LOS ANGELES, October 23, 2014 – A number of stories that surfaced recently, put a sharp focus on the divergence in behavior among law enforcement officers; those that are endeavoring to “protect and serve” and others who are by definition of their actions, criminals with police uniforms and badges.
With all the stories about police misconduct, excessive force and outright criminal assault on citizens, it may appear that there is more corruption within the ranks than ever in our country’s history. A careful reading of history proves this not to be the case.
And, while we report abuses without hesitation, it is only a matter of fairness that demands that we point out individuals that are exemplary in their conduct as well. The truth is that the majority of officers are dedicated to serving the communities they work in with dignity and professionalism – as demonstrated in this report.
Still, as a society, we have some reasonable and unreasonable expectations regarding police. It’s reasonable to expect that the culture of police shift toward respect for civil liberties and that the officer bring the advantages of better training to bear in the workplace -the streets of our cities and towns.
It’s unreasonable to view police officers and sheriff’s deputies as superior moral agents that are not prone to the same character defects, lapses in judgment and emotional spasms that plague the average member of society. They will be the first to point this out.
Failing to grasp this fact, leads us to draw conclusions and form assumptions on a false premise. Realizing that officers are human beings first and police men and women second, aids in assessing the management of public safety agencies and the conduct of officers.
The question then, is why are so many examples of abuse of authority showing up in daily news? Part of the answer is that bad officers and their actions garner more interest from the media and from consumers of news. You are less likely to see the stories about exemplary behavior and professionalism by officers and deputies.
But there are other factors at play, with management, supervision and agency culture. A National Institute of Justice study concluded that not only was field supervision a critical factor in officer interaction with citizens, but that the ‘traditional’ mindset of enforcement in America leans toward aggressive engagements and reliance on the use of force as a habitual means of demonstrating authority.
The authors of the study, find that supervisors are a strong influence on their subordinates’ mode of policing for better or for worse. With a substantial number of the supervisors and trainers, a bellicose and confrontational approach is still the norm.
The style of supervision and the example set by field supervisors can be key in terms of how officers approach their duties. The active supervisor will either demonstrate a problem-solving, community building interaction style, or a confrontational and malignant pattern for emulation.
Then there is training, about which some serious misconceptions exist. One is that a recruit can be molded into a professional officer with positive demeanor and a respectful understanding of the public and limits of force. Another NIJ 3 year study surveyed police recruits at four intervals during training and the first year on the job. It focused on academy ‘reform training’, designed to change recruits’ attitudes in the direction of community-oriented policing and problem-solving approaches.
The findings showed that academy reform training often proved ineffective due to lack of follow up and factors that contradicted the training in day to day performance of duties. More importantly, the research also demonstrated that recruits’ attitudes and beliefs about the nature of policing were already formed prior to academy training:
The best predictors of attitude change were by far the attitudes that recruits brought with them to the academy. In other words, police recruits are not empty vessels to be filled with new attitudes and values related to policing.
If an individual comes to the profession with pre-disposed tendencies of viewing the primary role of enforcement as applying force, very little instruction that contradicts this will impact their thinking and actions on the job.
Another element of officer conduct is the policy of the agency itself. If the agency condones adversarial and un-constitutional officer behavior, officers who are prone to those behaviors will consider their actions endorsed by the city and police administration. Many departments, even when confronted with documentary evidence of felony assaults and gross abuse of authority by officers, maintain a blanket policy of declaring the officer’s actions as ‘approved behavior’.
When you see a department employing SWAT teams for situations not warranting such escalation of force and with abusive treatment of residents that looks more like clearing a hostile village in Afghanistan, you can be certain that it is city approved.
Many departments consider combat veterans as ideal police candidates, without regard to the possible risk that undiagnosed conditions such as PTSD, (Post Traumatic Stress Disorders) are now part of the candidate’s mental health profile. Rules of engagement on the battlefield can in many cases be consciously or unconsciously transferred to patrol duties.
Finally, the influence of police officer unions factors into the equation. Police and city administrators frequently adopt a deferential posture in response to allegations of unlawful conduct, because police unions reflexively defend the union member against disciplinary actions no matter the seriousness of the offense.
A recent Gallup poll showed that only 56 percent of people rated the police as having a high or very high ethical standard as compared with 84 percent for nurses. Incidents like this, where officers substitute their own individual authority in place of legal authority, contribute to those survey results. Notice in this video, how even when the officer is confronted with the actual law, he decides to harass and physically assault the individual anyway:
It’s one thing to see these videos and hear these stories and shake our heads in disapproval. It’s quite another to actually confront city officials in a responsible manner and demand that changes be adopted in policy, supervision and training. That’s the solution to the problem.
Silence is interpreted as consent. If they don’t hear your objections, they assume that what they are doing is acceptable and that you approve. As John Stuart Mill told an audience at St. Andrews College back in 1867, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”