Escalating the avoidance

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 7,995 views 

Recent commentary suggesting citizens should avoid escalation during police interactions to avoid negative outcomes serves only to escalate avoidance of what is a broad and complex problem. Reducing violence and increasing trust between police and society will require deeper analysis than simply “giving respect to authority” and calming “our outrage-culture of today” that encourages “insubordination towards law enforcement.”

John Burris, a Little Rock-based political consultant, former member of the Arkansas House and columnist for Talk Business & Politics, said in his “Avoiding the escalation” essay it is a shame that recent murders of three police officers were virtually unnoticed compared to the death of Cecil the Lion and the deaths of Sandra Bland and Michael Brown. He said police have a tough and dangerous job and it’s not good that law enforcement is not as respected as it should be.

“I only hope that our outrage-culture of today isn’t making the dangers worse by encouraging an attitude of insubordination towards law enforcement. That’s bad for everyone, but especially the cops who must deal with the consequences of society’s bad behavior,” Burris noted.

He’s absolutely correct that the recent murders of police officers Benjamin Deen, Liquori Tate, and Sean Bolton were met with too little media coverage and public outrage. And I applaud Burris for reminding us that police, especially those who work with the public, face each day the possibility of injury or death.

However, our issues with law enforcement go far beyond “society’s bad behavior.” And Burris’ implication that Sandra Bland shared an equal part of the blame for a routine traffic stop that quickly escalated out-of-control and resulted in her mysterious death in a Texas county jail relies on analysis that does not include Constitutional roles and responsibilities of police and citizens. (If not familiar with the Bland case, link here.)

This is not solely my assessment. There are numerous published scholarly and media reports showing that law enforcement agencies are losing respect because of several decades of using tactics that have eroded our civil liberties – especially the 4th Amendment. Through the drug war and in the name of public safety (DUI checkpoints, use of K9 units to engage unlawful vehicle searches, broader arresting powers, etc.) we find ourselves in a quasi police state.

A 2013 report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation focused on connections between paramilitary style policing and lower morale in the police ranks. That report also noted the rise of police misconduct.

“Based solely on media reports and misconduct-related civil judgments and settlements, excluding sealed settlements, court costs, and attorney fees, law enforcement agencies incurred approximately $346,512,800 in costs in 2010 in lawsuits in the United States alone,” noted the report.

A May 18, 2015 story in The Economist reported that almost 90% of cities with more than 50,000 population have a SWAT team using military equipment and tactics. The report said SWAT teams are often used for what should be routine police work.

“Tactical teams have also been deployed to break up poker games, raid bars suspected of serving under-age drinkers and arrest dozens of people for the distinctly non-life-threatening crime of ‘barbering without a licence.’ Such tactics often draw contempt from members of the armed forces. Veterans have criticised police in Ferguson for intimidating the crowd rather than controlling it, for failing to share information with citizens and for escalating the standoff,” The Economist reported.

An editorial in Popular Mechanics, certainly not a liberal outlet or anti-police platform, provided perspective on what happens when police agencies become quasi-military units: “The subtle effect is also real: Dress like a soldier and you think you're at war. And, in wartime, civil liberties – or possible innocence – of the people on ‘the other side’ don't come up much. But the police aren't at war with the citizens they serve, or at least they're not supposed to be.”

Police misconduct and paramilitary problems are not new. The Cato Institute reported in 2006 that the judicial system too often gives the police a pass on the excessive use of force.

“While courts have been extremely deferential to police who fire on innocent civilians, they’ve been far less forgiving of citizens – even completely innocent citizens – who fire at police who have mistakenly raided their homes,” noted the Cato report, “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.”

Even further back, a May 2000 report from the National Institute of Justice found that 84% of police officers in the study said they saw other officers use excessive force on civilians, and 61% admitted they don’t always report “even serious criminal violations that involve abuse of authority by fellow officers.”

While reporting that a majority of police officers say the use of excessive force is not necessary, the report included this damning assessment: “Notwithstanding its positive findings, the survey suggests that police abuse remains a problem that needs to be addressed by policymakers and police professionals. … The code of silence also remains a troubling issue for American police, with approximately one-quarter of police officers surveyed stating that whistle blowing is not worth it, two-thirds reporting that police officers who report misconduct are likely to receive a ‘cold shoulder’ from fellow officers, and more than one-half reporting that it is not unusual for police officers to turn a “blind eye” to improper conduct by other officers. These findings suggest that the culture of silence that has continually plagued the reform of American policing continues.”

Bowling Green University Professor Philip Stinson, author of “Police Integrity Lost: A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested,” said coordination between police departments, prosecutors and  the courts systems has arisen because the parties benefit equally from arrest fees, fines, court costs and other related penalties. Because of this mutual benefit, Stinson said, police are rarely charged or convicted in misconduct cases.

In commenting on the North Charleston, S.C., police officer who fired eight shots in the back of a fleeing man, Politico national editor Michael Hirsh said subsequent media coverage of the death of the man showed “an unseen decades-old abuse that is only now being rendered visible by a new generation of citizen-documentarians, average people equipped with cell-phone cameras.”

Obviously, the problem is more than just anecdotal. It’s systemic. Too many police departments don’t provide enough training in de-escalating public interactions. Consequences for police misconduct are almost nil, and when civil lawsuits are successful, taxpayers foot the bill for the agency and the offending officer(s).

We citizens – black, white, and otherwise – could all tomorrow be 110% deferential and respectful to law enforcement, yet the systemic problems would continue that have resulted in the killing of innocent people, erosion of civil liberties and militarization of our law enforcement agencies.

You, Kind Reader, likely agree that there are many more good law enforcement officers than bad. We owe it to them to push back against “policing for profit” aspects of the criminal justice system, encourage our local, state and federal community and political leaders to reverse course on police militarization, and find ways to work with law enforcement to restore 4th Amendment-based civil liberties.

But please know I will possess an “attitude of insubordination” toward any person or agency pushing a message that we all must sacrifice a measure of our liberties in exchange for safety and security.