I get it. We have a lot of people in jail. We have mental health issues associated with violence and criminality. We have concerns about police shootings. And we have an irrational, emotional, perversely political response by activists, elected representatives, and politicized police administrators.
In this past year we’ve seen California’s Governor sign the repeal of a law that requires citizens to assist police officers. While some saw the law as a vestige of the wild west posse, I see it as a confirmation of bystanders who are happy to videotape a police officer struggling with no sense of responsibility as a fellow citizen. This repeal is symbolically a further tearing away at the essential morality of being a community’s citizen and bearing the mutual burden of peace keeping. The repeal was justified, in part, by the irrelevant use of the law in previous centuries to track down runaway slaves, just to make sure politicians can claim yet another blow against police racism.
Our American ideals of policing are rooted to a large degree in the principles of Sir Robert Peel, the father of English policing for whom “Bobbies” are named. Peel famously said that the police are the people and the people are the police. With professionalization, technology, and increasingly complex laws, policing has become separate from the citizenry and has often cautioned against non-police citizens getting involved. The courageous convenience store clerk who draws a firearm to thwart a robbery is often lightly praised while the public is cautioned to just call 911 if they see a crime in progress.
In New Jersey, Camden Police Chief J. Scott Thomson, now retired, instituted a force policy that requires deadly force to be a last resort. While this is, in fact, the de facto practice in nearly all fatal police shootings, the limitation can be problematic. Stuart Alterman, an attorney who often represents officers, called it an “unnecessary progressive stance” that will lead to more lawsuits against police and put them at risk. Saying the policy “will only cause police officers to second guess themselves during the most critical moments of their careers.”, Alternman stated “With all due respect to those individuals involved in drafting this new use-of-force policy, I’m wondering if it was really drafted by anarchists instead of those individuals attempting to support police officers,” he said.
By definition, a “last resort” implies intervening responses, a prophetic gift of knowing when that moment is, and that all other means have been excluded in the milliseconds during which an officer must decide whether to pull the trigger or give a deadly attacker another moment to repent.
Oregon’s Governor Katherine Brown signed a bill this month ending the death penalty for cop killers unless there is premeditation. So apparently only official cop assassins might face the ultimate accountability for murdering one of our public servants.
Criticizing use of force by police isn’t enough. Jesse Smollet – actor and architect of a fake assault on himself to proclaim a hate crime attack – has his lawyers lashing out against Chicago Police for their aggressive investigation of Smollet’s false report. At a time when hate crimes can literally ignite cities, Smollet’s suits are telling cops not to investigate quite so hard, implying that investigating is racist in an of itself.
A prosecutor in the crime torn St. Louis, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner recently blamed St. Louis police officers for enforcing drug laws that resulted in a contact with a criminal who fought with and attempted to shoot officers who were able to stop the four time felon with deadly force. Gardner is also believed to have summarily dropped several violent felony cases because they involved officers whom she labeled as racist.
In Sacramento, the local police were excoriated for putting a bag over a young arrestee’s head in a video that was widely circulated as an outrageous example of police being meanies. With no understanding of netting equipment specifically designed to keep police officers from being covered in disease ridden spittle from combative subjects, the critique reached a fever pitch.
This kind of reasonable and necessary police strategies often generate a morale killing apology from police leaders, instead of an opportunity to educate the public. Worse yet, they can generate stupid laws that are aimed at punishing law enforcement for doing police work and which create greater opportunities for crime to breed and incentives for police officers to step away from doing their job. Recruitment and retention rates, as well as increasing crime in some areas is a measurable outcome of this rhetoric and regulation.
I don’t have enough blood pressure medication to talk about the Presidential candidates who smear the law enforcement profession, including the one who continues to refer to the “murder of Mike Brown” in Ferguson. This malicious, slanderous ignoring of the facts (i.e. a lie) was spoken in the face of overwhelming evidence that this “unarmed teen” lumbered into a convenience store, stole items in a strong arm robbery in which he shoved an elderly shopkeeper, shortly after which he reached into a patrol car, attempted to take Officer Wilson’s sidearm, and, when Brown continued his assault, was lawfully and righteously shot.
This happened in an era when President Obama invited Brown’s parents for a night out. Yes, the same President that said police “acted stupidly” while investigating a report of a possible burglary when a resident was attempting to get into his locked house after forgetting his keys. Obama solicitously postured a pretend apology by sharing beer and nuts on the lawn with the officer.
On other criminal justice fronts we’re finding massive decriminalization of drug offenses. This may be a well-intended way to increase awareness of mental illness and addiction, or an easy way to reduce costs of incarceration. In either case, one result is that the criminal behavior of drug offenders is not being appropriately addressed. Legalization of marijuana, predicated on the false impression that thousands of people are spending many years behind bars for possession of small amounts of weed, that pot is not addictive, that it is benign and even beneficial, and that sellers in pot shops are local mom and pop operations divorced from big business and organized crime, has had no positive effects that balance against the social ills of it.
I’m hoping that America will do for police officers what we eventually did for military veterans of Vietnam. We moved from spitting on them for being baby-killers, to admitting that they deserved yellow ribbons and appreciation for their service, and stop blaming them for the war. My hope is that our police officers - who do an amazingly professional job every day (according to study after study) and are not the blame for our social ills – will get their yellow ribbons from our fellow citizens, too.