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

by Peter Moskos

October 30, 2015

Cops on Comey

I love thoughtful cops. Especially those who can write. He emailed me this and agreed to let me repost it, anonymously. I wish him well and am happy to see people like this still becoming police officers.
I'm a police recruit with a B.A. in the social sciences, and I read your blog a lot. Granted I am just a recruit and don't know anything at all, but I thought I'd send you some thoughts about your posts on Comey and his remarks.

I do not care at all about "scrutiny." I work for a large, liberal city. We all have dash cameras and are required to tape every call. Body cameras are coming shortly and everybody knows it, and I'm fully in favor of it. I don't care one bit if citizens film. We've talked about it in the academy, and it's part of our training.

What I do care about a lot more is the possibility of being the next Darren Wilson. Everybody in the academy watches every viral video and reads about every controversial police incident that happens in this country. Everybody knows about Ferguson. In Ferguson, a cop defended himself while trying to detain a robbery suspect. The Grand Jury agreed with it and the DoJ's own investigation proved it via forensics and witness interviews. And that cop lives every day of his life in hiding. Wilson has no job, no job prospects, a wife and kid he can't support, half the country thinks he's a murderer, and every news article about him states he is "the white police officer who shot unarmed black teen Michael Brown." His life is over.

So people are idiots if they think cops don't stand out there, see a black guy with some good warrants or who matches the description of a suspect, and think "this stop could cost me everything if he fights and dies - is it worth the risk?" To me, being fresh and new, I say it is. But I definitely understand it when the old guys sit around and say it isn't. Your data from Baltimore shows this quite clearly.

I think most cops recognize scrutiny is important and valid. But they also feel like this is a profession and we are entitled to some professional respect. Nobody tells nurses how to give medicine, or plumbers how to fix piping, but everybody feels the need to referee police use of force even if the extent of their expertise is watching NCIS reruns.

So while police need to be responsive to public opinion, the public also needs to defer at some point to people with technical expertise on use of force. Certain things cannot bend. If someone tries for my gun, I will kill or maim them until they quit, even if they're 18 and I originally stopped them for jaywalking. If the public refuses to accept that, police will pull back because the only other choices are to get fired or get hurt.


Unknown said...

We need more of this. We need more engagement with rank-and-file cops. (Out of curiosity, do police unions have blanket restrictions on their members talking to the media or restrict what they can or cannot say?) When we want to know what it's like to work at Amazon, we do not interview only Jeff Bezos. The more that cops speak about the job the less inclined, perhaps, public commentators will be to fill in the blanks with their ideology of choice. More precision, fewer generalities -- usually a good thing.

This professional analogy that cops like to make is an old one (do people tell nurses what to do, etc.). I agree with it up to a point but being a police officer is also very different than being a doctor. The key difference may be coercion: police represent the state and can compel you to do things. They are public servants in the way that doctors are not. So for me the analogy breaks down. I recognize the logic behind this line from the email -- "the public also needs to defer at some point to people with technical expertise on use of force" -- but I also disagree with it politically. The public has a right to scrutinize police conduct. Civilians may not be expert as to whether that conduct was lawful (and they never exclusively determine that anyway) but they have a democratic stake in deciding whether that conduct was right and just.

David Woycechowsky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
john mosby said...

Prof, again please let me get on my hobbyhorse of elite alienation from the police, since this young officer brought it up so well.

What would you think of a police draft as a way to bridge the gap, similar to how critics of the civil-military divide want to bring back that draft?

I think states would be within their constitutional powers to conscript coppers. It might have to be massaged into their militia powers.

If a draft is illegal, then incentives could be created to encourage short-term careers: State college is free if you do 4 years on the street; state grad school admissions give weight to former police applicants; state jobs give hiring preference to former cops, like the federal govt gives preference to military vets.

Also, increased reliance on reserve cops could accomplish many of the same goals. States could enforce job nondiscrimination laws for police reservists the same way they do for the national guard.

The main objection would be that policing can't be learned in such a short time. But it is now anyway, every time a pd has a hiring push and dumps masses of newbies on the street with little guidance or supervision.

Plus, as a corollary to the original post, if ordinary citizens insist on judging the police, we might as well have ordinary citizens be the police.


Unknown said...

I'd like to add one point to the original post as well. The person who did the biggest disservice to Darren Wilson was the police chief of Furguson and the mayor. As it was unfolding, no one said the words 'there was a struggle and Brown tried to grab the officer's gun. We have no further comment. Please wait for the results of the investigation.' By not saying that they suggested that it was indeed a bad shooting. They let the narrative be decided by the (later proven wrong) idea that he was surrendering with his hands up. The police chief and mayor birthed Black Lives Matter and sealed Wilson's damning in the court of public opinion by their incompetence.

When they released the convenience store robbery video, it furthered this idea. That said to thoughtful watchers: 'Sure it was a bad shooting, but look the guy he shot was no angel.'

No one in power suggested he was innocent so I and others assumed he was guilty.

We teach this to companies as well and it applies to government as well. Engage the process and communicate your position. You do not want the conversation to be dominated by naysayers.


john mosby said...

Aren't the people at the top afraid of appearing to influence the investigation, though?

I get what you're saying - I always call it the Neal Peart theory: "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

But would the people deciding a lawsuit or criminal prosecution against the city's top echelon necessarily be Rush fans?


bacchys said...

Hopefully the rookie cop learns the main lesson from Wilson's experience: he stupidly put himself in a bad situation.

Moskos said...

Good points, Andrew. After all this time I almost forgot about Chief Tom "Dumbass" Jackson.

Moskos said...

As to putting your self in a bad situation? I don't know. You get a call for robbery and see people who might be involved. That's the situation cops are supposed to put themselves in. Whether he positioned his car perfectly? I don't know. Got knows I haven't, both on and off the job. But I'm not going to rehash or let others rehash the particulars any more here.

I will say this: isn't it a nice discussion for a police recruit to initiate? And one we should be having.

aNanyMouse said...

In light of the general good sense which has so characterized this blog, this post is quite disappointing, esp. as it touts this reposted email as being an example of a thoughtful cop; looks to me like just more fodder for an echo chamber. The worst of it is the disingenuous analogy about “Nobody tells nurses how to give medicine, or plumbers how to fix piping, but everybody feels the need to referee police use of force….”

Well, I’ve never told nurses how to give medicine, but I sure as hell have told nurses how to peel off a bandage that was sticking to a wound, where the sticking was making the peeling quite painful: “Please, local anesthesia, or something, damnit!” Any “professional” who “puts hands” on other people (possibly causing horrible, immediate pain), is thereby indeed subject to different standards than are plumbers; moreover, patients CAN (often successfully) insist that Nurse Idiot be replaced by Nurse OK, whereas those in cops’ “line of fire” (incl. innocent bystanders, most famously at Waco, from the Feds!) have no say at all on which cop tees off on them, by whatever means he feels like spraying around.
So, any analogy between plumbers and nurses is quite weak, and the analogy between them and cops is outright brutal.

I’m a retired cop, from a family with some history of this, incl. a Deputy Chief (in a major State capital) uncle, who took his responsibility to the public quite seriously: “If you want to be respected as a Professional, you must fulfill your fiduciary duties as conscientiously as do other Professionals!” To which I now add: if the nurses ever threaten to “pull back” in the face of public objections to nurses’ failures to fulfill their fiduciary duties, then the nurses will earn public contempt, esp. if the nurses whine about how “nobody tells plumbers how to fix piping”.

Reposted emails like this make me fear that the Feds’ ability to get away with that Waco BS emboldened a culture of cops (and others?) around the country, to gamble that they can keep pushing the envelope. If this reposted email is now anywhere near being the best example of a thoughtful cop, Heaven help us.

aNanyMouse said...

“If someone tries for my gun, I will kill or maim them until they quit… If the public refuses to accept that, police will pull back…”

As you should(!), PROVIDED that you emphasize “until they quit”, instead of being seen to grasp at straws, via analogies with plumbers and nurses.

These straw-grasps make cops look no better than the teachers’ unions, whose strikes are sold as being “for the kids”, but who are suspected as being just one more special interest pressure group.

Anonymous said...

Aren't the oldsters supposed to get less cantankerous after retirement? Come on now, he limited the example to deadly force and he's got some basis for that gripe. We had people in the comments of this very blog suggest that a cop being attacked in his patrol car should sit on his gun.

aNanyMouse said...

Sorry for seeming cantankerous, and of course he’s got some basis for his beef, but my skin crawls when I read cops digging their graves deeper by pushing arguments which make them sound like morons or BSers. That cops have pushed this analogy for some time, as Alex Elkins says above, is faint solace.

But nurses etc. tend to bust out with derisive laughter, when confronted with such crude misunderstandings (as implied by this analogy) of the nurses’ experiences, just as cops lose patience with those suggesting that a cop being attacked in his patrol car should sit on his gun; folks making such a suggestion are not worth the time to critique them.

I don’t bother being cantankerous with teachers, since I never was one: let ‘em hang themselves with their BS about their strikes being “for the kids”.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

What makes the analogy extra-stupid is the rather obvious fact that I can (and have) fired doctors, plumbers, etc., for providing service in ways I don't like. I can fire a plumber just for being so rude that I don't want them in my house. What the analogy, and the letter in general, indicate is a police officer, and maybe a police force, that's forgotten the value of human life. Yes, if you kill someone, you will be investigated. And yes, if you killed someone who didn't have to die, you should be punished. It's really weird that cops, or anyone, finds that surprising.

Adam said...

Christ, give the guy a break. From this one email you conclude that he has "forgotten the value of human life"? That's just unproductive, overblown rhetoric. This is an email to Prof. Moskos, not an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, so I think he can be forgiven for not phrasing everything perfectly.

As it is, the tone of the letter is pretty fair. He started the relevant paragraph with "I think most cops recognize scrutiny is important and valid." I'm sure he thinks cops, like plumbers, should face consequences when they are rude. He's referring to Monday-morning quarterbacking along the lines of "Why didn't he just sit on his gun"; "Why did he shoot X number of times"; "Why didn't he shoot him in the leg?" and on and on. Those comments grate on police officers, and I completely understand why. Doctors face consequences for malpractice, but not because some random yahoo stands up and says "That looked bad!" Other doctors are called in to evaluate, and they bring their experience and training to bear in assessing whether there was malpractice. Cops would prefer to have their tactics critiqued by someone with at least an iota of relevant training or experience.

Moskos said...

Yeah, what Adam said!

Concerned citizen said...

In these comments, we've heard about:

1. Idiotic nurses ("patients CAN... insist that Nurse Idiot be replaced by Nurse OK")

2. Moronic cops ("...my skin crawls when I read cops...pushing arguments which make them sound like morons...")

3. Rude tradesman ("I can fire a plumber just for being so rude that I don't want them in my house.")

All of which reminds me of the age-old upper-crust refrain, "It's hard to find good help these days."

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

No, I stand by the rhetoric. I can understand how for a cop, like a doctor, a day when they have to kill someone is just another day at the office. But that's not how it is for the rest of us.

What you call "Monday-morning quarterbacking" is what that important and valid scrutiny looks like. Cops hate the idea of civilians judging them, just like teachers hate the idea of parents judging them, and soldiers hate the idea of civilian leadership judging them. But to those objections, the answer is a kind but firm "You're gonna have to deal with it." Because we have seen over and over, as in this very e-mail, that people in the profession lose perspective fast. Killing someone is supposed to be a big deal. When you do it, expect to be scrutinized. If that makes you more reluctant to shoot to kill, I'm okay with that.

Doctors do answer to other doctors. But then, doctors also get a hell of a lot more training than cops, and are held to much higher standards (including loss of license). And that doesn't prevent doctors from being sued for malpractice quite a bit, and having to carry insurance for it. If we could sue cops for malpractice, and if cops had to carry insurance to pay out malpractice suits, then maybe the comparison would make sense.

And sorry, Concerned Citizen: Police are the help. Always. The instant police start thinking they are the boss of the citizens, we have a police state, and that's a Bad Thing.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

(for comparison: I'm a teacher. If parents are not happy with what I'm doing---and christ, if I was doing physical violence to kids---I would damn well expect to answer for it. Because I work for them.)

aNanyMouse said...

Seeing that so much of the public is so suspicious of US cops judging their colleagues’ alleged transgressions, maybe we should try some creative thinking.

Since it seems that American cops want only folks with experience as cops (or in related fields) to judge US cops’ conduct, I wonder if they would support panels here having British cops being empowered to render such judgments. (Only Brits have enough cred here; no Chinese, Saudis, or Iranians!)
I should think that British cops would be immune to the sorts of pressures which, the public would fear, might be hurled at any Americans serving on such panels here; and, perhaps, British cops would be less attached to the bad nurses etc. analogy which we’ve been discussing in this thread.

Or perhaps, given this morning’s announcement about “G.I. Joe’s” suicide, maybe the Lake County, IL, brass will have the cred to plausibly serve on such panels!

woolywoman said...

Very well written, but management actually has a lot to say about how nurses give medicine, and every aspect of our job. Even giving us scripts for how we introduce ourselves to the patient and make calls with questions to physicians. All due respect, you guys do a tough job and it seems to only get tougher.