Monday, August 24, 2009

Taking a Beating in the Press

With a chilling coldness the man sank his knife into the woman’s belly and sliced her open. I wanted to rush over and help her as she locked her eyes straight up at the ceiling in fear, but she was surrounded by his people and I knew it would be foolish to intervene. He lay aside his bloody instrument, reached in to the gaping wound and, with a little tug, pulled out a small bundle of flesh and asked me if I wanted to come over now and see my new son as he clamped the umbilical. The way a story is told makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it? It’s a good thing that doctors still have a decent amount of credibility with the press otherwise the headline would read “Doctor cuts woman, removes fetus, slices lifeline”. Police officers seldom get the same professional courtesy. Instead of the headline “Officers Justified in Arrest of Suspected Shooters”, the reports from Philadelphia proclaimed “Grand Jury Clears Officers in Taped Beating Case” (Associated Press, August 6, 2009).
The grand jury report said "… the design of the force applied by the police was helpful rather than hurtful…The kicks and blows were aimed not to inflict injury, but to facilitate quick and safe arrests. We found that the kind of force administered was completely consistent with police training and guidelines and the laws of the commonwealth." In other words, despite the fact that the officers involved were summarily fired, there was no beating. There was an arrest of three men suspected of shooting into a crowd.
Despite common perceptions even among police officers, the infamous case of Rodney King was not a beating, but an arrest. After two trials it was determined that one or two blows seen on that dramatic video were deemed unnecessary, yet 17 years later the word “beating” is inseparable from the case. Headlines imply that beatings are rampant as though every cop has some kind of Tourette’s Syndrome that causes them to randomly smack people for no reason. While cops and their bosses remain silent while the case is under investigation, politicos and irate hate-baiters have free reign to get their hostile verbiage into headlines. The vast majority of investigative outcomes vindicating the officers are unreported, underreported, or make new headlines only when the objective findings outrage the haters afresh.
The apparently pervasive attitude reflected in the media that the cops are guilty until proven innocent may on the one hand be an important social control on state sanctioned force, but it also may increasingly hamstring our profession in ways that could spiral into a tragic reluctance to engage the bad guys in safe and effective ways. The ACLU and Amnesty International continue propaganda against Tasers despite their life-saving benefit. Nervous administrators seem quick on the draw to dismiss accused officers before they can be exonerated. Race-baiting opportunists continue to ignore the quantum leaps of progress in unbiased crime fighting while ignoring deeper, more entrenched problems of inequality. Long term risks include an increase in defiance and non-compliance, intrusive and hostile political oversight of police investigations, and calls for more federalization of law enforcement.
We can complain about the unfairness but on a personal level we must be mentally prepared to deal with a controversial use of force event. We give lip service to preparing for an officer involved shooting, but lesser affairs can be just as devastating in their after effects. Are you establishing professional credentials to help you weather accusations of poor training or poor attitude? Are you documenting your reputation for being reasonable and cool headed? If you don’t have concrete evidence of your agency’s likelihood of support and objectiveness do you have an advocate who will stand with you? Will your prosecutor drop the case like a hot rock regardless of its merit if it becomes a public relations liability? Like any aspect of police work, planning ahead and mitigating the threat is always wise. We need to survive every encounter with our bodies, minds, and careers intact.

Modern policing: The New Vietnam?

The Iraq war has evidenced a culture shift in America’s perception of its soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. For the generation that watched the bitterness of the Vietnam war extend to a hatred of the soldiers who fought in it, there is a great relief that we have learned to respect the troops regardless of our agreement about the politics that lead to war. In the Vietnam era, as those in uniform during the time will attest, those who marched for peace were associated with anarchy at home that extended to bombing of ROTC offices on college campuses, and to greeting returning combat veterans with chants of “baby killer”. Vietnam veterans were scorned for their maladjustment upon returning to the states where dysfunctional vets made the news on a regular basis, compared to the stoic WWII vets of the “greatest generation”.
The Carter administration’s Iran Hostage Crisis with its yellow ribbon campaign supporting the release of the captive servicemen and others heralded a new patriotism that flowered during the Reagan years and continued with our “good” Gulf War under George H. W. Bush. These events restored national pride in our armed services. A national repentance over the mean spirited treatment of our Vietnam era solders seemed to take place so that by the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks our military was in such high regard that even the eventual loss of public support of the Iraq War did not diminish our desire to “support our troops”.
The police profession should learn about this cycle of contempt and respect because we are entering, or have entered, an era where the conditions are ripe for a long season of public contempt for our police. If we fail as a profession to recognize the origins of anti-police sentiment and fail to conduct ourselves wisely in response to it we risk, as a nation, a descent into the same kinds of violence that marked the decades of the Vietnam, Watergate, and civil rights riots of the 60s and 70s.
So who is hating the cops and why? Based on my analysis of news reports and blogs the primary instigators are clustered among five groups: anarchists, activists, attorneys, academicians, and arrested persons’ relatives.
Anarchists are comprised of extremists associated with the environmental movement, those who oppose drug prohibition, and may include other anti-government groups who are discontented and advocate revolution. While there are certainly moderate thinkers who share some philosophical roots, the anti-government ideologues believe that current governance violates principles of individual liberty or are so corruptly influenced by big corporations and institutionalized racism that its police power is illegitimate and should be resisted and even preemptively attacked.
Activists are opportunistic individuals or groups who attach themselves parasitically to sensational news reporting of alleged police misconduct. The typical response is an extended tirade that generalizes the allegations to all police officers. They leverage the reported event against all previously reported events and tend to cite the Rodney King arrest as illustrative of all police activity.
Attorneys have a pecuniary interest in fostering claims of police misconduct because doing so attracts plaintiffs, indoctrinates potential jurors, and creates settlement revenue in cases where litigation would likely exonerate the officer but would be too exhausting for a defendant to contest. Many attorneys have blogs or websites disguised as expert commentary but designed to advertise their services. The commentary is typically over-generalized, biased, predicated on broad presumptions and unsupported by facts.
Academicians with leftist leanings are inclined to cite theoretical suppositions about police culture, state sanctioned violence; and historical use of law enforcement to break strikes, capture escaped slaves, harass civil rights workers, and violently attack protesters. They extend those historical abuses to an assumption that today’s police officers are part of an inherently brutal system. They are often sought out as media commentators and cite unreliable research, such as the contention that police officers are grossly over-represented as domestic violence perpetrators.
Another common face seen on television is the relative of the arrested person. The emotional appeal of the crying mother, girlfriend, or brother wondering “why they had to shoot him” can often diminish the impact of the actual facts. Indeed an arrest or other use of force is always an occasion that represents a sad failure of individuals and society. The impact of the pathos generated by upset advocates of the “victim” are multiplied if the person had a mental health problem, was young or old, or was celebrating his or her birthday or wedding; or if the person had a sympathetic background story as an animal lover or loving big brother, etc.
Additionally a chilling component of articles and blogs regarding police matters is the cluster of typically anti-police vitriol in the comment sections. Certainly it can be claimed that the malcontents are a self-selected group opportunistically attracted to the subject matter, but if those rantings reflect an undercurrent of popular opinion the implications are frightening. Because a dramatic police event “caught on tape” (the suggestion is that our secret activities have been discovered!) is media front-loaded, the public police response is always either in the defensive mode or the lawyer’s “no comment”. This kind of professional objectivity and patience does little to counter the rabid media coverage and the resulting “expert” commentators that guess at circumstances and get edited to sound bites.
With nearly twenty thousand police agencies across the country it will be a challenge to develop a unified strategy to deal with what appears to be an increasing backlash against law enforcement. Typical responses of line officers and police advocates voice a need for sympathy for the police. The talk is of the dangerous streets, laying lives on the line everyday, and heroism. These emotional arguments mean nothing to the five categories of critic identified here. Administrators, supervisors, and line officers need to be aware that passive silence in the face of attacks on professional integrity is not an effective response.

The Moral Imperative of Forgiveness

Look in the self-help or religion section of the bookstore and you’ll find a number of books dealing with forgiveness. They will all agree that forgiving is essential to mental, spiritual, and physical well being, but they aren’t talking about cops are they?
Policing is a business of dealing with wrongs. We deal with victims of misdeeds, negligence, ignorance, and downright evil as the bread and butter of our existence. It would be unthinkable if at every call we said “Aw that’s OK, I forgive you” and left all the parties with a hug and song. The default conclusion is that forgiveness is just not a component of law enforcement. Is there no place for forgiveness with offenders or with our fellow officers, especially those whom we may supervise?
I believe everyone can benefit from a forgiveness management plan. Here are some myths about forgiveness that might keep police officers from engaging in the important life skill of forgiveness.
1. You have to forgive and forget. Many folks mistakenly believe this is a Biblical imperative but it is found no place in the Good Book. Those of you familiar with other sacred writings might enlighten me about its presence in other guides, but the Judeo-Christian ethic makes no such requirement. Our brains are very good at remembering threats whether they are a menace to our physical well-being or our emotional well-being. Remembering is how we avoid danger and respond effectively to warnings. Sometimes we can get stuck in those responses and generalize our anger or avoidance to situations that subconsciously remind us of the unpleasantness. It is this overgeneralization that we must take care to manage.
2. If I forgive I’m excusing bad behavior. I was knocked unconscious by a perpetrator on a car stop. When I filled out the victim impact statement from the prosecutor’s office I was clear about the importance of jail time for the offender. I had already forgiven him personally (in fact he apologized a few years later), but that didn’t mean I felt he should be off the hook. It’s true with subordinates as well. We can be empathetic with those who have erred and failed, but it doesn’t keep us from imposing discipline or even firing them. The practice of forgiveness is about how the forgiver processes the impact of the offense, not how the system processes it or how the offender processes it.
3. If I forgive I’m cheating the other people who were hurt. You can’t forgive what someone did to someone else. My brother’s son was murdered and when people ask if he’s forgiven the killer he responds “He didn’t kill me, so I can’t forgive him for that”. What he can struggle with is forgiveness for what the killer did to his life and heart. We have no obligation to forgive on behalf of others. When I was assaulted on duty, I believe everyone who wears the badge was assaulted as were the citizens who entrust me with my job. I couldn’t forgive him on behalf of the law or my colleagues; I can only settle the affairs of my own mind.
4. Forgiveness must be immediate and complete. Forgiveness is a process during which we learn much about ourselves and the world around us. If we wait until we can achieve the perfect package of soul-cleansing forgiveness we may never get around to it. Start where you can even if it’s only the realization that it might be possible. Remember that forgiveness is separate from other consequences. You might still be preparing a law suit, preparing for trial, filing for divorce or getting a restraining order, or suffering pain from the offense. It’s OK to forgive from a distance. You don’t have to embrace, love, or re-engage with the offender although that might be a great thing. It could take several years of work so take whatever small steps you can.
5. I can’t forgive unless they apologize. Forgiveness, in the most merciful degree, absolves a person of their obligation to repent or make up for their offense. We might not be able to achieve that level of forgiveness. We may be merciful as a matter of a greater social good. That is, if someone asks for forgiveness, we grant it knowing that this may be in society’s best interest and important for the reformation and restoration of the individual. If neither of these altruistic motives evokes an attitude of forgiveness a very practical level of forgiveness is to say that you expect nothing in the way of revenge; that some natural justice will occur and that carrying a grudge will only give the offender a continued controlling presence in your life.
Forgiveness is a deliberate matter of the will and has practical consequences. You can be a forgiving person and still hold people accountable, still be an authority figure, and still keep yourself physically and emotionally safe from people who have offended or hurt you. Forgiveness may have great significance in your religious belief, or it may simply be an essential for your emotional health and survival. At the very least forgiveness is forgiving yourself from the need to hold a vengeful place in your life where an offender still holds power over you.
My guess is there is somebody you can start forgiving right now.

The Moral Imperative of Self-Care

“In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure oxygen masks will drop from the area above your seat. If you are caring for another person, please put your own mask on first then assist the other person”. This advice from the flight attendant might be some of the best life counsel a police officer can get.

Our culture values life and therefore honors a life sacrificed. The biblical observation often quoted at police and military funerals is that there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for another. It is onto this altar of sacrifice each of us who are called into policing must take their place. It is not melodramatic to say that we face the specter of mortality in a way unlike other professions. It is this sacrificial dedication along with the occasional adrenaline infusion that creates the mysterious appeal of policing. Residing within this curious milieu lurks the dangerous aspect of implied privilege. By this I mean the formula that starts with “I’m out there every day laying my life on the line” (IOTEDLMLOTL) and therefore I deserve (fill in the blank).

This sense of entitlement has ethical peril swimming all around it. What explains the bravado of a police officer who takes wildly unnecessary risks? How do we explain the officer who routinely disregards using available safety and defense gear? How do we resolve the image of the warrior with the overweight, out of shape jelly bellies we see stuffed into police uniforms? The answer may simply be sloth, the moral implication of which is clear. But perhaps the answer lies in the IOTEDLMLOTL formula.

Where is the Moral Imperative?
Officers may believe that since IOTEDLMLOTL there are two corollaries: a) I’m bound to suffer so why not; and b) I’m too brave and important for anything bad to happen to me. Both of these mindsets do a tremendous disservice to the profession.

The first idea that suffering is inevitable is a fatalistic world view that opens the door to all kinds of dysfunction. We all know people whose relationships have fallen apart, who have become addicted to a vice, or who have ignored their own health and fitness by blaming it on the job. There are some serious mental health issues surrounding the traumas and stresses of law enforcement. Those who suffer from these maladies should not be diminished by those of us who simply make bad choices with the convenient mantra of IOTEDLMLOTL to justify our failures. Do you get the implication? “I deserve this donut because IOTEDLMLOTL.” “I deserve to mope around the house and ignore my spouse because IOTEDLMLOTL” “I’m going to have these five beers because IOTEDLMLOTL”.

The second idea is that because IOTEDLMLOTL the Universe owes me something. Many police officers think they’ve struck an automatic deal with God. Having faith in something is an important part of our over-all well being. We may have faith in our training, our own strength and character, the teachings of our youth, our own spiritual journey and experience, angelic protection, or the prayers of our mother. These beliefs are functional and have proven value in our lives. What is not rational or morally defensible is the idea that we can operate with supernatural protection merely because IOTEDLMLOTL. This differs from faith and wanders into the realm of assuming some god-like characteristics for ourselves – an obvious moral sinkhole.

When we default our well-being to someone or something outside of ourselves we are ultimately shirking responsibility. Therein lies the moral imperative of self-care. Although many of us, myself included, could testify to miraculous circumstances in which our own heroism seemed to be elevated by something supernatural, if we casually rely on miracles we abdicate our own responsibility. The result of such an arrangement is that we put others at risk.

No Right to Risk - An Obligation to be Safe
John Donne’s classic thoughts inform us here. “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” This poetry reminds us that what we do affects others. Applying this to our daily routine compels us to consider others when we consider taking on risk. If we crash on the way to a call, we have imperiled others by failing to best care for ourselves. If we cannot run and jump in the course of a rescue because we have failed to keep in reasonable physical condition, we have imposed a risk on others by our failure. If we take a risk (no seatbelt, no ballistics vest, not waiting for available back up or failing to coordinate with our back up officers) that may keep us from being successful at our mission we have taken risk not only upon ourselves, but have imposed it upon those whom we are sworn to serve.

The independence of action that is a cultural ethic in law enforcement often values risk-taking. I am an advocate of courage. Risk is integral to our daily work. Nevertheless, routinely taking unnecessary risk by foregoing care and safety for ourselves is a disservice to our highest purpose.