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by Peter Moskos

December 4, 2014

Use of Force

I'm out of the country for a week. So here's another bit of insight (the 11th) from Adam Plantinga's most excellent 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman.
The general public doesn’t always understand use of force dynamics in police work. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect them to. Police departments do what they can to explain them, either through media channels or during periodic citizen police academies. But deep misunderstandings continue to drive a wedge between the cops and the public.

Now, the public and media provide police oversight. That’s fine, because cops carry guns, drive large cars very fast down busy streets, and take away people’s liberty; you should have oversight. You also understand how people can criticize cops and their tactics without fully comprehending them much in the way you might heap verbal abuse on your favorite NFL team’s offense without ever having played a down of organized football. But it would be nice if the public and media sometimes gave you the benefit of the doubt. While media coverage of police brutality is commonplace, you rarely watch a news story about how officers took a violent suspect into custody using the minimum amount of force necessary even though it happens every day because, after all, what’s interesting about that?

That being said, you will see cops who have a knack for escalating even the most benign encounter into a fist fight. Maybe they got cut from the high school football team twenty years ago and they’re still looking for payback. Or maybe they’re young and unproven and think that if they are quick to shove some people around, they won’t be perceived as weak. Whatever the case, they seem to want not just to arrest suspects but to teach them a lesson, failing to realize that there isn’t much honor in kicking a guy when he’s already under control. But these officers are in the minority, which is good, because roughing up suspects unnecessarily isn’t just wrong, it’s bad business. You can lose your job, be charged criminally, and become embroiled in a federal civil rights lawsuit. As police, you have to be better than that. And most of the time you are, respecting the law even if the criminals don’t. In the words of one Milwaukee police deputy inspector, “You have to guarantee someone his constitutional rights no matter how much of a puke he is.”


AhYup said...

Some excellent points here. I don't agree with you about the cigarette taxes though. The issue ,I think, is really a system of enforcement by which a crime as stupidly petty as selling loose cigarettes means dragging a guy down to the station again. Really, do we have to arrest people for that kind of crap even if they are out on bail and chronic recidivists about it? Why? It's just a moronically inefficient way of doing business. Give them a citation. This leads directly to the bit about resisting. Ok sure the force stops when the resistance stops. But the moral insanity here is that the resistance started when the force started. Yes he was arguing but arguing and saying "don't touch me" is not being a threat to anybody. It's wasting peoples time. He's dead because not because he was violent but becuase they didn't want to debate they issue anymore. There is something really insane about the whole situation.

Jay Livingston said...

"You can lose your job . . ." Which is to say that these bad outcomes are a possibility. But seriously, how likely are they? With other kinds of illegal behavior (theft, drugs, etc.), the first time you do it, you may be worried about the consequences. But if you do it again and again with impunity, you stop worrying and even come to think of it as your right. So as with other forms of deviance, the only effective social control comes from those immediately around you. If they don't suggest that you shouldn't be doing that, then there's no deterrence at all. How often do other cops intervene to stop excessive force? Or report it? Do they even suggest to the guy with the hand problem that he behave better? Or do they just try to make sure they don't get assigned his group?

Moskos said...

Jay, I would say there's a combination of trying not to work with the guy (or woman) and suggesting to the guy that he or she behave better.

The problem with "reporting" it is it's rarely clear cut it's wrong. Basically, if you can prove something is wrong, you're probably in too deep yourself. Just because somebody uses more force than *you* think is necessary doesn't actually make it so.

That said, I think the best way to control somebody is from his his or her co-workers. But the system is not set up to really not encourage that. If would be nice if there were a way to call somebody out for training and not discipline, for instance.

Moskos said...

Something was strange here in that a specialized unit (ie: not patrol) was enforcing loosie selling. That's odd and almost assuredly complain driven. Garner had been arrested literally dozens of times for this.
He *was* under arrest. "Don't touch me" is a pretty useless thing to say to people whose job is to touch and control you.
You're are right: There is something really insane about the whole situation!
But at some point you shouldn't blame cops for enforcing the law.
Yes, discretion is needed, but this guy, in as much as loosie selling is a problem, *was* the problem.
It would have been great if some high ranking guy said we, as the police, simply don't care. But police in America can't say that about something is A) a crime, and B) being complained about.