fbpx

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.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on December 30, 2015 at 11:14:19 am

[T]he 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 that 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 share this sentiment, though I might re-characterize the camps.

First, I’d observe that the police shooting cases we hear about represent a tiny minority of police interactions. By definition, they will seem outrageous; otherwise, we wouldn’t hear about them. I’m skeptical that police could ever operate in a fashion whereby no outrages ever occurred; I think that’s asking for the impossible.

So, in a nation of 330 million people, how many “outrages” should we expect to encounter each week? In the absence of a benchmark, I have difficulty evaluating the news we hear about police shootings.

Second, and related to the first point, I would resist characterizing the issue as simply a matter of “good cops” and “bad cops.”

Rather, I see this as a matter of Type I and Type II error. We don’t like error. We can reduce the incidence of Type I error – but only at the expense of getting more Type II error. And we can reduce the incidence of Type II error – but only at the expense of getting more Type I error. There is no error-free option. So society picks the combination of Type I and Type II error we find optimal, and we live with the consequences. But having made such a choice, it really makes little sense to characterize those who inevitably stumble into Type I error or Type II error as “bad,” or to regard the lucky folks who manage to avoid these errors as “good.”

Which doesn’t mean that we might not be able to reduce the trade-offs via better training.

Third, here’s the tough principle/agent problem: I would expect to discover that police tend to err on the side of protecting themselves and other police officers, even at the expense of harming the public. I might want police to shift the trade-off down the scale – giving the public a greater benefit of a doubt, even if this means that the police incur a greater risk of injury or death. But in an uncalibrated environment, it will often be hard to say – up to the standard required for a civil or criminal ruling – that a police officer objectively failed to make the right trade-off. The fact that we make plaintiffs/prosecutors bear the burden of proof will mean that police officers can effectively shift the trade-off in their own favor, with little practical recourse from the rest of society.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on December 30, 2015 at 13:34:52 pm

Having a deadly weapon pointed at you is at once a sobering and adrenaline inducing phenomenon. It is unclear, at best, how one will respond. The nature of individual responses will vary greatly. It is not at all clear the the "shifting of the trade-off down the scale" would actually be a consideration.

However, as in the profession of arms, there are Rules of Engagement which help to determine when deadly force may be property employed. Both Rappaport and Nobody.really emphasize training, and correctly so. Regrettably, too much time is spent providing training for a host of "social issues" (not without some value, mind you); it would perhaps be better to provide ROE training and through repetition of training allow for better outcomes.

It is interesting to observe the performance of a number of police critics when they themselves must undergo training exercises designed to help a police officer distinguish between a viable threat and some innocent bystander. Split second decisions provide a unique difficulty in TRAINING - imagine how much more difficult in real life situations. To the extent that repetitive training AND a clear set of ROE's may minimize adverse outcomes, these tools should be available on a regular basis.

(Just so long as the cops don't have to call back to the JAG Officer (current Army practice) before engaging.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on December 30, 2015 at 14:40:10 pm

[S]o long as the cops don’t have to call back to the JAG Officer (current Army practice) before engaging.

With all the changes in the military, who knows how much engaging we’ll see within the ranks?

>TEN-HUT! I want to see Private Smith and Private Wilson RIGHT NOW – and those are ALL the privates I want to see!

>Oh! Yes, sir! Right away, sir! But, um, you see … uh … we’re engaged….

>Well, DISENGAGE and get back in uniform…!

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on December 30, 2015 at 15:43:00 pm

Luvv'd it!!!!!

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on December 31, 2015 at 02:11:14 am

It is a pleasure to read reasonable, and reasoned, comments on such a volatile issue. As a minor aside, and speaking as both a military veteran and a gun owner since childhood, when a weapon is used it is used to kill. Only in Hollywood and fiction writing does anyone shoot with the intention of wounding or disabling anyone.

read full comment
Image of James D Clarkson
James D Clarkson

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

Related

Metropolitan police

Decentralize the Police

A one-size-fits-all, centralized, bureaucratic service provider for all city services simply cannot satisfy the demands of citizens in many areas.