Pros on Policing: What's the Problem? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Someone has got to protect us from ourselves.

By Eugene S. Robinson

  • Reforms to the problems inherent in trying to police peacefully go well beyond the thin blue line.
  • Campaign finance reform and judicial appointments are compelling macro places to start.

If guns don’t kill people, because as the folks at the NRA famously have reminded us, people kill people, where does that leave bullets? And in the debate raging across America about how we choose to have peace officers police us, does the answer come close to answering how the people least responsible for setting policy are the ones most often called on to pay the price for enforcing it?

If you’re a solo driver stopped by the highway on the Oklahoma panhandle for driving 77 mph in a 75 mph zone, right around sunset, do you much care? I didn’t, and wouldn’t have as I watched the two police officers in my rearview mirror approach my rental car with their guns drawn.

Or driving with my daughter in sunny Palo Alto, California, as the police officer nervously repeated that he needed to see my driver’s license, but blocked the car door when I said it was in the trunk. As he repeated it again, this time louder and with his hand reaching back to where his service revolver was holstered, while my car-seated daughter watched from the back seat, it really didn’t.

Are racist cops a problem? Yes. But are racist cops the problem? Nope.

Martin Michaels, police lieutenant

As I explained to him, slowly and clearly, that it was going to be impossible for me to retrieve something he had asked for from the trunk if he blocked my door, it was very clear to me how many different ways all of these interactions could have gone. And with citizens getting killed, cops getting fired, protesters getting tear-gassed and passels of people on “both sides” pissed beyond belief, it seemed to make sense, before the screaming has died down, to have a quiet talk with frontline folks in seeking an answer to the question: What the hell is going on?

“Are racist cops a problem?” Martin Michaels, the pen name of a police lieutenant in his mid-40s, slight and bookish, almost professorial, paused before answering: “Yes. But are racist cops the problem? Nope.”

When I counter with something said to me by Cara E. Rabe Hemp, a criminal justice professor at Illinois State University, that “use-of-force problems are pretty consistently caused by a small and known number of officers,” and that there isn’t a watch commander in America right now who wouldn’t weed out the top likeliest trouble employees if they could, only they can’t on account of strong police unions, he calls bullshit.

“Policing is a dirty job,” Michaels says. “Dirtier in high crime areas. So if an officer has use-of-force violations, whether he’s in Appalachia and dealing with poor whites or Chicago dealing with poor Blacks, the optics might look bad.”

But when bodies are tallied, it suddenly becomes about more than optics and very definitely about streets full of people seeking fuller answers. Some of which Fred Klein, a professor at Hofstra Law School, an attorney for 39 years and a prosecutor for 30 of them, thinks he has.

“Look, police unions are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do,” says Klein. “They’re protecting their members.” The problem is larger and much more macro, Klein believes. “The problem is in politicians caving in to them because of campaign contributions. Which brings us back to campaign finance. Something like the Citizens United decision certainly exacerbated that.”

Beyond that Klein digs into what feels like systemic rot to him. A rot that starts with judges. “They have a process in New York state called cross endorsement,” Klein says. Republicans and Democrats get together and choose the judges that they’re going to endorse. Eliminating oversight and side-stepping the election process. They are getting away with this because? According to Klein, “No one pays attention to judicial elections anyway.”

So finance, unions, political parties: what’s left? “There needs to be better oversight of prosecutors too,” says Klein, the former prosecutor, about the often conflicting role played by a conviction-driven prosecutor.

A sentiment seconded by Jesse Kelley, head of federal affairs on criminal justice policy for R Street, a nonprofit public policy research group. “The culture of prosecution has to change and move away from this rhetoric about winning where a ‘win’ is putting someone in the criminal justice system,” Kelley says. And changes have to hit way before then too. “I’d like to see school resource officers replaced by social workers. Which is to say kids should be allowed to be kids and not perpetrators.”

A sort of softer approach that finds some sympathy with Michaels who, when he considers the ACLU’s program on police reform, thinks, “It almost works.” Police pursuit laws, for example, need to be updated since jumping in front of a fleeing vehicle and using that as justification for a deadly force encounter are a slippery slope. “And not much good can come from shooting at or into a fleeing vehicle,” Michaels says.

And so, on that Oklahoma panhandle, after being asked for my driver’s license and offering a single word — “Certainly” — in response, and then again in sunny Palo Alto, after calmly explaining to the police officer whose hand was moving back to his gun in a language he understood where my license was, I managed to not get extrajudicially murdered by “accident” by peace officers. For which I am very pleased.

Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, signaling that reform is a bottom up type of deal, just took the Obama Foundation pledge and is looking both to review and reform police use-of-force policies in the spirit of trust but verify. Up to and including addressing the city’s use-of-force policy, limiting the use of chokeholds and making it mandatory that officers intervene when one of their own is using force in violation of state law.

At the very least, “We want to make sure the Jersey City Police Department is fully implementing all the best practices out there,” Fulop said in his pledge. “If you see an officer doing something incorrectly, you have a requirement … you’re obligated to intervene. You are responsible.”

A step in the right direction? Time will tell.

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