his own concerns about police militarization in connection with the Ferguson situation [policeone.com].

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for police to do their jobs in a society in which a large percentage vehemently distrusts authority (often, it must be admitted, with cause.  The sad reality is that so many allegations of police abuse of authority is emblazoned in newspapers headlines and TV news soundbytes to leave a bad taste in the mouth of much of the public).  Thus, the police must conduct their jobs amidst increasing amounts of personal peril – even being targeted and ambushed (see: Las Vegas, New Jersey, for recent examples) in the performance of their duty, which inevitably makes officers become especially cautious.

An article on the PoliceOne web site called “Why People See Cops as Arrogant” addressed some valid issues concerning police behavior from the officers’ perspective which has some validity towards the outcry we’re seeing from Ferguson and elsewhere.  “When someone calls 9-1-1 for police service, there is a tacit admission by the caller that the situation at hand has deteriorated beyond his or her control, and police are needed in order to bring the situation back under control,” wrote former patrolman Justin Freeman [read article here]. That is the unstated assumption that the officer has going into each situation — not that a social equilibrium needs to be maintained, but that a situation needs to be quickly and efficiently brought back under control… [The] officer cannot afford to give people the benefit of the doubt, because there are only so many people you can relax your guard around in her line of work before she gets herself or someone else hurt or killed.”

In the process, carelessness occurs, accidents happen, and some officers do exceed the lawful authority with which they are sanctioned to serve.  Add to that the specter of racism and events kindle the kind of responses we are seeing in Ferguson.   Long before Rodney King and all the way up to Michael Brown, the stigma (both in perception and in reality) of racism continues to pervade our society in disconcerting regularity, and continues to cloud perspective and incite violence in response, regardless of how often some politicians claim it isn’t happening.  When witnesses are contradictory (as they seem to be in Ferguson, according to several posted videos and statements [nytimes.com, breitbart.com, latimes.com, nypost.com, foxnews.com, cnn.com], the rush to judgment races alongside the rush to excuse before all the relevant facts are known, and emotional outrages find its outlet in violence, which as we are seeing serves to incite an equal and opposite reaction from law enforcement to keep the peace.  Rioting (and its spiteful, unsavory stepchild, wanton looting) is just what situations like that in Ferguson don’t need; and further distract meaningful analysis and proper evaluation of what did, or didn’t, happen – and why.  What is needed is clear thinking and reasoned dialogue.  The use of dash-cams and now personal cameras worn on officers’ uniforms [benswann.com] should serve as impartial evidence [guardian.com] of questionable events, while fair and independent investigations of alleged abuses of power outside of the involved agency itself can or should alleviate the (again, perception or actuality) accusations of cover-up. Of course the value of using body cams can still be negated, as some have written, if agencies aren’t willing to release videos that reflect negatively on their department [citylab.com].

“I’m not anti-cop,” concluded former USAF Lt. Colonel Michael Bell in a provocative and well-reasoned article titled “What I did After Police Killed My Son,” posted recently at polico.com. One of the things Bell did was have a bill passed into Wisconsin law mandating that investigations of police officers be turned over to an outside party.  Bell continued: “I am finding that many police want change as well: The good officers in the state of Wisconsin supported our bill from the inside, and it was endorsed by five police unions. But I also think the days of Andy Griffith and the Mayberry peacekeeper are over...”

Without having worn the badge and worked the streets, it’s hard for people to understand the mindset of a police officer under these contemporary circumstances, particularly when officers are required to frequently deal with less than genteel personalities.  “An average person cannot comprehend the risks and has no true understanding of a cop’s job,” wrote former LAPD officer Sunil Duta in an online posting on the Washington Post web site.  “Hollywood and television stereotypes of the police are cartoons in which fearless supercops singlehandedly defeat dozens of thugs, shooting guns out of their hands. Real life is different.  An average cop is always concerned with his or her safety and tries to control every encounter.  That is how we are trained.”

A short video posted recently to youtube provides an interesting perspective and a different view of the police than we are seeing in the media just now, and is very worth watching.  This video is a moving example of what cops have to deal with every day.  Listen to the eulogy spoken at the end and have a better idea of what makes a police officer tick.  [see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nawCMt6MiDI].  (Some of the comments posted on that youtube page about the video are particularly telling, and disturbing, in their vitriol towards police in general and even law enforcement as a societal institution).

Like the firefighters who run into burning buildings when everyone else is running out, cops stand their ground and conduct their jobs in a growing atmosphere of animosity and at their own personal peril.  Approximately every 58 hours an officer is killed in the line of duty (some sources, like that video, put it as 53 hours; the average is close enough).   According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund (www.nleomf.org), “since the first known line-of-duty death in 1791, more than 20,000 U.S. law enforcement officers have made the ultimate sacrifice.”  We should properly disparage abuses of power, corrupt cops, arrogance and bigotry behind the badge; but we should not condemn all in the name of the few who denigrate the profession they purport to serve. 

As of 2008, there were approximately 120,000 full-time law enforcement officers at work in the USA [wikipedia.org].  The vast majority of these men and woman are honest officers striving to protect and to serve in the midst of increasingly rigid rules and regulations, restrictive media scrutiny, and vast public distrust.  This also puts Ferguson and incidents like it in a more realistic perspective.  It’s somewhat similar to the media frenzy made over poorly-handled 9-1-1 calls and dispatcher errors, which has in some cases roused the public ire pretty severely; these are honestly very rare incidents in comparison with the millions of 9-1-1 calls handled properly each year.  Likewise, the millions of person contacts made by those 120,000 police officers annually are by a very large margin handled properly, respectfully, and uneventfully.  But of course it’s the ones where things go wrong – or are perceived as having gone wrong – that make the nightly news, and the media routinely fails to add any perspective in their provocative coverage of the alleged offense, and thus to the public these kinds of abuses of power and authority seem to happen all the time.

One, or one hundred, bad apples, as infuriating as those bad apples are (especially to the rest of the apples in the law enforcement basket), should not be used to point accusatory fingers at the other hundred thousand plus unspoiled officers.   The good men and women, the proud, self-sacrificing men and women who protect and serve with honor and forthrightness, deserve not be condemned with the same broad strokes that indict the deeds of the dishonest or power-abusing – not should the accused officer(s) be condemned without a fair investigation and thorough review of the evidence, and an attitude of cooperation and openness from their agencies.  Neither should the shooting of an 18-year old man by a police officer be prematurely justified until the evidence properly warrants that verdict.  Making rash statements and rushing to form premature verdicts is counterproductive to maintaining trustworthiness in government and peaceful discourse among the public.  The result is that those premature, passionate judgments will likely prevail even when review of the evidence has established the guilt or innocence of either party.  Thus the chasm of distrust between cops and community widens even further, and public, media, and political regard of law enforcement as a whole is left tarnished.


 

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