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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

March 3, 2017

"The corrupt and brutal ones always work together as if pulled by some magnetic force"

"The corrupt and brutal ones always work together as if pulled by some magnetic force." (Perhaps said by a Chicago cop, but I can neither cite nor verify.) I think the reason why might be as simple as the fact that nobody likes to be given the stink-eye by their colleagues. So you most people disapprove of what you do, you eventually find like-minded folk who appreciate your work ethic and style. In the police world, for the more aggressively inclined, this means a specialized unit that focuses on arrests for drugs (and guns and maybe vice). And then, in precious semi-isolation, you feed and build on the habits of those most similar to you.

I wrote about the federal indictment of seven Baltimore City police officers yesterday (the actual indictment is here) and said: "This is about bad apples. But it's not just about bad apples. There's the barrel that allows these apples to rot."

Who else is to blame? How do we prevent this from happening again? Who said, "Crime is up! Get me guns! And take all the overtime you need"? Who ignored complaints because the "numbers" were good?

I don't have the answers. But these are sincere questions. Because true organizational change best happens from within. Things sure didn't improve when innocent Baltimore cops were criminally charged after the death of Freddie Gray. And the solution sure won't be found in some faddish mandatory training course in implicit-bias or gender-based stereotypes. Bad reform does more than not help. It hurts: good cops work less; bad cops keep working.

Last year I spent a fair amount of time criticizing the DOJ's report on the Baltimore City Police Department. (And for good reason, as it was an anonymously written, horribly researched, per-ordained slam job designed to pave the legal way to a federal consent decree while absolving current political and police leaders of all accountability for the current mess Baltimore is in. These were the same ace "investigators" who went to Baltimore while this crap was going on and unearthed shocking secrets of poorly written arrest reports from 5 years ago.) But I also wrote this:
Mixed in with questionable methodology, intentions, and anecdotes, there's some of God's awful truth in this DOJ report. Yes, the department is a dysfunctional organization that keeps going only because of the dedication of rank-and-file who do their best, despite it all.
I tried to highlight what the report got right. I hoped things would get better, but I didn't think they would:
Maybe this DOB report will improve the department despite itself. Though I might be wrong, I doubt it. I suspect people will ignore [what's wrong with the organization] and just focus on eliminating discretionary proactive policing that saves lives. If policing has taught me nothing else, it's taught me that things can always get worse. Or, as has been said: "I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn't make it worse."
It did get worse.

I also wrote this about the DOJ report:
Accountability ends above the civil-service ranks. Why is that? Where is the leadership and accountability on high? Nobody blames the bosses -- the mayor and police commissioner in particular -- for the dysfunction of the department they control.
You think cops like working with (the very small minority of really) bad cops? Hell, no. But the system has no way to get rid of them. So you make do. You have to.
I defend most police officers because I've been there. ... I've had to work with cops I wouldn't trust as far as I can throw.

So fix it, dammit. Good cops want to, but they can't.
And then we get to a failed discipline process.

[From the DOJ Report:] The system has several key deficiencies.
It is clear that the Department has been unable to interrupt serious patterns of misconduct. Our investigation found that numerous officers had recurring patterns of misconduct that were not adequately addressed. Similarly, we note that, in the past five years, 25 BPD officers were separately sued four or more times for Fourth Amendment violations.

You might call that a red flag.
How much do you want to bet that one or more of the just-indicted officers are on that list? But did anybody do anything?

You know what might help: figure out who didn't do the wrong thing. What you have here is an inadvertent integrity sting. Now I know you're not supposed to get credit for doing what you're expected to do. But you might find something out from who (if anybody) in that squad didn't abuse overtime. Whose name didn't come up in a wire tap? Who entered the squad, had a look around, and left right away thinking, "maybe uniform patrol isn't so bad after all"? But that's not the way these things work.

[Update: According to Justin Fenton in the Sun these seven were the entire squad squad. Worth reading the whole article. As to spending your career "risking your life" to protect others as a defense, this clip from Scott and Bailey comes to mind.]

It's not that good cops cover for bad cops as much as they stay the fuck away from them. Why? Because if you know enough to rat somebody out, you're already in way too deep. And if you don't know enough, well, what are you supposed to do? Go to Internal Affairs and say, "I got a hunch"? You put on blinders to cover your ass. You hear rumors, and then you stay the hell away because when the shit hits the fan, you don't want to be anywhere near it. It's less Blue Wall of Silence than Blue Cone of Silence.

And the solution, as is always the case, needs to focus on the wrongdoers rather than be collective punishment on the good cops, the majority. From my book, Cop in the Hood:
Some officers enter the police department corrupt. Others fall on their own free will. Still others may have an isolated instance of corruption in an otherwise honest career. But there is no natural force pulling officers from a free cup of coffee toward shaking down drug dealers. Police can omit superfluous facts from a police report without later perjuring themselves in court. Working unapproved security overtime does not lead to a life in the mob. Officers can take a cat nap at 4 a.m. and never abuse medical leave. There is no slope. If anything, corruption is more like a Slip 'N Slide. You can usually keep your footing, but it's the drugs that make everything so damn slippery.
As to overtime, from 15 year ago:
To control overtime pay, superiors also discourage late discretionary arrests. While a legitimate late arrest may result in a few extra hours of overtime pay, the sergeant signing the overtime slip is likely to ask details about the arrest to confirm the legitimacy before adding an extra hour or two and giving very explicit instructions to "go straight home."
This "rounding up" of overtime was pretty common. And I'll even defend it as one of the only carrots a boss has to reward somebody for doing a good job. Regardless, it is a far cry from what seems to have happened here.

March 1, 2017

Seven Baltimore cops indicted

The Feds arrested seven Baltimore City cops today. I don't know all the details yet, but the robbery charges seem major. "Robberies while wearing a police uniform," I just heard. But you know what? Even without knowing the details I can go out on a very short limb and predict a few things. Why? Because it's always the same. And that's what makes it so frustrating. It's like we never learn.

Articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Baltimore Sun. And an unrelated scandal in Chicago. Though I will read these stories thoroughly. It bothers me that I don't have to. Some things are always the same. Always:
• Drugs. Always drugs. I'm not one for "root causes" theories in the abstract, but if you want to end police corruption, you've got to end drug prohibition. That's it. Until then, this will happen. This only question is when, where, and how often. The drug game is dirty. And it is a game with arbitrary rules. It taints all involved, even the honest cops.

• A specialized unit, removed from the generally non-corrupt culture of most police officers.

• A selective unit, in that people don't just get assigned there. Officers need to self-select. And the more aggressive cowboys do. And this aggressive hot-headed police sub-culture can feed on itself. Here's something you may not know: most officers have no desire to work with those cops. Why? Because most cops don't like they way they operate. Do cops know they're dirty? No. But they certainly suspect things aren't kosher. So the good cops stay away. You stay away because there's guilt by association in the police department, and when the shit hits the fan, and it always does, you don't want to find yourself in the jackpot.

• Red flags galore. Let me guess, the officers involved had tons of overtime (this seems to be one of the charges). Too much legal (or illegal) overtime is a red flag. But usually what now happens is the department cracks down on all overtime. Collective punishment, in essence. And that will only piss off the honest cops who are trying to do their job.

I bet a few of these cops are "highly decorated." Yes, too many awards is a flag.

I'm also going to guess there were a lot of complaints against these officers over the years. Now of course if you do aggressive work you'll get more complaints than some lazy hump who never gets out of their car. And you need to be careful not to see every complaint as legit, because most are BS. But still, when you get a dozen complaints -- use of force, discourtesy, the whole nine yards -- in a year or two? I think of the line from the Wire:

"...which for Herc will make an even four in the last two years."

"None sustained."

"But all of them true."

On the flip side, you can't treat every complaint as a career hold. That's how you get the maxim, "If you don't work you can't get in trouble." Flags aren't guilt. That's why they call them "flags." You notice them. You investigate. And maybe there's nothing to them. But sometimes there is. Somebody up top needs to notice these flags. And somebody with authority, you know, a "leader," needs to put their neck on the line and take action.

• High "productivity." You want guns and drugs and cash on the table? You reward officers for arrests? Then you get this. (Not always, mind you. Not immediately. Not all officers. But yes, eventually it is inevitable). It's not easy to balance "productivity" on one hand with "laziness" on the other. But I'm telling you, there's a huge middle ground into which fall 80 percent of cops.

• Bad supervision. The sergeant got arrested, and this implies the squad was rotten to its core. So, I can't help but wonder, who was the Lieutenant? Go on up the chain of command, for a change. Not just to punish and blame, but to inquire, reform, and figure out how this happened. Did the LT close his or her eyes because of pressure from higher up? I don't know. Where exactly was the communication breakdown? Because this is about bad apples. But it's not just about bad apples. There's the barrel that allows these apples to rot.

The military-like chain-of-command does nothing more efficiently than suppress open communication. In a police department, it's too easy to put on blinders and not know what is happening around you. In fact, you'd be a fool to do otherwise. This is not the same as a "blue wall of silence," mind you. But it is a problem. But even if those higher up don't know about the crimes happening under them, it's still a failure of leadership.
Anyway, I'm just writing about scandals in general. But if these facts are true in this case -- and I bet they are -- isn't that, as they say in the police world, a clue?