WTF The Police

If President Barry thought Sgt. Crowley handled Prof. Gates stupidly, I wonder what he thinks about the cop who stuck his taser up a guy’s butt and pulled the trigger. To protect and serve indeed.

Maybe it’s just a passing ripple in the new media waters but I’ve seen a lot of stories lately about police using excessive force in outrageous or perverse circumstances.  Prof. Gates’ groundless arrest dominated a week of TV “news” cycles; The Colbert Report the other night featured a segment about a 72-year old great-grandmother being zapped for disputing a ticket; and, well, I already mentioned the 50,000 volt enema. Troubling though it may be, it seems law enforcement around the country is embracing the Western District Way.

Now the notoriety of Gates-gate first grew from the racial implications, and then because PrezBo stirred the pot with his “Cambridge police acted stupidly” comment.  That was pretty dumb to say, but obviously this story struck a nerve for our first black president, and you can certainly see the racial angle in the discrepancy between the 9-1-1 call and Crowley’s police report.

But at root this incident is more about the trumped-up charge than racial profiling.  Though PrezBo should never have said it, and certainly not in a manner so raw, the behavior of Sgt. Crowley — though he is no doubt career police who acts in good faith — reflects an arbitrary abuse of authority by local law enforcement, such as one might see in a corrupt police state.

Andrew Sullivan, back from sabbatical and fired up, has been exploring the idea of rising statism in America this week. Von at Obsidian Wings has a great post about viewing policework with clear eyes. But the best post I’ve seen on the subject was a TPM reader e-mail, the heart of which I have copied over:

Police work is not that dangerous compared to, say, driving a cab. Firefighters have a far more physically dangerous job. However, cops have a heroic job: much harder in so many ways than firefighting. Firefighters are almost never in a morally ambiguous zone and almost always are in the business of making people feel good. Cops handle humans at their worst.

This distinction matters. When cops stress the (low) physical danger of their job, they’re setting themselves up to be military. That’s no good for the country. Large cities probably need a SWAT team, but that is not the model for most police work. Collateral damage is simply not acceptable for police. It also leads to police cowardice. A lot of civilian damage is justified by the military concept: “force protection.” Highly-armed and highly-trained cops use a lot more violence against citizens than a court would deem acceptable if one citizen used it against another.

Cops do not stress the (high) psychological danger of their job, because that makes them social workers with guns, able to handle difficult people with aplomb and an absolute minimum of violence, either threatened or applied. And that’s what they should be.

I think that really cuts to the core of the issue, but how does one avoid the militarization and statification of the police when law enforcement priorities are dictated by federal Wars on Drugs and Terror?  Not to sing David Simon’s tune, but hasn’t the culture and politics of crime in the past 30 years contributed greatly to institutional dysfunctionality?

Of course our country is full of good and heroic police officers, and I have no doubt that even among officers whose ethos I would find dubious, the vast majority still act in good faith. But when you have large numbers of good-faith actors behaving in ways that are corrosive to the long-term interests of the community, the time for cultural reformation is very seriously nigh.

I leave you today with some more clips from The Wire. First, Bunny Colvin laments the militarization of policework:

And second, a resident of West Baltimore discusses the virtues of community policing:


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