Thursday, October 8, 2009


This is not another post about police misconduct.

OK, yes it is, but it's not just another rant about how much there is or how nobody watches the watchers or about the fox guarding the henhouse or whatever. I want to dip into the world of why.

That requires a couple of caveats. (1) I'm not a psychologist; (2) I don't pretend to be a psychologist; (3) I've never been noted for any particular psychological insight.

Mike at Crime & Federalism, has been deliberately unmasking (see here and here for instance) the lie in Justice Scalia's claim in Hudson v. Michigan that there's some sort of geometric increase in "professionalism" by the police these days. Scalia's point was that we didn't need exclusionary rules. Mike's is that cops get away with stuff nobody else would and need to be restrained. And held accountable.

Yesterday, Turley gave us this example of a special needs student, in a school for special needs students, being beaten by the cop in the school for violating the dress code by not having his shirt tucked in.

[The YouTube video is in a post either immediately before or immediately after this one on the page. I'm working at expanding my tech skills, but obviously haven't figured out how to get the video and my commentary in the same post.]

Today, Scott leads with the taken off on the same video, rightly noting that
the school must be cognizant of the noxious mixture of its rules and a violent cop in its hallway
He concludes, with remarkable restraint, really, which isn't normally his hallmark, that
While it goes without saying that no one, no child, no disabled person, no one should be the victim of this type of brutal attack, it is inconceivable that our most vulnerable children are the victims. There is no excuse for this happening. Ever.

At Injustice Everywhere, Packratt leads with the video, too, and follows up with a lengthy rundown of just a few of the things school "resource" officers have done to the children they are there to help. The thing is, there are so many of these stories that cataloguing them becomes exhausting. And while it's useful, always, to remember and note - and to demand prosecution and discipline - including dismissal - it's also useful to step back and consider why there's so damn much of this.

Some, of course, is close to random chance. You give any randomly chosen man (or woman) a uniform and a badge and a gun and some authority and there's a chance it will be misused.

But that same uniform, badge, gun, and authority - even after some psych screening (perhaps by people with no more psychological insight than I have) - lead some (and not a small percentage) to believe that they are due deference. When it's denied, bad things happen, whether to Henry Louis Gates or to a special needs kid in Dalton, Illinios.

And that uniform, badge, gun, and authority also comes with outright power. Consider all the taserings stories. And power leads to its own abuse.

And then we enable it. Cops have what the law calls "qualified immunity." What that means is that if you sue them, unless what they did is a violation of "clearly established law," they get away with it. And you'd be amazed at how much law isn't clearly established. (For a recent example, just think of 13-year-old Savana Redding who was strip searched because, after all, she might have had an ibuprofen in her underwear. The search was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court said, but the school officials who did it weren't liable because they couldn't have known it was improper.)

As they're commonly immune from suit, so they're rarely subject to internal discipline. When they are, it's often either a slap on the wrist or later retracted. And how it's then the innocent citizen victims who get blamed. (Remember the cop from Cincinnati twice fired and twice rehired for separate sex offenses? The police in Jericho? Brian Miller in Lawrenceburg, Indiana? The undercover cops in Toccoa, Georgia? All blogged about here.)

And there's that code, that blue line of silence, the sense that we're good and they're bad so we are always fine.

In Toledo, the other day, some guys were on trial for assaulting cops. The verdict didn't go as the state (and the cops) hoped. See, the jury just didn't believe the police version of what happened. That led to considerable community outrage, including this letter to the editor of the Blade from Danielle Dressel, the widow of an officer killed on the job. She writes:
The detectives were doing their jobs, working on an ongoing investigation, when they were called names by these attackers. The detectives identified themselves as police officers. These men not only physically attacked the detectives, but attempted to steal their guns and badges. Out of the seven men who attacked our officers, only three were tried, and only one was convicted of misdemeanor assault. This is tragic.
Don't misunderstand me. I feel for her. But she wasn't there. She doesn't know that the officers were called names. She doesn't know that they identified themselves. She doesn't know that the defendant's tried to steal guns and badges. She believes it because it's the police version. She believes it because she's on their side. She believes it because to her, all cops are victims. I understand why she might feel that way given her history. But her blind belief that whatever the police say is true, that infallibility (if not invulnerability) comes with the job doesn't make it so.

The jury knew better. So the jury must be at fault.

And the Blade gave her the forum. (There's a responsive letter in today's paper.)

The people who choose the uniform, the badge, the gun, and the authority are a self-selected bunch. For many, perhaps most, it's a noble calling and they act with the honor and integrity and humility the job demands. But it demands too a set of attitudes and behaviors that make those things difficult to sustain. And it encourages, in many, already existing counter tendencies.

Look, we need police. They do a difficult, often dangerous, commonly thankless job. They face abuse and hostility on a regular basis. (Gee, they're beginning to sound like criminal defense lawyers.) But it's important that we be in charge, not they. The level of police misconduct we see, the abuses, the horror stories too often captured on video - video they knew was there fergodssake - reflects a sense of entitlement and, sorry Mrs. Dressel, invulnerability. And they have those things because we endow them.

As we give, we can take back.

Simple reminder: They work for us. But only if we insist on it.


  1. "He concludes, with remarkable restraint, really, which isn't normally his hallmark..."


  2. Good post with good points. The responsive letter lays it out pretty well.

  3. I disagree that their job is thankless. They get thanked by each meeting of the legislatures and by the local governments. They get laws especially protecting them from us, but we don't get any protecting us from them; e.g they get BLEO (enhanced battery-more time)-we don't get an enhanced sentence for them when they batter us. Even their dogs get enhanced protection. The cops also get the best retirement, and pay-$40/hr for sitting on their butts at a construction site, time and half for mandatory appearances in court, etc. When one of them dies, cops from all over the country come, and the widow gets $400,000 fron the Federal government. Don't tell me the job is thankless. It is overly thanked.