It is a really simple idea: We would like to be able to support our law enforcement institutions and personnel.
This argument has been going on for a while; cartoonist Jen Sorensen asks an obvious question. Indeed, it is so obvious a question one need not wonder why the public discourse flees it in screaming terror.
So here’s the thing: When an ugly episode arises involving law enforcement, we are reminded that these episodes come about because of a proverbial few bad seeds. Yet these few seem rather quite protected by other police traditions that require the participation of the rest of those allegedly good officers. Didn’t see a thing, or the guy was definitely reaching for a gun, or what, do you want a guilty person to go free just because of a technicality?
But that is just a fallacy, a fundamentally dishonest reaction. It always seems to come down to an all-or-nothing proposition put before us by police supporters.
Consider, please, some consequential decisions:
• A small town nearby has recently dissolved its police force for corruption, racism, and a host of other problems; the city dismissed all its officers and began building a new police department from the ground up. This is not exactly an easy undertaking for a town of under 3,700 people. However, its recently dismissed cops were apparently prime hires for your department, one of them happened to be named Darren Wilson, and he would go on to embroil your department in one of the most controversial police shootings recent history has witnessed. Who would have imagined such an outcome?
• At the edge of the metropolitan area is a small town of just over 7,100, whose police department fired an officer not for any specific problems such as overt racism or corruption, but, rather, because he simply would not be a good cop. The deputy chief, for instance, might note that the officer “could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections”, and became “weepy” during firearms training, a process during which his “performance was dismal”. If you happen to be the police department in the nearby metropolis, why is that officer such a good candidate for your own force? And when the already-troubled department finds itself standing in front of the public telling lies to justify the officer’s shooting of a twelve year-old boy, is there any reason we should be surprised that such a tragedy has occurred?
It’s true we can go on; there is always a question. Consider New York City: Yes, you deliberately violated department policy, resulting in the death of a suspect, but that’s just fine.
Or Seattle: The presupposition of good faith is so tall that we will not prosecute homicidal cops for their perjury or manipulation of physical evidence, either. Because, you know, they’re cops; it’s not so much that they never lie, but because they are law enforcement, they lie in good faith.
And no, there is nothing paradoxical or even questionable about the idea of a law enforcement agent lying in good faith. After all, why do you hate all police like that?
Which is just how the discussion seems to go.
But does it really have to?
Given that the problem is apparently just a few bad seeds, we might expect the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers—the good and decent ones who aren’t criminals—to stand up against corruption in their departments.
Sorensen, Jen. “Quiz time: Back-turning NYPD edition”. Daily Kos. 30 December 2014.
Leonnig, Carol D., Kimberly Kindy, and Joel Achenbach. “Darren Wilson’s first job was on a troubled police force disbanded by authorities”. The Washington Post. 23 August 2014.
Ferrise, Adam. “Cleveland officer who shot Tamir Rice had ‘dismal’ handgun performance for Independence police”. Northeast Ohio Media Group. 3 December 2014.