The First Rule of Policing Meets Fight Club

The First Rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club. The First Rule of Policing, on the other hand, is make it home for dinner. Surprisingly, that was the primary argument offered by Delaware County, Ohio, Sheriff Russ Martin when debating Radley Balko* on John Stossel’s television show.

When questioned as to the virtue of SWAT raids to carry out police functions that didn’t intrinsically require such aggressive shows of force, Sheriff Martin’s response was that it is far safer to use a SWAT team to capture a fly. It wasn’t necessary for Martin to explain further that he didn’t mean it was safer for the fly.

Most people take for granted that this is merely a fair approach to policing, accepting the notion that police should be able to perform their duties safely and, these “brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers” as Sheriff Martin described them, should return at the end of their shift to the bosom of their family.  It’s unclear why Martin neglected to mention that the targets of police raids also have families, spouses, children and parents who love them, just as police do.  Yet, his emphasis on the welfare of his cops served as a reminder that while they are human, so too are their targets.

There is nothing wrong with wanting a cop to make it home for dinner. No one can blame a cop, or a cop’s spouse, for wanting to be safe. No one can blame the target of a cop, particularly when it’s the wrong target, whether an innocent person or a SWAT raid on the wrong house, for having a similar desire to be safe.

But as 24-year police veteran and LEAP Executive Director Neill Franklin notes in a lengthy Balko article on how to de-escalate the militarization of police, cops and targets do not get to make equivalent claims to the rule to make it home for dinner:

All of these policies have infused too many police agencies with a culture of militarism. Neill Franklin is a former narcotics cop in Maryland, who also oversaw training at the state’s police academies in the early 2000s. “I think there are two critical components to policing that cops today have forgotten,” he says. “Number one, you’ve signed on to a dangerous job. That means that you’ve agreed to a certain amount of risk. You don’t get to start stepping on others’ rights to minimize that risk you agreed to take on. And number two, your first priority is not to protect yourself, it’s to protect those you’ve sworn to protect. But I don’t know how you get police officers today to value those principles again. The ‘us and everybody else’ sentiment is strong today. It’s very, very difficult to change a culture.”

A police officer goes to work at the start of each shift with the understanding that he has chosen a job that carries certain risks of danger.  The cops know going in of the risks. The person who lives at 3125 South Street does not assume a similar risk because an alleged drug dealer resides at 3215 South Street. Nor do his children. Or his dog.

During the debate, Sheriff Martin was implicitly in agreement with much of what Balko (and Stossel) contended about the militarization of police, essentially arguing in response to the instances of needless paramilitary force used to perform such dangerous functions as breaking up a poker game or serving a warrant on a licensed medical marijuana dispensary that he, having been on more than 100 SWAT raids in his career, had never done such a thing.

Of course, his response didn’t condemn such uses, but rather divorced himself from the excesses so that he wasn’t in the position to justify them. His raids were always justified raids, as opposed to all those other, unjustified raids.

But even the use of tactical SWAT raids under circumstances where the police have a sound basis to believe that there is a risk to their welfare raises Neill Franklin’s second point:

And number two, your first priority is not to protect yourself, it’s to protect those you’ve sworn to protect.

The world isn’t broken up into three groups, police, those they deem worthy of protecting and everyone else. As they storm into a home, flashbang grenades going off, screaming, guns pointed but, hopefully, not fired inadvertently, it’s a lie to believe that they are doing so with any concern about protecting anyone in that home. Whether it’s their target, who may present a threat, or spouse, children, unrelated people and family pets, they are all blindly presumed to be a sufficient threat that they are neutralized.  And yet, they all remain the very people the police have sworn to protect.

Nobody seems terribly concerned about any of this. Indeed, it’s taken for granted that the target of a police raid, essentially with regard to what he’s alleged to have done, deserves whatever the cops dish out. It’s not that people forget the presumption of innocence, but that fundamental rights immediately give way to the First Rule of Policing.

Like the police culture of which Neill Franklin writes, we too succumb immediately to the belief that it’s “reasonable” for the police to put their safety ahead of all else. Just like the cops, we accept the First Rule of Policing to be the most reasonable course of conduct without giving much of a thought to the protection of the family with the guns pointed at their heads.

As Radley noted in the debate, the escalation of force by police, for their own safety, in fact escalates the potential for violence for everyone involved, putting both police as well as target, and anyone else having the misfortune of being in the vicinity, at greater risk of harm.  While there may be times when this is unavoidable of necessity, the use of SWAT teams for ordinary, everyday police functions has no rational justification beyond the First Rule of Policing.

And now we know this for certain, because the cops have ignored the First Rule of Fight Club and have conceded that they hold their lives more dear than ours. So dear that they have no qualms about putting our lives, our spouse’s and children’s lives, at grave and needless risk so that they face as little risk as possible.

* It is purely coincidental that Radley Balko was born in Greenfield, Indiana.

15 comments on “The First Rule of Policing Meets Fight Club

  1. Gritsforbreakfast

    While on the subject, police officers jobs are more dangerous than most people’s but less dangerous than many other common jobs, including some other public employees. Garbage collectors die on the job at around twice the rate of cops, but who ever heard the media or politicians telling us they “put their lives on the line for us every day,” even though they do?

    1. REvers

      Maybe garbage collectors need to form SWAT teams. Throw a flashbang into the dumpster, shoot the recycling bin (just for safety, of course), and hold all the garbage on the ground at gunpoint.

      They’ll have to learn to yell “Stop resisting!” as they beat the container of used motor oil. too.

  2. peck

    Martin is the exemplification of why the vast majority of our “police forces” have become our worst nightmare. Decades ago, “Protect and Serve” became “Harass and Intimidate”. That has evolved into “Beat and Kill”. Rarely does any rogue (which has become the norm) so-called LEO face any serious disciplinary action for beating, tasing and shooting citizens “because they can”. All they need for an excuse is…”I feared for my safety”. Well, punk, I don’t give a damn for your safety. I care about my safety and your running around with a tin badge and a loaded firearm threatens my safety. You all are nothing more than costumed revenue thieves and I have a high degree of contempt for all of you. A few years ago, in Pima County Arizona, I was falsely accused, arrested and charged with several counts of aggravated assault for defending myself In My Home against a violent drunken intruder. I was later acquitted during a criminal court trial, but 12 out of 13 involved Pima County sheriffs deputies lied under oath to obtain a search warrant, to get an indictment and lied on the stand under oath while testifying against me. This is the norm. As far as I am concerned, You are my enemy and will be dealt with as such.

        1. SHG Post author

          No, facts are not hyperbolic. The ability to distinguish facts from hyperbolic opinion, however, can prove difficult for some people, and impossible for others.

  3. Antonin I. Pribetic

    Wait, where are the rest of the Rules of Policing?

    1st RULE: You make it home for dinner.
    2nd RULE: You grab a beer.
    3rd RULE: If someone says “stop,” goes limp or taps out, the suspect was correctly assessed a suspect.
    4th RULE: Only 3 dozen SWAT team members in a raid, but the ones with a badge get to use the guns or tasers.
    5th RULE: One arrest at a time, unless all the suspects are fidgety, then shoot first and ask questions later.
    6th RULE: No shirts, no shoes for the accused as they may be concealing unregistered weapons.
    7th RULE: Interrogations will go on as long as they have to.
    8th RULE: If this is your first night at POLICING, you HAVE to serve and protect the meatloaf leftovers.

    1. SHG Post author

      For the 8th Rule, I was thinking more of “If this is your first night at SWAT Club, you have to shoot. If nothing else, shoot the dog.”

      1. Antonin I. Pribetic

        It it weren’t for the tragic consequences of this police militarization issue, satire would be an effective counter. We recently had a police shooting in Toronto involving 18-year old, Sammy Yatim on a TTC streetcar. The video of the incident is widely circulated on the ‘net and there was a second wave of public protests recently. Fortunately, a retired judge, Justice Dennis O’Connor, has been retained to assist in an internal review of the Toronto police force and calls for de-escalation protocols. Wait, O’Connor J. is a member of a law firm which has acted for Toronto officers in civil suits. Nevermind.

          1. Marc R

            That knife could have popped the tires of the police cars and then those officers might not have made it home to their families.

  4. BL1Y

    I don’t think Fight Club’s rules are the right analogy since it’s two people voluntarily getting into a fight with each other. The only time they get into a fight with innocent civilians is when completing their homework assignment to start a fight and let the other guy win (in the movie this is Fight Club homework, though in the book it’s an assignment for the Assault Committee of Project Mayhem).

    The better analogy would be to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robots.

    1. A police officer must ensure he makes it home.

    2. A police officer must use minimal force when apprehending a criminal, except when doing so would violate the first law.

    3. A police officer must respect the rights of civilians, except when doing so would violate the first or second law.

    1. SHG Post author

      The fight club reference is about the fact that the inside LE view is surfacing for all to see, rather than remain within the ranks of those on the job while a sweet façade is shown the public. But Asimov is good too.

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