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.