How Can There be Good Cops, If There are Bad Cops?

I read an opinion piece the other day from the Bangor (ME) Times entitled, The False Message from those ‘Good Cop’ Stories? Things Aren’t So Bad by Heather Denkmire.

Here is the link and I encourage you to read it before you continue with my take on the author’s message.

My first reaction on reading this was one of profound confusion. How can reports about the many good police officers and their acts of kindness and caring be a bad thing? If all we do is focus on the bad things, it distorts reality.

On reflection, I realized she had a valid point. Not the one she intended and I am sure one she does not even realize she made.

Her premise is clear, reporting stories of a Police Officer acting in some kind and considerate manner does detract from the issue of violence involving officers and civilians, too often civilians of color.

However, the problem is not that the media reports these stories, the problem is the author’s assumptions that all encounters between a police officer and a person of color are motivated by racism.

Ms. Denkmire writes,

“My daughter just heard a radio story about how a police officer who murdered a black man was having trouble finding a job. She found it troubling that the news story was focusing on the murderer’s “difficulties.”

Herein lies the problem. Taken at face value, this paragraph says a police officer murdered a black man and was having trouble finding a job. The statement implies the officer was “convicted” of murder. If that were the case, either the incident happened a long time ago and the former officer is now out of jail, or the statement is misleading. I think it equally possible the officer resigned due the incident, or was forced out by political expediency. Either explanation is viable.

Police use of deadly force is a serious and difficult issue. It would be naïve to assume that all such incidents are investigated as thoroughly as they should be. The benefit of media attention is clear, however media attention that meets standards of good reporting, not a Twitter feed or Facebook rant with questionable images.

The author also bemoans the unequal reporting of black as opposed to white murder suspects.

“We had talked before about the different ways the media portrayed white killers compared with black victims; for example, how Dylann Roof was shown opening Christmas gifts while the media use and crop images of black victims in ways that imply they are not entirely innocent. That kind of biased reporting is pretty standard.”

This is the problem with her premise. The very issue she points out here, about biased or slanted reporting, is the issue. She just has the real point wrong.

Here is an example of two headlines, same incident.

White Police Officer Shoots Fleeing Black Suspect in the Back

Same story, different headline.

Police Officer Returns Fire, Killing Gunman.

The tone of the first headline stirs emotion and the writer chose the words to generate interest in the story (that translates into sales). The second is the same set of facts but presented as just that, facts. Not an editorial comment implying wrongdoing by the officer (or highlighting the race of either party as being significant).

Now, I completely agree with the writer’s point that the incidence of violent confrontations between police and persons of color are, statistically, significantly higher than those between the police and a white person.

As Mark Twain once said, “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Here is an example, police officers kill more white suspects than suspects of color. The “statistics” bear this out. However, examine the numbers in depth, as a percentage of the population minority suspects are more likely to be confronted with a violent response. Both statistically accurate.

The perception by some officers that persons of color represent a higher threat is a difficult one to overcome, and wrong. Here is the sad reality, according to data from the FBI, though African Americans are arrested and incarcerated at a higher rate than whites, the majority of assailants who feloniously killed police officers in the past year were white.

There is a serious problem with racial bias in this country. Complaining that positive stories about the police ignores the issue, or minimizes its severity, is nonsense.

If you have read the article, it is clear the author holds a dim view of the police. She can barely concede that most officers are well intentioned and honest.

Therefore, I applaud her bringing the issue to the forefront. Underreporting or ignoring the issue is wrong. Portraying the issue as being solely the fault of the police is equally wrong. In fact, it is dangerous.

The only way to deal with this problem in the long term is through education. Racism is a learned behavior; no one is born racist, children are indoctrinated with it. In the short term, focused and impartial attention to the police and better training is the key.

The media needs to report factually and without sensationalizing stories. However, we all know what should happen and what does happen are two mutually exclusive things.

The police are not your enemy and people of all race and ethnic origin need be treated the same. If you break the law, your skin color should not have any effect on the disposition of the case. The numbers are clear. Perhaps we should focus on the inequities in the judicial system more closely since that is the only forum in which unlawful actions by the police should be addressed. Not on the street with a crowd of cell phone equipped people relying on legal advice from a Facebook post.

Here is my last statistic; there are 765,000 (approx.) sworn law enforcement officers in the US. Statistically speaking the overwhelming majority of them will NEVER kill anyone in their career. Nevertheless, I am willing to bet every single one of them will do something good almost every day in that same career.

Mr.President, the Silence is Deafening

President Barrack Obama

White House

Washington, DC

Dear President Obama,

Please excuse my confusion here.  For the most part I have found your Presidency to be a positive one.   The historic, and long overdue, election of a person of color to the office bodes well for the future of the country.

With that said, I am troubled by an inconsistency in your response to attacks on our system of justice, in particular, police officers on the front lines.

A twenty-five year old NYPD Sergeant is executed for doing his job, and all that comes out of your office are some platitudes about a noble profession and the tragedy of his death.

Where’s the outrage?

Where’s the mobilization of the resources of the Justice department to investigate how a convicted felon came to be in possession of a firearm?

Where are ranking members of your cabinet and why are they not traveling to New York, standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and women of NYPD, demanding that we all must know that Blue Lives matter?

Mr. President, I am sure you realize that Blue Lives matter, I am sure you realize that Black LIves matter,  I am sure you know all lives matter.

But your relative silence on the death of this young officer and those that died in the line of duty before him makes it seem that some lives matter more.

I realize this country still has a long way to go before the words, “All men are created equal,” apply to everyone.

I realize it is important for the office of the Presidency to point out that inequality and to pursue Justice against those that would deny equality to others based on the color of their skin.

I realize all that.

But I also realize that even the perception of difference in responding to these situations is dangerous and disheartening.

I hope you’ll have a strong respresentation at the funeral  for Sergeant Brian Moore,  I hope you’ll demand that we do everything we can to prevent such tragedies in the future.  I hope you’ll show the same genuine concern for the lives of all Officers as you have for other victims of injustice.

To do any less diminishes the high regard the office of the President commands.

Do not let political correctness temper the outrage.

Speak long and loudly of this, end the silence.

Hobbling Justice to Satisfy a Bloodlust

By now the whole world knows something of the situation in Baltimore.  A man in custody of the Baltimore Police department dies and the inevitable peaceful protests turn violent.

The reaction in the country spans the entire spectrum from “send in the National Guard and start shooting people to Baltimore brought this on themselves.”

Depending on where you fall in this spectrum, either the cops are thugs or those throwing rocks, looting, and burning buildings are.

As with most things, it is much more complicated than that, but complex problems and the required complex responses do not make for good TV sound bites. 

Most wouldn’t, or sadly couldn’t  read it anyway which is another part of the problem.

It is impossible to sum up the issue, let alone propose a solution, in a 140 character Tweet or other such social media forum.  That doesn’t stop them from trying.

What I am about to say will likely be viewed by some of my friends and colleagues in Law Enforcement as heresy, but it falls upon them to refute it.

The character and nature of law enforcement has changed over the last several decades, mostly for the better but in several significant ways for the worse.

There was a time when the majority of law enforcement had daily, personal contact with the public not because of calls for service or responses to 911 calls, but from being out on the street walking the neighborhoods.  That all began to change with the movement to motorized patrol in a quest for efficiency and speed of response.

But the laws of unintended consequences kicked in.  We became faster in responding to problems at the cost of our separation from the public on a day to day basis, making us blind to the little problems as they developed. Those little problems eventually become big ones.  

We didn’t see the gangs taking over corners until it had already occured.  

We didn’t see graffiti growing until it was everywhere.

We focused on Patrol officers writing summonses for traffic violations and other such minor offenses as a way to measure efficiency.  When crime statistics went down we claimed it was embracing the “broken window” theory, if they went up, we attibuted it to factors outside our control.

The second error we made, or at least went along willingly, was the war on drugs.   The single biggest waste of resources ever.  Police departments that had one or two officers assigned to drug units suddenly assigned two and three times that amount.

Federal task forces were formed. Federal, state, and local law enforcement officers brought in.  The resources of the FBI, normally not tasked with drug cases, were added to the mix.  We seized larger and larger amounts of narcotics.  Put more and more people in prison.

We also created opportunity and incentive.  An incentive to sell drugs and the opportunity to generate an income with little or no education or skills.  All one had to do was accept the possibility of  the occasional arrest and stint in prison.

We also created a need for those in the business to protect themselves and their territory, thus the proliferation of weapons.

And, we let natue take it’s natural course.  If one is born into an environment where your family business is narcotics distribution, it is likely you’ll follow in those footsteps.

And you know what happened as a consequence of this policy?

The price of drugs dropped, the availability increased.  Yet we all went happily along.

And do you know why we did these two things?


State and Federal Civil Seizure laws proliferated.   Police departments siezed the cash, vehicles, and property of those we investigated.  Sometimes, we moved to seize the property without even pursuing criminal cases because the legal requirements in court were easier than proving a criminal case.

Cities, towns, and states brought in revenue from motor vehicle violations and whole departments were created to deal with the influx of cash.

We did it with the best of intentions. No one embraced the philosophy of strong drug enforcement more than me when I was on the job.  Being away from it and having the benefit of hindsight and mountains of evidence to validate this opinion has changed my perspective.

You cannot arrest your way out of a health problem. Just look at the number of overdose deaths from opiates, the numbers are rising despite our enforcement efforts.

What does this have to do with Baltimore? The riots and rage arising from these incidents involving the police are symptoms of the problem.

Whenever there is a violent encounter with the police, those that live in an environment of hopelessness see it as another example of how things never change.  The system is stacked against them.

Those that are fortunate enough to live outside that environment only see the violence, they do not see the cause.

In the case of the Baltimore cops, there is another troubling aspect. The rush to judgement.   These six officers are innocent of these charges and will remain so until such time as a jury finds them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. 

It is the foundation of our criminal justice system, the presumption of innocence.   No one should forget that.

Opinions of their guilt are not only meaningless, they are dangerous.  It is dangerous for anyone to assume the guilt of anyone absent a conviction in a court of law.   It would serve us well for everyone to remember that.

Police officers assuming that those they have arrested are guilty and entitlted to less than humanitarian treatment by virtue of that arrest are as wrong as someone standing on the street hurling bricks at the police because they assume all cops are racist and prone to brutality.

Cops are human beings subjected to the same flaws as everyone else, although most learn to rise above that and perform admirably.

I hope that those in the position of authority in Baltimore, the prosecutor and those responsible for investigating what happened in the back of that police van, remember that truth is the goal not a politically expedient path of least resistance.

If the evidence supports the charges, and these officers are one day convicted then that will be justice.  If, on the other hand, the evidence contradicts these charges then these officers are pawns in a game of politics that perpetuates the very problem of those in power deciding what is the truth.

If power determines truth, then this country is in deep trouble.