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

by Peter Moskos

August 17, 2016

"Policing is differentiated from other occupations by the use of coercion"

My colleague Eugene O'Donnell, former cop and prosecutor, writes in The Crime Report about "The 'Post-Policing Era' in America: How Will We Cope?" I don't actually think we are entering "a post-policing era," but it's certainly likely we're going to see police responding to forces asking them to do much, much less of the coercive actions that justify the need for police in the first place:
[Let us discount] the notion that if the police are nice to everyone the world will truly shine. In fact, when the police are doing the enforcement duties that differentiate them from other civilian occupations they are enmeshed in conflict, undertaking work that is adversarial and frequently leaves people smarting.
It's worth quoting this article by O'Donnell at length:
“The policeman is denounced by the public, criticized by the preachers, ridiculed in the movies, berated by the newspapers, and unsupported by prosecuting officers and judges. He is shunned by the respectable, hated by criminals, deceived by everyone, kicked around like a football by brainless or crooked politicians.”

---August Vollmer, police reformer and chief, Berkley, California, 1929.

This is the dawn of the post-policing era in America, and the nation needs to come to grips with how to maintain safety and secure order with cops playing a dramatically reduced role. From coast to coast there is an acute shortage of men and women seeking to be police officers.

Half a century ago, the Kerner Commission envisioned policing as a profession, with baccalaureate- carrying cops. But almost no police department in the county requires, or plans to require, a four-year degree for hiring. It is absurdly out of reach.

In fact, departments with even the most minimal requirements struggle to recruit new officers.
It is dawning on police officers and institutions that the police job is presently undoable in our far too violent and armed nation, and is rapidly becoming utterly impossible without a willingness to shoulder enormous physical and psychic risks and exposure to dire, possibly incarcerative consequences.

To discharge the duties of a job that involves using force, even lethal force, on others in unscripted situations, while a camera records one’s improvised, clumsy and sometimes terrified decision-making for dissection by battalions of armchair second guessers makes this a career choice easily shunned.

(Some reforms are overdue and necessary but cannot be reconciled with the need to find humans to do the work.)
Once individuals have identified their political persuasions, than all issues are framed, and solutions filtered, through those orthodoxies. In fact, political philosophies are pretty useless when trying to accurately identify what a community’s problems are, and fashioning solutions.

Thus, at present, an absurd partisan conversation about who is “pro-police” and who isn’t is a feature of this year’s presidential election. This team-police versus team-citizen approach avoids serious issues and the need to make choices. Only a political knave or a novice offers an affirmative blueprint for keeping the public safe from crime and terrorism: The rewards all flow to they who critique the best and express in the loudest voice the need for empathy and a view of humanity that is distinction free.
Policing’s Hard Truths

Policing is differentiated from other occupations by the use of coercion; thus it is fair to say policing is not infrequently lawfully brutal, but relatively rarely crosses the crime to criminally brutal. To say this in today’s environment is to utter words that are construed as almost hate speech, and subject the speaker to the loudest approbation.
Policing is expected to be the one and only profession that can achieve a fairness that is elusive in every aspect of a market economy. Thus far in Chicago out of nearly 300 homicide victims, almost all are black and a handful, nine, are white. No fairness there. Some construct arguments about the police that omit these shockingly disparate facts, ignoring that these numbers are potent weapons in the hands of the most divisive figures in public life. (And it is worth looking at the faces of the lives snuffed out by this long-running genocide)
The unstated idea that the police are no longer needed has become a mainstay, amongst many elites including those who pen editorials for the New York Times and the Washington Post. Enforcement and incarceration are regarded as evils per se. Last week’s Department of Justice report on the Baltimore police nowhere mentions the toxic implications of allowing shooters to shoot and remain free in their own communities.
Community policing---which is ill defined and amorphous--is once again being offered up as an ameliorative in the midst of our current crisis. It is never quite clear what it is or how it works in a poor or high-crime community, but it advances the notion that if the police are nice to everyone the world will truly shine. In fact, when the police are doing the enforcement duties that differentiate them from other civilian occupations they are enmeshed in conflict, undertaking work that is adversarial and frequently leaves people smarting.
The “police problem and criminal justice systems needs fixing” debate over the past few years has consumed a staggering amount of time, but precious little in the way of solutions that will take us forward into the future--a future where the police will play a much, much reduced role.


Andy D said...

In the vein of the job being impossible and no one wanting to do it, what are your thoughts on the State of Illinois requiring that officers involved in the Laquan McDonald shooting turn over all their personal e-mail accounts to the department for them to review them for anything they said about the shooting. I understand the idea that "public business" conducted on a "private email account" shouldn't be shielded just because it was done on a private account...but how would you feel, as someone just thinking about getting into LE if you knew that every dirty joke you ever sent, every mailing list from websites that you belong to, every conversation you ever had with a spouse or girlfriend would have to be handed over to your employer for them to search through looking for "relevant" emails about work? What member of a younger generation would feel comfortable with that kind of lack of privacy?


Moskos said...

I didn't know that.
I'm generally not in favor of the government looking into my email!

In this case, where it's pretty clear a crime has occurred (in terms of conspiracy/cover-up), seems to me they can be subpoenaed just like anything else, right? Except this isn't related to a criminal case. It's a FOIA request:

"This binding opinion will hopefully make clear that public employees cannot evade FOIA by using private devices when conducting public business," said John Costello, a Chicago public-access lawyer.

That does seem reasonable, at face value, doesn't it? But it still kind of creeps me out.

Anonymous said...

Depolicing has got to happen- except it won't be by a managed design, it'll be haphazard and messy with politicians demanding that cops do more while prosecuting them the minute they do. How easy would it be to have let Freddie Gray flee? Except you can't know who is going to be the next Freddie Gray, or Michael Brown, so isn't it just easier to assume anyone you try and stop can be? And if you do that, what stop is worth it anymore?

Heck, in Milwaukee, *as far as we yet know*, an officer shot and killed a (black) man who was apparently holding a pistol. Not in his pocket, not somewhere in his car- in his hand. No one seems to be disputing this. Yet we see riots. The (black) officer in question now has to go into hiding because his name is plastered all over social media and now the regular media with death threats rolling in against him and his family. CNN posts an article (http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/17/us/milwaukee-police-shooting/) that strikes me as little more than a hit piece on the officer, asserting unsourced rumors and allegations against him- including suggestions that he killed the armed suspect because of a high-school grudge (the suspect was more popular)! This is an officer that grew up there and probably became a cop to make his neighborhood better... and look what it gets him. Meanwhile nowhere in the report is there mention of the suspect's criminal history or even one of the selfies he took aiming the same loaded gun at the camera.

It's one thing to know that, as a cop, you can do things right and still get killed. But now cops are learning again and again that you can do things right and still be turned into the most public of villains and have your life ruined. Meanwhile the suspect that is probably the subject of many frantic neighborhood 911 calls becomes lionized the moment he dies at the hands of police responding to those calls.

Andy D said...

Interestingly on the e-mail front I was told by another person who worked in state government in another state that he was told that if he even accessed his personal e-mail while at work that its contents fall under FOIA. I certainly was never advised of such a situation and I'm sure a lot of other cops have never been either. I can see that a subpoena (where I would turn over the "relevant" emails under penalty of perjury) or a search warrant (which would require Probable Cause to show that there is evidence of a crime in my personal emails) could apply, but if my personal e-mail is accessible by FOIA then do I have ANY privacy at all? News organizations can make a FOIA request for ANYTHING in my life at that point and I would be required to allow my employer to look through everything in my life just to see if there might be "relevant" things in there. I'm not saying this isn't the case but the thought that this is true of not just every cop but every school teacher and DMV clerk in the country seems insane, especially when it is so difficult to obtain ACTUAL official government communications under FOIA.

aNanyMouse said...

Thorn, you're right about that CNN piece. Where they quote ret. P.O. Jackson about how younger officers are taught to show people in the community "who's boss and keep them in fear of you", what's up with that? Is this taught in the Academy, or only in certain districts by FTOs, and, if so, might there be good reason to teach this in those districts?
Seeing that this piece says nothing about any effort to get Smith's side of the story, we must assume no effort was made. Thanx for nothing, CNN!

I recall a time when it was considered standard journalistic practice to get all relevant sides of a story, but recent decades have seen a virtual collapse of such standards.
It's as if the Media brass want the US to degenerate into a Mogadishu. If cops etc. wash their hands of trying to keep the worst elements (on Main St. or Wall St.) from pillaging at will, we may well see Mogadishu here.

Jay Livingston said...

"The unstated idea that the police are no longer needed has become a mainstay, amongst many elites including those who pen editorials for the New York Times and the Washington Post. Enforcement and incarceration are regarded as evils per se."

When I read a passage like this -- a statement which is patently untrue -- it makes me immediately skeptical about the rest of what the author is saying. He may be correct in much of the rest of what he says, but I'm less ready to accept it.