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Police problems are social problems

  • Sunday, November 20 2011 @ 08:01 AM CET
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Recently a lot of people have been praising and sharing Norm Stamper's article from the Nation, Paramilitary Policing From Seattle to Occupy Wall Street. Stamper was chief of the Seattle Police Department during the WTO protests of 1999, and has since argued that the police actions at that time were inappropriate.

While what stamper writes in the article is not wrong, I argue that it fails to get to the heart of the problem, and thus fails even to suggest any real solutions.

In his article, Stamper writes:

I, the chief of police, said to myself, “We have to clear the intersection.” Why? Because of all the what-ifs. What if a fire breaks out in the Sheraton across the street? What if a woman goes into labor on the seventeenth floor of the hotel? What if a heart patient goes into cardiac arrest in the high-rise on the corner? What if there’s a stabbing, a shooting, a serious-injury traffic accident? How would an aid car, fire engine or police cruiser get through that sea of people? The cop in me supported the decision to clear the intersection. But the chief in me should have vetoed it. And he certainly should have forbidden the indiscriminate use of tear gas to accomplish it, no matter how many warnings we barked through the bullhorn.
But one might as well ask Stamper the same question: "Why?" And, unfortunately, his answer here, that
My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose.
... is not really terribly enlightening, largely because it doesn't address his own stated reasons for acting in the first place.

The response is not wrong, exactly; after all, Stamper is correct that clearing the streets using riot police and tear gas did lead to "the Battle in Seattle". But even apart from the issue of hindsight, how would knowing that things could go badly have helped make the decision before the fact? Bearing in mind, as well, that all of the factors that led the police to act in the first place still apply, and that failing to act would not guarantee that a riot would not occur?

Giving real thought to this question suggests the real source of the problem, I think, which is that the police are given impossible demands, along with absurdly high stakes for failure.

Stamper writes that

Much of the problem is rooted in a rigid command-and-control hierarchy based on the military model. American police forces are beholden to archaic internal systems of authority whose rules emphasize bureaucratic regulations over conduct on the streets. An officer’s hair length, the shine on his shoes and the condition of his car are more important than whether he treats a burglary victim or a sex worker with dignity and respect. In the interest of “discipline,” too many police bosses treat their frontline officers as dependent children, which helps explain why many of them behave more like juvenile delinquents than mature, competent professionals.
This is probably all true, except for the "rooted in". That is, the rigid systems almost certainly do cause the quality of policing to suffer, but they don't come out of thin air. Stamper and other Chiefs of Police didn't have a meeting one day and decide: "our policing models are too flexible and efficient; let's make them more rigid and less effective." These rigid systems arose over time and for a reason.

Consider the situation Stamper describes, and then imagine things working out differently. Suppose that Stamper and his officers decided not to clear the streets, but then there was a fire or some other emergency and people died due to their decision? Or that they decided not to clear the streets and some demonstrators smashed the place up anyway? Imagine the howls of outrage that would follow from the media, the people, and the politicians, demanding the heads of the officers who, by "allowing" such activity, "caused" the death or destruction?

I submit that this attitude is where the problems are "rooted": the demand by the public that nothing ever go wrong, or that someone is punished for wrongdoing whenever things go wrong. And this is the reason for highly-structured, bureaucratic police organizations, which I suspect almost no one in any police department wants: if there are strict rules for action, and officers follow the rules, then no one can be punished for them after the fact. But if officers use their own judgment and things go wrong, then heads will need to roll. What is needed is a recognition that sometimes, even if someone did everything "right" (or at least, "as well as could be expected of anyone in that situation"), things sometimes go wrong. And this applies to any use of force, as well. If the police at times use force, then sometimes the effects will be bad. And this may be because someone acted badly, but also may be just because events unfolded badly, and with no one doing anything "wrong". Until the public and its representatives are willing to accept that, and not call for blood unless a police officer is shown to have acted wrongly, police departments and police officers will retreat to strict rule-following, as an officer can't be punished for following the rules.


Stamper suggests that the solution lies in cooperation with the community.

Assuming the necessity of radical structural reform, how do we proceed? By building a progressive police organization, created by rank-and-file officers, “civilian” employees and community representatives. Such an effort would include plans to flatten hierarchies; create a true citizen review board with investigative and subpoena powers; and ensure community participation in all operations, including policy-making, program development, priority-setting and crisis management. In short, cops and citizens would forge an authentic partnership in policing the city. And because partners do not act unilaterally, they would be compelled to keep each other informed, and to build trust and mutual respect—qualities sorely missing from the current equation.
Which sounds reasonable, until one recognizes that there is not a single community, but multiple communities. And each community seems to want the police to come down hard on "the bad guys" while never causing any problem for "the good guys", and to complicate things still further, those distinctions aren't the same for every community. More importantly, until the communities are willing to recognize that things can go wrong with no one at fault, there is unlikely to be any real trust. Real life is not like an action movie: a police officer cannot know beforehand that a person is or is not actually armed, or is actually dangerous or merely disoriented. If the "citizen review board" is seen by the police as being made up of those who hate and distrust the police, then it is unlikely to engender any trust. And a review board that might rightly come to the conclusion that the police did as well as they could in a particular situation, given the information available, will be condemned as a "police lapdog" by the community that was injured.


Currently there are howls of protest from certain communities over police actions in clearing various OWS encampments. But what seems to be absent is any realistic alternative.

After the first Occupy Oakland riots, MSNBC interviewed one of the demonstrators.

O’Donnell asked her if the protesters were aware that the police would use tear gas on them if they didn’t disperse. Her answer: “Yes.” He then asked if the protesters did, in fact, throw bottles and rocks at the police anyway even after this warning. Her answer again: “Yes.”
This is from a right-wing blog, but the video is from MSNBC. What is most relevant to this discussion, though, is that the demonstrator admits that the protestors were rioting, but has no answer at all to the (explicit!) question of what the police should have done, her answer is only that they shouldn't have done what they did.

That is just one person, of course, but the same view seems to be widespread among those who criticize the police actions. The question of "what should be done?" is "not that!" Which is, unfortunately, no answer at all. At least in every case that I am aware of, the "Occupy" protesters were violating the law. The first amendment does not give one the right to take over public space for one's own use -- and there is no "they meant well" exemption to the law. Given that there have been criminal activity, violence, and even in a few cases deaths at various "Occupy" camps, "do nothing" does not seem a realistic answer.

There may be a good argument to be made that, at least in some cases, the police response was disproportionate, but such an argument seems to demand an argument -- or at least an explanation -- of what would be "proportionate", and where "nothing" and "not that" are non-answers.

Part of the problem, of course, is that -- whatever might be done (and this includes 'nothing) -- things might go badly. If action is taken to clear the camps, then some people might be injured (again, the same holds if no action is taken). Most elected officials, police departments, and even police officers really do not want to injure protesters; at the very least such is likely to lead to extra inquiries and paperwork. There seem to have been at least a few cases of genuine police misconduct over the course of the "Occupy" protests, but the "police bosses" certainly don't want to deal with the results of such events any more than anyone else.

Currently making the rounds are reports and images of students being pepper-sprayed at UD Davis, accompanied by outrage and calls for resignations. Yet, given that the UC Davis students' camp was to be removed, was the action even the wrong one?

Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department's use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a "compliance tool" that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters.
"When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them," Kelly said. "Bodies don't have handles on them."
from Officers in pepper spray incident put on leave (CBS News)
I submit that Kelly seems to have a point, here. It may sound callous, and it may look unpleasant when people are being sprayed, but it seems to be at least arguable that such is the best way to accomplish the goal of clearing the camp.


Some would argue, obviously, that clearing the camp (or clearing any of the "Occupy" camps) was not actually necessary. There are certainly arguments on both sides of this issue, and reasonable people can disagree. But what is troubling is that those who argue against clearing the camps seem to have no gauge for when (if ever) such camps should be removed, anc certainly at some point it would become appropriate to do so. And more troubling still is that those who argue against action seem to do so based upon one of two principles, neither of which holds up well.

One view seems to be nothing more than the position: I agree with them, therefore they should be left alone, even if they are violating the law. Unfortunately, though perhaps emotionally appealing, this is no principle that can hold in a society based on law. If "the people" want "occupying" a public space to be lawful, then there are ways to enact laws regarding this, but in no way is "it is ok for you to violate the law so long as I like you" a viable public policy (unless perhaps the "I" is an absolute monarch).

The other view, and what seems to inform some of the outrage at the police, is that action shouldn't be taken that might hurt someone. Unfortunately, this fails as a principle, also, not only because not acting may also lead to injury, but more importantly because it devolves into oppression by a minority who are most strongly committed. Being willing to risk injury, as certain protesters (in various different, and different types of "movements") is certainly a sign of strong commitment, but is in no way any demonstration that what one is committed to is correct. After all, if such were the case, then Americans would have converted en masse to Islam in September, 2001. Plainly, "we can't stop you from doing something if so stopping might cause harm" is similarly non-viable as a public policy, as such effectively turns one's society over to the most reckless.

Interestingly, the same point has already been made regarding internal decision-making at Occupy Wall Street, by Sara Robinson at Nicole Sandler's Radio or not.

Certainly it is reasonable to say that force should be used only as a last resort, but even such a statement presumes that force is appropriate when necessary, and that there are times when it may be necessary.


All of which at least strongly suggests that, at least at some point, it is or would be correct to clear "Occupy" camps. And this will mean the use of force against at least some demonstrators, as at least some have made it clear that they will not depart willingly. And here we return to the basic matter of the use of force. No doubt everyone would wish that police officers charged with using force in such a case would use the minimal amount of force necessary, and in a way that is least likely to cause unnecessary harm. The problem is that there is nothing at all (again, including doing nothing) that can guarantee the absence of harm, yet such a guarantee seems to be just what the public demands, if it is not to turn on those using force. And thus hierarchical and bureaucratic procedures will continue.

To use an extreme example, consider the case of the UC Davis officer who is currently being vilified across the media spectrum for using pepper spray against student demonstrators. Leaving aside the question of whether it was necessary to remove the protesters (which is a judgment call that was made by the University, not the police officers), imagine what would be the case if one of the officers chose not to follow official procedures, but instead use his own judgment, with the result that one of the students involved was seriously injured (perhaps a broken wrist or arm). I submit that the howls of outrage in the media would be as loud or louder than they are, and that the officer would face potential sanctions, possibly including criminal charges for "brutality", all for failing to follow bureaucratically proper procedures. I, at least, find it difficult to condemn someone making that choice in that way.


All of which serves only to return to the central point: Yes, policing has become overly hierarchical and bureaucratic, particularly when dealing with situations of conflict and/or the use of force. But this hasn't happened (at least not primarily) because police departments or police officers enjoy bureaucracy and procedural or hierarchical straitjackets. Rather, strict adherence to policy and procedure serves as protection when things go wrong (which they will, at least at some point, even with the best efforts of those involved), while going outside of procedures pretty much ensures punishment when things go wrong (which they will, at some point, even with the best efforts of those involved). Until society as a whole is willing to trust the judgment of police officers (at least to the extent of recognizing that bad things can happen without an officer acting badly), there is little reason for police departments and police officers to do so.


Note: as suggested above, none of this argument is intended to excuse actual police misconduct, which plainly does occur, nor even police misjudgment -- where 'misjudgment' consists of not attending to the relevant aspects of the situation or not weighing the various factors before acting.


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