Recent weeks have seen several cases of police and/or prosecutorial misconduct. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York, NY are well-known, but by no means the only cases. I wrote yesterday about the tragic outcome of a police raid in Haversham County, Ga., and also learned of the acquittal of a Fort Bend, TX man after what appears to be a gross abuse of power by the law enforcement authorities (according to another source, the police lied to a judge in order to obtain a warrant). In throwing out a lawsuit in the latter case, a judge ruled:
“There is no freestanding constitutional right to be free from malicious prosecution.”
Sounds unbelievable, doesn't it? - but it's true. That's the legal reality we face.
These are only a few of the many accusations of bias, incompetence and egregious abuse of authority leveled against law enforcement agencies and officers every year. Radley Balko has done a great job of documenting them in his book and his regular articles in the Washington Post. The ACLU and other organizations have also put a great deal of energy into documenting and exposing such cases.
Police, on the other hand, respond that the public doesn't really understand the stresses of the situations in which they find themselves. Some appear to believe that everyone's against them, and have therefore adopted an "us-versus-them" attitude. Others take refuge in the "thin blue line" mythos, defending each other no matter what, always taking the side of brother and sister officers irrespective of the details of the case.
The trouble is, with perceptions of police overreach so widespread (and, let's face it, so widely justified in terms of the number of reported incidents), there's a growing over-reaction among certain sectors of the public, who now regard police - all police - as "the enemy". They're not discriminating against the few bad cops who spoil things for the many decent ones. They're simply lumping all law enforcement personnel together, and all their actions, and condemning them all.
That's what appears to have led to the murder of two NYPD officers yesterday. The gunman posted online that he was "putting pigs in a blanket" in revenge for the death of Eric Garner. He walked up behind the policemen as they sat in their car and shot them both in the head. They may never have seen the man who killed them. He'd earlier shot his girlfriend (who survived), then committed suicide when pursued by police into a subway station. The police officers involved were completely innocent of any involvement in the Garner case; but that didn't matter to the gunman. There was another attempted shooting of police officers in New York, but this one fortunately ended without any casualties. A third incident was the shooting of an off-duty police officer in St. Louis, Mo. a couple of days ago. We don't yet have many details, but the circumstances appear to suggest a deliberate attack on him solely because he was recognized as a police officer - at least, there's been no mention of any other possible motive.
More and more, it appears that any and all police officers are regarded by a large segment of our society as complicit in the Brown, Garner and similar cases mentioned above. They're perceived to be "guilty by association", whether or not they themselves have anything to do with police overreach. Given the widespread - and seemingly increasing - abuse of authority by many police officers and agencies, one can hardly be surprised by such a development; nor by its expression in attacks on individual officers as a form of "revenge" against the "system". I'm sure there'll be more such incidents.
This is the inevitable result of police attitudes, practices and procedures that emphasize their authority over the people's. I submit that many cops no longer see themselves as public servants, but as public masters. They insist that their authority be recognized and instantly obeyed, or else.
This is the diametric opposite of what Sir Robert Peel, founder of the forerunner of all modern police forces in democratic societies, saw as essential for success. The nine "Peelian Principles" remain a seminal contribution to the theory of law enforcement. They are:
- To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
- To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
- To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
- To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
- To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
- To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
- To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
- To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
- To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.
There's more at the link.
I can already hear the scoffing from police officers that those principles are utterly outdated when dealing with a society that regards the rule of law as nothing more than a polite fiction. I can't blame them; our politicians and leaders in other spheres often appear to honor our laws more in the breach than in the observance. Needless to say, our citizens all too often take their cue from their leaders (or is it the other way around?) Nevertheless, any officer of the law who enters upon his career regarding the people he's called to "protect and serve" as the enemy rather than his peers and fellow citizens is riding for a fall. Sooner or later, someone's going to provide one for him.
I don't have an answer to the current situation. I only know that police have overstepped the bounds of their legitimate authority on all too many occasions; that innocent citizens have, indeed, suffered unjustly as a result (remember Salvatore Culosi? Jose Guerena? Kathryn Johnston? Cory Maye? Three of them are dead. Many others have suffered greatly - check the list of cases of police brutality for yourself.) With so many cases on record, and more being added seemingly every week, is it any wonder that an increasing number of our citizens regard the police as the enemy?
At the same time, I think that law enforcement authorities have a point that their indisputable authority as enforcers of the laws passed by those we, the people, elect, is increasingly disregarded. If we don't like the laws that are passed, we should make sure we elect representatives who'll repeal them and pass laws more in accordance with our wishes. If we don't do that, we have no right to blame the police for the laws. However, increasingly we live in a society that scoffs at laws. John Adams famously pointed out:
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
We now live in a post-Christian society, where many of our citizens behave in a way that can only be described as immoral and irreligious (at least by the standards of Adams' day). Many also forget that our second President warned:
Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.
I can only hope and pray that our Republic isn't headed there. The size and scale of the conflict between sections of our society and law enforcement doesn't give me much confidence.