Sunday, December 21, 2014

Police, Danger, and the Social Contract

I was blogging about the police tonight, and about the responses to protests of police brutality. Then I heard about the shooting of two police officers in New York City,  so the rest of that post (and some of the others I have been working on) will have to wait.

The first thing I want to say is that absolutely nothing justifies this. Nothing justifies the murder. And if the murderer committed his crime in the service of any reasonable cause, he has set back that cause tonight. You don't get justice for Eric Garner, or for anyone else, by vigilante revenge. That only makes the problem worse.

We live in a culture where the police (who face real danger in their work) have been taught -- indeed, actively trained -- to be excessively fearful, to the point where some officers will put citizens' lives and safety at substantial risk rather than face some very small risk themselves. (For example, they might apply a chokehold to a suspect who's already being held on every side by several officers, and who can't free either of his arms. What danger that was meant to eliminate is hard to say.) Basically, the logic is that every possible trace of danger should be eliminated, which is impossible. So the effort to eliminate all danger generally means being extremely aggressive in situations that aren't actually that dangerous.

But that culture of fear is not helped by randomly killing police officers. It's fear that's driving the aggression, and the fear is fed by the potential randomness of the danger. Cops being killed without seeing the danger coming translates, in our current atmosphere, into cops being hyper-aggressive in situations of minimal danger because, "You never know."

Killing two cops in an ambush won't break up the mindset that killed Eric Garner, Killing two cops at random feeds the mindset that killed Eric Garner. When the police have been convinced that they could die at any moment, they take crazy and dangerous steps against people who actually pose no threat to them.

But anyone pointing at this murder as justifying that bad and crazy policing is a mistake. This doesn't justify anything. And the NYPD's aggression on the street will not, cannot, protect them from things like this. Saying they need to get tough with non-violent offenders in misdemeanor arrests because they could be killed in an ambush makes no sense. That strategy creates new problems without solving the old one.

The ugly truth is, police officers (like every other human being) are extremely vulnerable to a surprise ambush with a gun. Two police officers were killed this way in Las Vegas this year, gunned down by anti-government nuts while eating lunch. And obviously, the Tsarnaev brothers ambushed and killed an MIT campus cop last year. The method is the same every time: come up behind a police officer and shoot. The attacks in all three cases came out of the blue, and there was nothing that the officers could have done to protect themselves. It's not a question of police tactics. None of those cops had a chance.

But this is where the current approach to police work, the attempt to eliminate any and all potential danger, breaks down. You can never eliminate all danger. You can never even eliminate all mortal danger. Every police officer -- and every police officer's family -- has to live with that small, terrible chance. (I am a police lieutenant's son myself; I know exactly what this feels like.) There is always a little danger that you can't foresee or protect yourself from. But you definitely can't get rid of that uncontrollable danger by getting extra tough when there is no danger. Someone with a gun could always come up behind you. You can't protect yourself from that by choking an unarmed guy who's selling loosies on the street. That only creates more problems.

Least of all should the Mayor of New York, or other people who have legitimately criticized police tactics, be blamed for a crime against police officers. Police work is too important to be shielded from any criticism, and the difference between good and bad police work is much, much too important for bad cops to get a free pass. When police work becomes so recklessly bad that unarmed civilians are getting killed, when the police have actually become a cause of violence on the street, then the civil authorities have a duty to look into that. They would be derelict if they did NOT investigate.

In fact, the police are safest when they have strong civic oversight. In the end, the police's greatest protection is the social contract, which they are meant to enforce. The public support the police because the police protect them. If they endanger the public instead, the social contract breaks down. If ordinary citizens know there's a legitimate grievance process that works, and that they are safe from needless aggression by the police, the cops are safest and most respected. But when those legitimate outlets do not exist, or break down, then people are wrongly tempted to redress by illegitimate means. A breakdown of the social contract leads to unpredictable violence. And that puts everyone in more danger.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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