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by Peter Moskos

March 20, 2017

"A police officer’s view from street level"

San Francisco Sgt Adam Plantinga always had good insight on policing. A few years back I posting a bunch of excerpts from his book: 400 Things Cops Know.

Plantinga was interviewed recently in The Christian Century and addresses some tough issues. It's worth reading the whole interview, but in case you don't:
There’s a 90-10 rule in law enforcement: 90 percent of people are decent, 10 percent aren’t, and as a cop you deal with that 10 percent about 90 percent of the time.
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All of this has a tendency to make you skeptical and disillusioned—to distort your worldview. It’s part of what’s known as compassion fatigue.... In its most damning strain, goodness starts to look something like weakness.
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What the police must strive for is equality under the law. If that isn’t happening, attention must be paid. But in some people’s minds, every time a white police officer has a negative encounter with a black suspect, racism is clearly afoot. To be sure, racism is threaded through every institution in our country, from mortgage lending to how kids are disciplined in school.
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But if a police controversy is about race only because some people arbitrarily decided to make it about race, the damage that can be done is much more than simply the Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome. Accusations of racism are incendiary.
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Some of these recent cases generate such a visceral reaction that they demand a response. The Walter Scott case in North Charleston, where the officer shot Scott while Scott was running away, looked to me like a straight-up assassination. The shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa bears all the trappings of an officer tragically overreacting to a perceived threat.
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The governor of Minnesota was quick to say that if Philandro Castile had been white, he wouldn’t have been shot by police. I’m not sure how fair that is, but it seemed to resonate with a lot of people as true. But if Michael Brown were a large white man going after Wilson’s gun after slugging him in the face, would Wilson have just brushed it off as the misguided antics of a fellow Caucasian? That doesn’t strike me as plausible.
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Then there are the cases, and I believe they are rare, where a life is lost because officers didn’t know how to properly use the equipment on their duty belt or they panicked or they simply made an awful decision that they can never take back. There may not have been malice involved but the damage is done. Those officers’ cases should be decided in criminal court where they are entitled to the same due process as anyone else.
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And ask any street cop and she’ll tell you about a host of times she could have justifiably used deadly force but elected not to.

That’s why cops bristle when they see a protester screaming that the cops are indiscriminately murdering people as he holds up a sign that says “It Could Be My Son Next.” Good sir, if your son comes at the police with a knife or a gun, then yes, God help him, he could be next. Otherwise, your son has about as much chance of being murdered by the police as he has of dying while canoeing.

Anytime an officer fires his weapon, it should be subject to intense scrutiny. The police are to uphold the sanctity of life whenever possible and must justify every bullet we fire. But don’t overstate the problem.
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You build trust in a lot of ways. It starts by getting out of your patrol car and talking with people. The neighborhood’s contact with you must be more than simply knowing you as the arresting officer. You’ve got to explain to folks why you’re doing what you’re doing. It doesn’t always work, but it’s still a worthy endeavor.

A prevailing police weakness is the habit of brushing off people’s questions, as well as an inability to seriously consider a point of view other than our own. The public might be wrong on some issues, or have unrealistic expectations of the department. But we have to listen to them.

7 comments:

EA5 said...

"Anytime an officer fires his weapon, it should be subject to intense scrutiny."

Many of the policies proposed by reformers are about making this a reality. Getting buy in from law enforcement seems to be the single biggest hurdle.

alice grimm said...

I mean, from my perspective as someone who is not a cop. The fact that men and women with perfectly sweet and well behaved children earnestly believe that any given police officer could assassinate their child for no reason. This speaks to a catastrophic failure of costumer service. I mean, I know a math teacher, basketball coach, man who does everything right and his kids are angels, and he worries that cops will shoot his kids. I know another math teacher, a caring, honest, compassionate law-abiding woman, and she's afraid that a cop might just shoot her. We have police so that these people are safe, but they don't feel like the police are there for them. It's just a huge customer service failure.

Peter Moskos said...

It is a failure of customer service. Or at least media narrative. But here's where my mind takes me.... The chance of your hard-working non-criminal employed friends (and their kids) being shot by police are just about zero. And it doesn't matter what race they are. Your friends' fears are, basically, irrational. Or at the very least greatly exaggerated. The chance of them or their kids being killed is not zero, mind you, but it's slim. Probably on par with being killed at a train crossing or something. It's *really* unlikely, and even more so if one uses common sense.

So the fact that they are afraid *is* a failure of police presentation and customer service (broadly defined). But I'm not certain to what extent I (not me personally, but in the abstract) am supposed to care about your friends' fears and be all empathetic. I mean, if you said your friends were afraid of being mugged or raped by every black man walking down the street, what is the proper response? Is that a customer service failure of the NAACP? If your friends are afraid every brown non-Spanish-speaking person is a Muslim terrorist, I'm sorry they feel that way, but is it a customer service failing of Islam? Your friends might simply be wrong.

My actually personal response would be more like, "Why do they feel this way?" "Since the fears aren't rational, how can I educate?" And I can make an effort and present facts, empathy, data, and personal experience. But then what? At some point, well, you can't win them all. They may be a hate- or fear-feared prejudiced person. Oh, well.

I know or have met good people who believe vaccines are bad, global weather change is a myth, homeopathic medicine can cure cancer, chem trails are poison, Obama is a Muslim terrorist, and Hillary Clinton has pedophilic sex slaves in some pizza joint (actually, I have *not* personally met any believers in Pizzagate, but you get my point). At some point I say, "you can't argue with crazy."

Now it behooves police (more than it behooves the NAACP or Islam) to make an effort to *not* be feared by good law-abiding citizens.

But let's assume your friends aren't crazy, even if they have an irrational fear. Maybe -- and this is just a thought -- maybe in a comfortable bourgeois world without real reason to afraid of anything, maybe your friends *want* to fear police. In a Durkheimian sense of deviance and "other," maybe hating cops gives your friends some comfort. It could be a way to stake their ideological position, to assuage liberal guilt, or to believe they haven't sold out their race/class/childhood neighborhood. Fearing/hating police can be an ideological statement that doesn't have any of the personal sacrifice that say [gasp] sending one owns' kids to a majority-minority public school or moving next to a (or even into) a Section Eight apartment building might have.

But I don't know your friends or where you live. But when it comes to prejudices against police, just like any prejudice, it's usually worst in people who have virtually no interaction with those the fear and gain knowledge from a bubble of social media.

So maybe your friends want to understand this culture they irrationally fear. I don't know. Maybe not. But if they're game, well -- in the same way you might try and introduce some conservative Islamophobe guy to some nice Muslim family and hope for an Archy Bunker / George Jefferson bonding moment -- perhaps your friends should go on a ride-along with the local cops?

If you live where there's violence, you'd see police deal with the victims of violence. If you live where there's little crime, you'd see police help people have are really shitty days or have really shitty lives. Either way, it's hard to go on a ride-along and not see policemen and women as basic decent human beings. And humanizing the "other" is what it's all about.

Christopher Skidmore said...

From the first commenter-->EA5

"Anytime an officer fires his weapon, it should be subject to intense scrutiny."

Many of the policies proposed by reformers are about making this a reality. Getting buy in from law enforcement seems to be the single biggest hurdle.

Police are already subject to "intense scrutiny" anytime their weapon is fired. Internal Investigations, Outside agency investigations, Prosecutorial Review, Judicial reviews, Grand Juries, etc.

Specifically what reformer policies are you referring to that are just not getting buy in from law enforcement?

From the second commenter-->alice grimm

"The fact that men and women with perfectly sweet and well behaved children earnestly believe that any given police officer could assassinate their child for no reason."

I have mixed feelings about this comment. One one hand I am saddened to think that this is how people who are "caring, honest, compassionate law-abiding" people view law enforcement when the goal is to be trusted by the community. Something needs to be done to change this and there are many factors in play as Dr. Moskos discussed above.

On the other hand, this is such an irrational fear. Do these same people you know also not drive or ride in cars, walk down the street, go for a swim, or fly on an airplane. Some quick research on the National Safety Council shows people in the US have the following odds of dying:

Motor Vehicle Crash 1 in 114
Pedestrian Incident 1 in 647
Drowning or Submersion 1 in 1,188
Air Transport Incidents 1 in 9,821
Being killed by a police officer 1 in 280,000*

* This is a flawed, rounded estimate that oversimplifies a more complex calculation. I based this last number on data from 2015, the US population was 322,060,152 on December 31, 2015 according to the US Census Bureau. Somewhere between 991-1199 people were killed by police, I went on the high side and used used 1150 (as the Washington Post said 991, Guardian said 1146 and other sources varied as high as 1199).

It is hard to find data on this but I found a consulting firm, UPD Consulting (based in Baltimore), that calculated the odds to be 1 in 384,000 if you are white and 1 in 127,000 if you are black.

It should be noted that somewhere around (using WP and Guardian data) 75-77% of those killed had a deadly weapon and 73% (Using WP data) were classified as being an "Attack in Progress".

I have 2 more odds to consider:

The odds of being killed in a lightning strike are 1 in 161,856.

The odds of a police officer being killed on duty is 1 in 7,000. (From UPD Consulting)

Peter Moskos said...

I'm curious, Alice, have your friends had any first-hand bad experience with cops? Because my response is kind of predicated on the assumption that they, personally, have not. And I could be wrong.

Adam said...

Well said, Peter. I think a lot of this boils down to the fact that, as the Freakonomics guys always say, humans are TERRIBLE at risk assessment. Why do people fear sharks, spiders, plane crashes, etc.? We're just wired that way; we fear things that are graphic and scary to look at and think about, even if they're unlikely to happen. The more a given type of event is depicted on the news and talked about in our inner circles, the more common we think it is. (Seth Stoughton often mentions the "availability heuristic" in the context of police violence). Interestingly, though, cops are guilty of this thinking, too. They're always watching videos of, talking about, and thinking about all the ways cops can get killed in the line of duty, even though it's very unlikely to happen.

EA5 said...

I would disagree that the investigations you’ve described actually represent “intense scrutiny” in practice.

I think they are often overly credulous of police accounts, fail to evaluate physical evidence, and disregard non-police witness testimony. Some investigations drag on for years. Others appear to be perfunctory, with investigators not making a real effort to gather evidence or scrutinize officer’s accounts. Most investigations are not transparent as the public receives little or no information about the officers involved, evidence collected, or process used to evaluate it after the conclusion of the investigation. A short statement from the police is all the public receives for the vast majority of officer involved shootings.

Many investigating offices also appear to approach their job as if it is to clear the officers rather than looking at each shooting with an open mind. That is, they must believe that in each shooting they investigate, there is a real possibility that the officers involved engaged in illegal activity and are actively covering it up. I am not saying that is the case in most, or even many, shootings. I’m just arguing that investigators must approach every shooting as if it were a serious possibility and scrutinize all evidence and witness statements accordingly. Though I do understand how challenging it must be to do that if an investigator is personally or professionally connected to the officers involved.

And of course, there are a large number of constraints on when, how, and in what context, officers can be interviewed/interrogated written in to state laws (LEOBR) and union contracts.

Radley Balko’s investigation of the South Caroline Law Enforcement Division (SLED) is an illustrative example of some of these issues but I can point you to several others (http://wapo.st/24BWDzL).

Reformers have proposed many policies in different jurisdictions including external civilian review boards with real investigatory powers, changes to LEOBR laws and union contracts, body cameras with policies for releasing, using, and viewing video designed for police accountability, and increased transparency into investigations. In almost every place these policies are proposed, local law enforcement lobbies against them and usually wins.

I understand the arguments against these policies, including Sgt. Plantinga’s stance on civilian review boards, Peter’s position on officers reviewing body camera footage before writing a report, and arguments against transparency and in favor of the cooling off periods in LEOBR laws. These views seem partially based on the idea that everything is fine and “the media is just whipping people up.” However, given how little transparency there actually is into police shootings, the number of incidents where obvious abuse and cover ups have been identified would indicate that these systems fail frequently and the public only hears about failures when video is present and the families of the victims have the means to pursue and publicize information about the investigations. If that is the case then law enforcement needs to be willing to trade certain protections for true accountability.

None of this gets into the disagreements about what should constitute a legally justified shooting and is an acceptable number of people being shot by police every year. For instance, Sgt. Plantinga’s opposition to civilian review boards seems in part to be because these boards believe that they should set standards for shootings that are more stringent than the courts have identified. And as other comments note, 1,000 people a year means your chances of being shot by a police officer are less than many other risks but that doesn’t indicate that it shouldn’t be a policy priority. I mean, I have a better chance of being killed by a police officer than a terrorist but we still make policy centered around terrorism.