The Police: A Middle Ground

The police situation in the United States is distressing.  Amidst charges that the police regularly engage in misconduct, especially towards minorities, it seems like much of the country is split into two camps: 1) those who believe the police often engage in misconduct and therefore more needs to be done to address their misbehavior and 2) those who believe the police almost always behave properly and who emphasize that harm that occurs to minority communities when the police are unable or discouraged from doing their job.

I don’t really understand why one needs to choose one or the other of these camps. On the one hand, it seems obvious to me that many police officers often engage in wrongful behavior, ranging from the relatively unimportant (requiring citizens to treat them with great deference or hassling them when they don’t) to the horrific (shooting citizens in the back for no good reason). Also quite distressing are the special rules, promoted by police unions, that grant officers charged with wrongdoing special privileges and the code of behavior of officers who lie and cover up for another.

On the other hand, it seems equally obvious that many police officers who are accused of wrongful conduct actually behaved properly, that being a police officer is a dangerous job, and that the good they can do (by protecting the public from violence) is enormously valuable. Good police officers deserve our respect and gratitude.

Why can’t one believe both of these claims? I certainly do. There is serious police misconduct, important reforms of police departments and laws are needed, but protestors often exaggerate the harms and often protest officers who have behaved properly.

One key issue is how the police are trained. For example, the police are typically trained to shoot to kill if they perceive themselves to be at risk. It is not obvious this is the morally correct procedure, even though the police may like it. As this example illustrates, the problem is that a middle ground is not being pursued.

Nor is the problem limited to situations of deadly force. Consider the simpler issue of a South Carolina school girl who refused to put her phone away when ordered by a police officer to do so.  The officer violently threw her to the ground in a way that seems quite shocking. But what should the police officer have done?

On the one hand, the officer’s behavior seems overly aggressive. But some of the alternatives proposed seem too timid (such as proposing that the teacher ask the class to leave if the disruptive student does not comply). If a police officer needs to get involved, are there not intermediate solutions? The use of pressure points and arm manipulations can often be quite effective, yet this was not pursued. Why not?

My sense – and I am certainly no expert – is that police training needs to be reviewed. If police are being trained improperly – teaching them to shoot to kill too often, not teaching them effective techniques to ensure compliance without excessive violence – then there will continue to be confrontations between the police and the public that could have been avoided.