About . . . . Classes . . . . Books . . . . Vita . . . . Blog. . . . Podcast

by Peter Moskos

December 22, 2014

Thinking beyond "the Thin Blue Line"

Read my whole piece at CNN:
Most citizens can be forgiven for going through their day without thinking of anarchy or barbarians storming the gates. But many police, especially in New York City, see themselves as a thin blue line besieged by both a liberal and criminal world, neither of which they particularly like or understand. Large protests, especially when they're anti-police, solidify this belief because police see firsthand just how thin their blue line actually is.

Police know they are outnumbered and sometimes outgunned, even while presenting a front of dominance and control.


Anonymous said...

If you wrote those lines about a person and not an institution, I would tell you they were in serious need of psychiatric/psychological help. Crazy, or, if you prefer, mentally ill. The fact that you ascribe this mental state to every cop is really troubling.

David Woycechowsky said...

Good article. Concensus (sp?) building stuf that needs to be said and nobody is saying. Concise and well-written to boot!

David Woycechowsky said...

Do you think the K9 on the bus video now circulating (the one where the police officer orders him to stop video'ing) is really him?

hotrod said...

This is response to several of Peter’s recent posts kind of combined into one.

I generally agree that the vast majority of people will never have a seriously unprofessional interaction with police, much less suffer from excessive force. There are some subsets where the analysis is a little more complicated, i.e. certain neighborhoods, certain crimes, certain subtypes of policing, but generally speaking, I agree. I've certainly never had a bad interaction, and have been tossed a couple of decent sized breaks.


Some places, and some agencies, have displayed, if not maliciousness, then an accountability problem. And I'm sorry, collegecop, but if this is a "cop culture" issue, then cop culture really is seriously screwed up. FWIW, I think in most situations cop culture is okay-ish and it's more of a systems and leadership issue, but more re that in a moment.

There have been a range of uses of lethal\near-lethal force in the last few months that have, at the least, raised eyebrows and fed the narrative about police use of force. Just off the top of my head –

-Brown in Ferguson
-Garner in NYC
-Gurley in NYC
-Jacquez in Colorado
-Phonesavanh in Georgia
-David Hooks in Georgia
-Crawford in Ohio
-Rice in Ohio

You can find more, but these are the ones I “know” the best.

Let me get this out of the way up front - Brown was probably the "best" of these, in terms of use of force, and certainly the least provably wrong. I absolutely do not buy that it should have gone to a criminal trial as some sort of cathartic clear the air event. IMO, correctly no-billed.

Every other one of these, IMO, was avoidable by police doing even a slightly better job. Some of the worst haven't gotten much attention. We still don't "know" much about the David Hooks shooting, as GBI (sigh...) is still investigating, but early indications are that it could be as nausea inducing as the Ayers shooting.

There have been different outcomes. The on-duty cop who shot Jacquez has been charged with second degree murder. NYPD has addressed the Gurley shooting reasonably head on. But some of these have involved behavior and that reinforces the narrative. Put simply, in some situations, law enforcement, to include the district attorney (or equivalent), will twist themselves into absolute pretzels to put the best face on a marginal use of force by a cop. Even worse, IMO, it can carry on after criminal liability is avoided to not actually learning a lesson.

To draw on some of the recent cases I mentioned above -


hotrod said...

EXHIBIT A)-The shooting of John Crawford was no-billed by the grand jury, correctly IMO. But the cop made a mistake. If you (as the cop) run through a Walmart for 57-ish seconds where there is no running, shooting or screaming, you need to take a breath, reassess what dispatch gave you, use some tactical patience and question whether it’s an active shooter situation, and, maybe, not kill a man who hadn’t done anything wrong except pick up a pellet gun on sale at the store. Honest, horrible mistake? Sure. Feel bad for the cop, maybe not even discipline that heavily? Sure. But learn a lesson? You better.

Instead, we got this from one of the investigating detectives –

"What happened there wasn't a good thing and as a result of his (John Crawford’s) actions, he is gone."


Thank you Detective Curd, way to keep an open mind in the hours following an OIS. There’s clearly ZERO chance that you were trying to get a statement from the girlfriend that could be spun to smear Crawford.

I get that some random douchebag detective isn’t the final word. But how should people feel about when they try to make an assessment about how Beavercreek handled this?

EXHIBIT B)-IMO, Habersham County Sheriff’s Office (in GA) helped to needlessly kill a man through sheer stupidity. The DA whitewashed it. Yes, I read DA Rickman’s letter to Peter – still a whitewash, as amply demonstrated by Rickman’s public statements before the giant and fairly obvious flaws in that investigation got called out by Atlanta media. Anyway, HCSO waited a couple of years then blew a toddler’s (Phonesavanh) nose off with a flashbang. Sheer incompetence. Did they learn their lesson?

EXHIBIT C)-The Garner case is honestly tough. I don’t know NY code, but I do think the cop should have been charged. Why? Because outcome and reasonableness both matter. If you grab someone from behind with a “grasping hold” that somehow becomes an unauthorized “choke hold”, you get less sympathy from me than if you had simply, you know, used another approach. If you choose to make an approach between a giant of man and a glass window, you get less sympathy from me when you get scared because you wind up pinned up against the glass than if you had simply, you know, taken a different angle. Or, heaven forbid, let one of the other cops, all of whom had better positions, decide when to move. More than enough to take that cop to a trial and let a jury sort it, though I can understand legitimate differences of opinion on this one. But the random anonymous quotes citing the above factors that I mentioned aren’t exactly winning me over. Probably great for the “thin blue line” narrative though.


hotrod said...


"Narratives" are complicated things, and not necessarily just or fair. I truly get that most cops are doing the best they can. I also get that cops across the country are retrained, disciplined and fired every day, and that only the outliers are likely to get much attention. But some agencies and jurisdictions seem to truly struggle with the fact that they are accountable to the public. Not “drunk shouting that he pays your salary” customer service, but genuinely accountable to the people they serve. If something preventably bad happens in these places, will those agencies face it head on with a determination to do a better job, regardless of what happens to the individual cop involved? That’s the question, isn’t it? If your agency and your jurisdiction can answer that question correctly, then you all don’t deserve what the cop haters are dishing out right now.

Honest After-Action Reviews, honest look in the mirror, go do better? Or hang out with badgelickers and say that everyone who so much as raises a concern are cop-haters and causing cops to hesitate and get killed? I think highly of NYPD in general, their performance at that protest specifically and, anecdotally, Officer Musorov. I don’t think much of De Blasio. All that said, I don’t think all of the NYPD rank and file are making the right choices here.

I’m coloring the lines pretty brightly above, but this has been a bad week for anyone who cares about quality policing and, whether you believe it or not, cares about cops.

David Woycechowsky said...

Hotrod, what did you make of the police shootings of:

Dillon Taylor (Utah)

Samantha Ramsey (KY)

John Winkler (California)

I would have like to see criminal charges in all three of these, although I imagine you would disagree -- at least about Winkler's slaying.

Adam said...

Three tragic and preventable police killings, all from this calendar year. And most of America doesn't know anything about them. Why? What do they all have in common...? *Sigh* At any rate...

The Ramsey case looks awfully fishy to me. Cops have a strange habit of shooting at fleeing cars, and I think many of them later claim they thought the driver was intentionally aiming to run them over, though I bet that's almost never true.

The Taylor and Winkler cases look like tactical blunders, as most of these unnecessary shootings are. Despite what many protestors think, these shootings are not malicious; they are not "murders." The cops are acting out of a genuine belief that their actions are necessary to protect their own lives or the lives of others.

David, I know you will recite, as you have before, that "imperfect self-defense is manslaughter," but that Hornbook one-liner does not capture the complexity of these cases. A manslaughter conviction for imperfect self-defense requires that the killer's belief be "unreasonable," which brings us right back to square one, trying (as the law requires) to put ourselves in the shoes of the officer at the time, and wondering whether a reasonable person in those shoes could have perceived a deadly threat. I take it you look at these shootings and say "no." I say "yes," largely because I know what it's like to be in those shoes. I don't mean to flaunt my law enforcement experience, but it really does change the way you see these things if you know how hard it is to make those split-second decisions. If you haven't done so before, perhaps you should seek out an opportunity with your local police department to use their Firearms Training Simulator. I bet the department would let you, and I bet it would give you a small taste of what those situations are like.

But look, there's room for a lot of middle ground here. I do think the police kill too many people every year, and I think it's largely a result (as Moskos has said) of police being trained to be overly-aggressive and hyper-vigilant, if not downright paranoid.

When cops screw up badly enough, there should be serious consequences. But I think criminal charges are often not warranted. As Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said after firing an officer (who prosecutors recently announced would not be charged for killing a mentally ill man), "My inner cop is not dead. Every member of this police department has had to make critical decisions under pressure with insufficient information that could have gone wrong. Here's the point I want to make -- there's got to be a way of holding ourselves accountable absent of putting cops in jail for making mistakes." I think that hits the nail on the head.

David Woycechowsky said...

For what it is worth, I think: (i) Ramsey was probably murder, (ii) Dillon Taylor was probably manslaughter (but close case), and (iii) John Winkler (no crime).

I was not particularly sympathetic to Dillon Taylor until I saw the video. That one was a bit worse than I imagined it in my head.

In all three cases, I think the lack of police self-criticism of the shoots is really bad, which is what I think they have in common. Even though I don't think what happened with Winkler was criminal, I think it was poor job performance and should have been subject to serious sanction administered through the employer.

hotrod said...


Not as familiar with any of these. First impressions only, with a comment just below -

One thing I try to consider is the split-second factor. Police cite this all the time in justifying stuff. They're not wrong on a stand alone basis. What is sometimes glossed over and where I get very critical is when a) the police made bad to horrible decisions to put themselves in that position to begin with OR b) they had time to exercise tactical patience but didn't use it. But when they're genuinely doing their job and they're faced with honest to goodness fast-unfolding chaos? Tough to be judgmental.

John Winkler - absolutely not criminal. Tough to consider discipline in a vacuum, but the police (AFAIK normal patrol officers) were legitimately responding to a violent crime and had very, very little time to assess. See Adam's comment - it's valid here.

Dillon Taylor - ugly, but I think I agree with Peter's characterization - not the "best" shoot, but not criminal - try to learn from it, but given the complexities of human behavior coupled with tactical scenarios, tough to assess whether it was avoidable or not

Samantha Ramsey - given her intoxication, you'd have never gotten a conviction regardless of what the grand jury thought, but this one bothers me the most, by far

DISCLAIMER - I'm not, and have never been, a cop - a cop, particularly one with traffic experience, preferably in KY might offer a different opinion, and you should seek that out if this is a case that you're focused on

- see my earlier first impression comment, so I may change my opinion with time, but at first glance, I think the cop was setting up an unplanned, sloppy, half-assed DUI checkpoint, figured (correctly, but without any kind of probable cause that he could articulate) that she was drunk. I think I saw where he cited seeing her bleary eyes through a car window from some distance away, at night, with a flashlight, as probable cause for the stop. You would need someone who knows Kentucky law re sobriety checkpoints to know how legal this was. Anyway, he got very sloppy with a dismouted approach on a drunk motorist who hadn't parked or even stopped the car, then shot his way out of his stupidity. Charitably, Brockman just had a bad day and someone else made a poor, alchohol influenced decision that led to a tragedy. Less charitably, Deputy Brockman is a moron, an *&^%hole, or both. Either way, Deputy, enjoy the next 3-5 years of your life, and do check to see what the liability limit on your county's insurance policy is.

David Woycechowsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Woycechowsky said...

Corrected version:

Thank you for responding, Hotrod. There is something I don't like about your reasoning, specifically the idea that the criminal trial should not be brought if the prosecutor doesn't believe a jury will convict.

Now, before you start laughing, let me explain that the overwhelming majority of decisions to prosecute / not prosecute are based upon whether the prosecutor believes that she could get a conviction, and, in most cases that is fine.

However, some cases should be prosecuted even if the prosecutor does not believe the jury will convict. For example, prosecutors should prosecute crimes even when the prosecutor believes that there will be no conviction because the jury is likely to be racist, and to repeatedly result in a hung jury for that reason.

When making charging decisions about criminal liability for police conduct performed in the course of police duties, I think it is important for prosecutors to NOT consider that juries tend to have a pro-police bias, or an anti-police-victim bias.

There are a couple of reasons I feel this way. One is that prosecutors have a built in conflict of interest when prosecuting police officers. This conflict should be recognized and dealt with, and part of that should be a suspension of the "I think he is guilty but the jury probably won't convict" rule of thumb applicable in most other cases.

Perhaps more importantly, I think that prosecutions against (guilty but "unconvictable") police officers have a strong deterrent effect on conduct of other police officers even if a conviction is not obtained. I would be willing to wager that police are less trigger happy in Detroit because of the Weekley criminal trials. I think that Baby BooBoo might have been spared his injuries if Billy Shane had been tried for murder, as Rickman should have done.

Finally, it is often said that "police should be held to a higher standard," but it is seldom explained what concrete, real-world consequences (if any) this saying should have. I think one concrete consequence is that police officers should not get the benefit of the guilty-but-hard-to-convict rule. That is not a rule of law, but, rather a rule of efficiency and convenience. I believe that the rule does serious mischief when prosecutors apply it in instances of popo-crime.

David Woycechowsky said...

The CopTalkers of GlockTalk weigh in:


Adam said...

I got bored after the tenth consecutive ad hominem, dismissing Moskos's article because he was only a cop for a little over a year. I can't think of any other profession in which most of your co-workers think the amount of time you've been "on the job" is the #1 indicator of your value to the employer and the validity of your opinions. (What if doctors and lawyers functioned that way?). I remember several veteran BPD detectives telling me that "Cop in the Hood" read like it'd been written by a 20-year veteran. It doesn't take all that long for an intelligent rookie cop to pick up on the big problems with police culture.

David, I think your opinions about prosecutorial charging decisions make some sense. Prosecutors should not shy away from trying a case because they think most juries have particular biases. Generally speaking, they should try a case whenever 1) they, subjectively, think the defendant is guilty of the crime, and 2) they think some hypothetical, reasonable jury could convict the defendant.

Moskos said...

Thanks, Adam.

hotrod said...

I really, really wish I had seen this example from late Sept 14 before I said up thread that some agencies will twist themselves into pretzels to put the best face on a shooting.

We need some sort of word for something that is both hilarious and nausea inducing. Tragicomic doesn't really cut it. But it is really, really funny in a sick way. Remember "he made me do my job" from Vegas?


Seriously, some of the people we give guns and badges to are just a sick joke.

That guy Collins is something else. Remember - the rank and file of LV Metro chose him. And he is doing exactly what some people think police unions are supposed to do.


How do you give any sort of award to Mosher, the cop on the left? Dude worked (works?) patrol - what does he do, get forklifted out of his car?

Google the Scott case if you care to. It was "eh, maybe" at best - might have been some conflicting commands at the scene, and one of the three cops got charged with a felony in an unrelated matter.

Might post this again upblog, or maybe email.

hotrod said...

Something from the article that is worth highlighting - David Roger - the DA who worked the inquest for Officer Yant and publicly said he thought Yant was lying is the general counsel for the union that just handed Yant his new gig.