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by Peter Moskos

August 26, 2013

"Police work is a thinking person's game"

It's worth highlighting this excellent comment to a previous post, from a anonymous police officer. You can file this under "if you don't work, you can't get in trouble."
What I've learned over my career, and what has frustrated me as a life-long progressively inclined citizen, is that despite all common sense and evidence to the contrary, well-meaning liberal types are stubbornly attached to this outdated narrative of white officers maliciously and illegally harassing innocent black men "doing nothing." As you just articulated, police work is a thinking person's game. Unfortunately the critics are often so blinded by ideology that to educate themselves on very basic police procedures which may illustrate, like you stated, that for professionals it's not all about race.

The real harm from this refusal to engage maturely with the subject matter is the effect this political pressure has on departments, and by extension the most vulnerable communities. I see officers putting blinders on and avoiding perfectly justified stops (not even grey area sophisticated, I'm talking straight probably cause) for fear of allegations of racism. It's more trouble to deal with the subsequent complaints that now accompanies meaningful proactive police work than to do the bare minimum. And of course, the crime rate sky rockets because the suspects are emboldened by de-policing and ideological cover. So once again, it's folks in the poor and predominately black neighborhoods, where the well-meaning liberal types don't have to live, that suffer.
It's too easy to be for "police accountability," whatever that means. Good intentions aren't enough. Hell, even I'm for police accountability at some very large level. But any "accountability" needs to result in better, not worse, policing. That may sound obvious, but it's not.

I'm curious to see how things are going to work out in NYC with potentially two new levels of "accountability" that will just happen to coincide with a new mayor and new police chief who will have to reap what Bloomberg and Kelly sowed. It is not inevitable that crime will go up! But next year the NYPD will have to choose to do right and continue to improve and police (and stop stops for stops' sake!) or curl-up into a ball and disengage.

If you create a system where an officer can get banged or sued for doing his or her job, don't be surprised when officers say, "I want to get promoted. I want to keep my pension. I'm not getting out of this car unless someone calls 911." Individual actors still act rationally in irrational systems. So-called accountability can all too easily lead to bureaucratic paralysis (for exactly how, see "the Anticorruption Project and the Pathologies of Bureaucracy" in Chapters 10 and 11 of Anechiarico and Jacobs's The Pursuit of Absolute Integrity.)


Anonymous said...

It was a good comment and the officer made some important points.

Policing SHOULD be a thinking person's game. That was certainly what I was hoping for when I was looking at LEO jobs on and off for about ten years. I thought, contrary to old stereotypes (often perpetuated by my fellow Leftists), that policing could be a highly cerebral occupation.

But the problem w/ policing is that too many cops (at all levels)are unwilling to think critically about their role in society. Too many cops are unfamiliar even with the history of policing in the US. How many recruits, for instance, know that policing--especially in the south--was initially influenced by the tactics of slave patrols? How many officers know how often the US has tinkered with police tactics that seem better suited to a fascist regime (one could Google "Palmer Raids" "Fred Hampton and Mark Clark" or "no knock raids" to get a taste of this).

If academies spent more time educating recruits about history and current controversial issues (the drug war, for instance) maybe new cops wouldn't be so taken aback by the lack of trust and cooperation they receive in some communities. Armed with this knowledge, perhaps fewer officers would act like petulant children when a citizen dares to question their actions (see You Tube).

There should still be plenty of time for studying law, patrol procedures, crisis intervention, defensive tactics, EVOC, and emergency medical procedures (yes, that's police work too!). But teaching cops to--dare I say-- question policies that may be counterproductive and even dangerous to citizens and themselves (paramilitary raids at dawn, for instance)is a lot more important than learning how to talk a motorist/pedestrian out of their fourth amendment rights so you can get some stats.

Peter, when you get a chance I recommend the blog "Improving Police." It is the blog of David Couper, former Chief in Madison, WI. He deals with some of the themes I was discussing.

Dave- IL

PCM said...

As I'm making the syllabus for the my class right now, I can't help but think your comment is a pretty good summary of what I try to teach!

You might also like this short piece: "[Policing] requires maturity, self awareness, sensitivity and ability to see a larger picture. These are skills we are not born with. These skills have to be introduced to the right people, at the police academy and honed over and over – until perfection. Instead we devote 100 hours of training to use of force."

And I just just checked out Couper's blog. Shame on me for not being familiar with it. Thanks for letting me know.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Peter. I'll have a look at that article. The quote kind of sums it all up. I recall you kind of mocked the pseudo-military academy environment in "Cop in the Hood" as well. Couper spends a lot of time discussing how current training often misses the mark.

Interesting tidbit: Madison P.D. was the last department I seriously considered before opting out of policing a couple years back. Couper really helped to turn them around and MPD is still better of than the vast majority of P.D.'s, in my opinion. Enjoy the blog!

Dave- IL

Pierre Dickson said...

It is definitely a "Thinking Man's"

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