This has been a tough week for American police. They’re learning the hard way that in today’s world, the cell phone is mightier than the gun.
Someone Is Always Watching
First, there was Alton Sterling. He made a small living trafficking in illegal goods – specifically, bootleg CDs. In the small hours of Tuesday morning, the Baton Rouge police put a stop to it. A widely-circulated cell phone video shows police forcing him to the ground and restraining him. Resistance is minimal; he clearly isn’t planning to put up a fight. Then, the officer further away from the camera shouts something about a gun. The closer officer draws his weapon, pauses for a sickening moment as if contemplating what to do, and shoots the restrained man at point-blank range.
If you can watch this video without expletives, you’re more civilized than I am.
The hits keep coming. Last night, here in my own Twin Cities, 32-year-old Philando Castile was fatally shot by the St Anthony Police Department. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, narrates the incident live on her cell phone, projecting a remarkable calm as she explains how she and Castile were pulled over for a broken tail light. According to Diamond, Castile was a licensed carrier, and warned the officer in advance that he had a gun on his person, but was only reaching for the requested documents. She pans the cell phone over to show Castile, who is drenched in blood. According to her narration, he was shot four times. We never see the officer’s face, but the drawn weapon is still visible through the passenger window as she speaks.
We don’t have official forensic reports on either of these events. This is especially significant in Castile’s case, since the video doesn’t actually show the shooting. Let’s not kid ourselves, though. This looks incredibly bad.
How interesting that these tragedies would occur just as conservatives were launching into a fresh round of indignation over the “war on cops”.
Is There A War On Cops?
Conservatives like cops. We’re law and order people, so we need to believe that the good guys are the ones with the badges. We’re anxious to do our part to protect the boys in blue from race-baiting liberals and delusional social justice warriors.
This summer, the trendy conservative phrases have been “Ferguson Effect” and “the war on cops”. Both can be traced back to Heather Mac Donald, whose newly-released book argues that cops are policing cities less aggressively, in response to negative publicity from liberal politicians and social justice warriors. That laxity, Mac Donald argues, has had some dire consequences, most notably a spike in homicides across several American cities.
It’s slightly odd for a longtime police apologist like Mac Donald to paint cops as such a sensitive and highly-strung crowd. It’s true that police officers have been more scrutinized of late, and particular politicians and pundits have made unreasonable accusations. Still, actual police fatalities have been at historic lows over the past few years, and while the number of indictments has ticked up slightly, exceedingly few are ever convicted for on-duty fatalities. Given the sacrifices they’ve made, cops do deserve a margin of error, as well as some benefit of the doubt when the evidence surrounding a fatal shooting is inconclusive. The evidence suggests, though, that they’re already getting that, which makes it hard to justify the sort of widespread laxity in law enforcement that would provoke a “Ferguson effect” crime spike.
Despite this, Mac Donald seems to think that we should address policing problems by redoubling our full-voiced support for the boys in blue. Only when cops feel fully and unambiguously supported can we expect to see good policing, and safer neighborhoods.
Corruptio Optimi Pessima
Policing is an honorable profession. A cop is a person who has volunteered to put his own safety on the line to protect yours. That’s impressive, and we should respect it.
Here’s the thing about honorable professions, though. When people are entrusted with noble and good work, it’s always possible that they might betray that trust. The consequences of that betrayal can be very ugly indeed. In the words of the ancients, corruptio optimi pessima. The corruption of the best produces the worst.
When a profession commands our respect, we often feel tempted to “virtue-cloak” it, insisting against all opposition that members of that profession really are what we know they should be. This is a natural impulse, especially in a fractious society where political narratives dominate public life. We understand how easily cops can become scapegoats for progressive liberals with an agenda. They deal daily with the grim effects of social breakdown, and when those confrontations take a tragic turn, liberals would much rather blame the “racist” police than acknowledge the bitter fruits of the sexual revolution and the welfare state.
We shouldn’t allow that sort of scapegoating. Still, that’s not the only relevant danger. Virtue cloaks can be perilous in their own way. They give cover to real and serious misdeeds, particularly in professions (like policing) where people already have a strong, natural tendency to circle the wagons and protect their own. When alarming police shootings occur, that should prompt us to ask: Are these rare aberrations? Or have we, by reflexively defending law enforcement at every turn, helped create conditions in which corruption and brutality can proliferate unchecked?
The Perils of Virtue-Cloaking
We’ve seen this pattern before in other professions. Ask the Catholic Church what happens when an intense concern with public image induces leadership to ignore a growing avalanche of red flags. Pope John Paul II (now a canonized saint) was in most respects an inspiring leader and an intensely holy man. Nevertheless, his strong commitment to developing and ennobling the priesthood gave him something of a blind spot when it came to bad priests. When rumors trickled upwards that priests were abusing minors, the pontiff seems to have assumed that this just couldn’t be true.
Some have suggested that the Soviets once used allegations of sexual misconduct to undermine and discredit good priests. The young Karol Wojtyla (who would later become Pope John Paul II) got used to dismissing such charges as so much anti-clerical hot wind. It’s easy to understand how that could happen. Plenty of modern people hate the Church! But in this case, tragically, it wasn’t hot wind. When the horrific realities of priestly sexual predation came to light, the Church suffered a blow from which it has yet to fully recover.
Obviously, the tragedy was devastating for the victims of abuse, and their families. The Church’s reputation was also badly tarnished. The fallout still affects rank-and-file Catholics by the millions, as punishing lawsuits push dioceses into bankruptcy. Unsurprisingly, the crisis deepened an already-dire vocations crisis, and good priests suffered immensely through 2000’s. Just ask a cleric how it felt in 2002, when parents would see him in the frozen food aisle and shepherd their kids in the opposite direction.
Last January, on Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, Ted Cruz described the police as modern-day Levites, our priests clad in blue. Perhaps some people liked that image. I shivered.
The Warning Signs Are There
Even those who favor quasi-sacerdotal policemen should be more cautious. To the attentive and unbiased eye, the red flags are already there, indicating that many American police departments need more transparency, and better oversight.
Let’s start here. Why are there so many fatal police shootings in the United States? The gap between our nation and our European counterparts is eye-popping. Since 1990, Great Britain has had a total of 60 deadly police shootings. The city of Chicago beat that number in just five years. Meanwhile, across the US there were more than a thousand fatal police shootings in 2015, and we’re on track to match that number again this year.
These are very big numbers. Different societies are different of course, and there are lots of ways to explain statistical disparities, but can we first allow ourselves the obvious and natural reaction? Wow.
It isn’t always easy to get definitive information on police shootings. Unless someone was standing on hand with a cell phone, we may not have the kind of evidence could definitively tell us whether a shooting was justified or not.
Consider this, though. The statistical differences between police departments are sometimes quite big, even when we control for obvious things like crime rates. Despite its crime-susceptible population and its liberal-narrative-obsessed mayor, New York City has an admirably low number of police-related deaths. The same cannot be said of Kern County, California, which led the Big Apple last year in fatal shootings even though it has an average homicide rate and a tenth the population.
When historically high-crime cities see above-average numbers of police shootings, that’s unsurprising. When high numbers of shootings correspond in noteworthy ways to a lack of transparency, enthusiasm for the death penalty, or longstanding habitual support for tough-0n-crime policies, that should generate more concern.
Here’s another interesting fact: Police departments across the nation are paying out a fortune in lawsuits. This trend started before Black Lives Matter, and has led to the largest 10 police departments paying out more than a billion dollars in settlements since 2010. Is this just another symptom of our cop-hating, litigious culture? Perhaps, but a rise in legal hush money might also be a sign that police misconduct is more widespread than most conservatives want to believe.
The Right Way To Defend Cops
We owe it to the public, but also to good cops, to concern ourselves with these details. Honest cops don’t deserve to be tainted by the misdeeds of others. They inevitably will be, though, if an avalanche of ugly incidents persuade the public that the police are out to kill them.
Let’s suppose, sometime over the next few years, that Black Lives Matter and its supporters unearth a host of incidents like the ones seen this week. Suppose we find ourselves flooded with damning footage, skillfully buried police reports, and quietly settled lawsuits involving violent and undisciplined cops. Have conservatives positioned ourselves to defend good cops in such a circumstance? We’ve been telling people for a long time that “police brutality” is mostly a trumped-up canard of social justice warriors. If that turns out to be substantially untrue, how much credibility will mainstream conservative pundits have left?
Before we lose our cool over irresponsible political rhetoric, we should consider for a moment how much worse things could get. It’s true that many liberals would like to blame the police for a host of social ills. Most of their beloved social programs have had some awful social consequences, so it soothes them to think that policing might be the real problem. Many liberals would surely love to seize the advantage and start pinning all our social problems on the cops. At the moment, though, the public seems reasonably skeptical; the police remain of our most trusted institutions, and those numbers have remained relatively stable over the past twenty years. That could change, however.
It’s worth noting at this juncture that some libertarian outlets have been far more assiduous about considering evidence of problematic police aggression. Radley Balko, the Cato Institute, and Reason Magazine have all given coverage to policing issues; from another angle, The American Conservative has published some very circumspect pieces on justice issues. Still, most mainline conservative publications remain devoted to building up the “priests in blue”.
Police Reform Can Help Everyone
We should by all means defend cops against unjust accusations and tendentious political statements. We should be zealous about publicly exonerating individuals who are unfairly maligned by politically-interested parties. Ferguson’s Officer Darren Wilson is the obvious example, and he deserves whatever amends can now be made to him after the firestorm of criticism that sent him and his family into hiding, following what now definitely seems to have been a reasonable and justified shooting.
Still, before we accustom ourselves to tendentious phrases like “Ferguson effect”, we should make a concerted effort to understand the situation. Most importantly, we should always be looking for ways to make things better. Don’t we want to halt the evident deterioration of relations between citizens and the police in many of America’s higher-crime neighborhoods. It’s bad for all concerned when residents and cops feel like mutual enemies. Our interest in addressing that problem should outweigh our anxiousness to insist that liberals and their constituents bear the full blame.
Mac Donald is right to remind us that good cops deserve our respect. It’s also undoubtedly true that policing will attract more good men if it is held in high esteem. In the long run, though, we won’t be able to achieve that through head-in-sand denials of real problems. Law enforcement will only command the public’s respect by earning it, and by responding appropriately to genuine misconduct.
There are a number of ways that we might improve policing while still supporting the police. I recommend this article for an overview of some of the “low-hanging fruit”, which includes higher transparency and an improved awareness of mental illness. We need to think seriously about what forms of oversight are most effective. We should work on curbing the power of police unions, which predictably resist transparency.
It all begins, though, with good-faith engagement. Cops are not blue-clad priests, and a badge isn’t a license to kill. For everyone’s sake, conservatives need to work on new strategies for protecting American citizens from the people who should protect them.