As a general notion, I think it is healthy when our society examines “the way things are,” and imagines how “things might improve.” Were this not true, then we would probably not have the Food and Drug Administration and still suffer from the poor state of food processing industries in the early 1900s.
On the other hand, not everything about our society is broken or needs fixing. As a case in point, writing for the Wall Street Journal, Karl Marlantes suggests that our problem with police is that they tend to view themselves as warriors, rather than peacekeepers, and see criminals as “the enemy,” rather than as mis-directed citizens. For the present time, I’ll ignore the illogical conclusion that a person who is trying to kill you, or do you harm, isn’t an enemy.
Marlantes argues that police officers who see themselves as warriors incorporate three behaviors that are inappropriate in community policing: (a) choosing a side, (b) dehumanizing the enemy, and (c) reacting rather than thinking when threatened.
Well, what to say?
Norman Rockwell: The Runaway
Police officers do choose sides. They do that when they take their oath of office. They swear to uphold the Constitution and laws of the state and municipality whom they serve. As for dehumanizing citizens and “reacting when threatened,” we should make a few assumptions. We should:
Assume that police departments select the best candidates for police positions, rather than striving to meet affirmative action mandates that gives precedence for employment to people grouped according to skin color, ethnic or religious preferences, or gender. It would be interesting (and helpful) to know, of the officers indicted or fired for egregious behaviors, the percentage having no business wearing a badge to begin with.
It is not likely we will ever know this because municipalities always hide information that places them in a poor light, or which may subject them to high dollar lawsuits.
Presume that police academies and agencies, which undergo recurring formal evaluations for agency certification, adequately train their officers to deal with a myriad of confrontations (understanding that there is no one solution to every conceivable problem), and how to relate to a wide range of individuals, from the drug-induced moron wielding a knife to the obnoxious judge who was pulled over for driving erratically.
Assume that police agencies promote experienced officers to supervise and guide younger, less experienced officers in the performance of their duties.
Assume that since police officers are human beings, they will occasionally make errors in judgment, no matter how well academies and departments train them, and that police errors will continue receiving scrutiny in the press, in the courts, and by citizen review boards.
Mr. Marlantes argues that the “warrior mentality” is emphasized when police departments incorporate combat-style clothing and equipment. He cites “military style vehicles” and weapons used in Ferguson, Missouri. He attributes this to a Pentagon program.
I’m not arguing with his point (with caveat), but this wasn’t a Pentagon program; it was an Obama initiative. On the other hand, the caveat, we do no favors for our communities when criminals show up better armed and better protected than our frontline police officers. In mentioning Ferguson, Mr. Marlantes failed to note that in Michael Brown’s death, the police officer (dressed in normal clothing and armed with a standard sidearm) was fighting for his life with a 300-pound man.
If we are going to have this conversation, it needs to be an honest discussion.
Mr. Marlantes is a former (highly decorated) combat arms officer. I cannot speak to his experiences in the Vietnam War, but I can say that while an infantryman will occasionally “get spooked,” the American infantry emphasizes fire discipline. Combat isn’t for Neanderthals. Success in combat requires men and leaders who can think through the problem, remain calm, and impose their will on a determined enemy.
When Mr. Marlantes suggests that our warriors are trigger-happy, unthinking reactionaries, he unacceptably diminishes our military men and women, their NCOs, and their combat leaders —and he also paints with too broad a brush our thousands of fine police officers, all of whom place their lives on the line every single day, and thousands of whom have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Are our police officers at war with the people they serve? The answer must depend on where they serve. I cannot imagine any Chicago cop who reports for work at the start of watch who realistically thinks that he’ll be able to retire someday. Who in their right mind would want to be a cop in Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Miami, St. Louis, Houston, or any of a dozen or so other American cities?
This is an important conversation to have—and have had in the past. That such a topic has garnered our attention in the past is why we no longer have Texas Rangers extra-judicially hanging horse thieves.
But if we intend to have this conversation, let’s be honest with one another in the discussion. I wasn’t present, but it is possible that the young fellow who died while in police custody in Minneapolis shouldn’t have been placed in dire straits for such an extended period. The truth of what happened will be revealed to us from court proceedings. But in all honesty, the young man was no community hero. For starters, let’s stop creating unwarranted perceptions.
Yes, we do need good policing; we also need good citizenship. If a police officer tells you that he’s placing you into custody, the best possible advice is to submit to his authority. You’ll have your day in court. That’s the time and place to argue, not before. Meanwhile, let’s stop bashing police who probably don’t deserve it.
Mustang also blogs at Fix Bayonets and Thoughts From Afar