Saturday, December 31, 2011

Are Our Hands Tied?

The Occupy Whatever movement was met with great restraint by political leaders all over the country until push literally came to shove. And guess who got to do the shoving? That’s right – your friendly neighborhood armed government agents. Mayors and college presidents and governors have their private armies to do what begging, negotiating, and persuasion cannot – the police officer. Why don’t mayors send in a phalanx of social workers or public relations staff? How about the street department guys or the city engineer’s office? Are the interns in the mail room so busy they can’t go down to the park and get some trespassers to move along? Or hey, get the firefighters – they have uniforms and everybody loves firefighters!

Why the police? One word: force. We have the license to hurt. Gosh that sounds mean. And on video it looks even meaner. Officers in heavy gear, wielding sticks, carrying industrial strength pepper spray, descending in formation to make people do what they do not want to do makes for riveting video and front page photos. The pictures ignite a visceral response in a society that has become so peaceful and civil that the thought of cops using force is more than the average eye can bear.

The thought process goes like this: person violates law, politician looks the other way, violator decides to continue to violate law, politician decides law should be enforced and warns violator, violator decides to continue to break law, politician orders police to enforce law, police confront violator, violator still breaks law, police exercise force to gain compliance, violator screams bloody murder, politician investigates cops for using force.

The politician wins. He or she got tough, but not too tough and not too hastily so as to allow the pot to simmer a while, and when things happened that don’t play well on the news, he or she gets to blame the police. This scenario played out so much near the end of 2011 that I fear it will do lasting damage to policing in America. As harsh as it sounds, the license of force is a necessary tool for peace. Images of officers doing what is required of them without a coherent narrative make it hard on everybody. Every confrontation is a “raid”, every arrest where force is required is a “beating”, and every tool carried into the fray is “overreaction”. Politicians use police officers like tissue paper – they have an ugly substance to remove and the thing used to remove it gets tainted and thrown away.

I’ve seen disposable officers tossed aside for convenience far too often. I’ve seen officers delay in using appropriate force for fear of repercussions, and officers use inadequate force for the same reasons. Maybe it is time for a reality contract with police administrators and politicians. “If you want me to enforce the law, I might have to hurt somebody. If I hurt somebody in a lawful way, you will accept joint responsibility and support me so that I can keep doing my job and not be afraid that you will punish me. If you don’t want me to ever use force, tell me now and I will walk away. If you want me to avoid using force, give me the training and tools to best accomplish that, and let your public know that it is their responsibility to comply with my lawful commands.”

Do we trust our elected leaders, prosecutors, and desk-bound police administrators to accept that responsibility? I don’t. Maybe it’s time we put it in writing.