Seth Stoughton comes at this with some well-deserved street cred, having spent five years as a Tallahassee police officer before going to law school and, after graduating in 2011, turning lawprof at the University of South Carolina. His recent New York Times Room for Debate essay made a great point, distinguishing the legal justification for police force from its avoidability.
He’s now written a brief listicle for Time, entitled “8 Things We Still Get Wrong About Policing,” which seeks to balance misperceptions by the public and police grounded either in excessive anger and cynicism or defensiveness. In just a few words, Stoughton makes strong, clear points, not an easy feat. That said, the well-intended effort to balance the sides may itself create imbalances, false equivalencies, worthy of consideration. He asserts by way of introduction:
There is anger on both sides of the debate, and for good reason. Communities are angry because they feel victimized by police abuses.
But while anger can motivate us to have important conversations, it becomes counterproductive when we allow it to dominate those discussions.
It’s unclear why this would be, beyond the basic assumption that it’s better to have a civil discussion than a screaming match. But this isn’t a friendly chat amongst friends. There is an asymmetry of power involved, where one side has guns and authority to use them, while the other has, well, nothing.
When is the last time you turned on your flashers and pulled over a cop who blew through a red light? When is the last time you conducted a Terry stop of a cop who was acting suspiciously? I’m going out on a limb here, but I would say never. When a cop commands you to jump, it is ill-advised that you commence a civil discussion about it. Anger tends to rise to the top, and dominate discussions, because anything less has proven unproductive or we wouldn’t need to have a discussion at all.
And now, to the listicle.
1. Police officers are deliberately racist
Good officers take a great deal of pride in their professionalism, and professional policing requires responding to a person’s actions, not their race, gender, or other personal characteristics. For officers, accusations of racism are attacks on their professional identity and self-image.
By starting with the false “good/bad officers” dichotomy, Stoughton indulges in a strawman from the outset. Cops are people. They aren’t all good or all bad; there is no “good cop,” and hasn’t been since Sheriff Andy went off the air. Any discussion that relies on cartoon characterizations is doomed.
There are, unfortunately, officers who use racial epithets while out on the job, behind the closed doors, or on social media, and that should be dealt with swiftly and firmly.
And along with those “racial epithets,” clubs, tasers and guns, not to mention fists and boots. If this was limited to words, it would be one problem. And even if we were to magically end racial epithets, we are still left with police constantly using “fuck,” constantly speaking to people like they’re animals. It’s not just racial epithets, which are bad, but the utter lack of respect shown in speech directed at people. Command presence, right?
2. Racism is not a problem in policing
Even while conscious racism is rare, there are still two very real problems: systemic racism and implicit bias. Systemic racism refers to the way a system can create or contribute to racially discriminatory outcomes even when the individual actors within that system are not themselves deliberately racist.
While no one (at least not me) will dispute the existence of systemic racism, this characterization removes the onus from any individual officer. Yes, it’s seen in the grossly disproportionate numbers, the disparate impact, but lets not pretend every individual cop doesn’t make a choice when he tosses a black kid to the ground and stomps his head. The cop may not hate blacks, but he surely doesn’t like them enough to treat them like human beings.
3. There is a raging epidemic of police violence
Fueled by some truly disturbing videos of police violence, it is easy to believe that brutality is becoming increasingly common. But appearances are often deceiving.
Yes, the “availability heuristic” skews perceptions. That’s been working in cops’ favor for five “tough on crime” decades, and now it’s swung back to bite them in the butt. And the same police violence happened back then, except there were no “disturbing videos” to prove it.
So they were all lies perpetrated by scum trying to besmirch our brave police officers. Even today, video doesn’t capture all that happens, and without video, it didn’t happen. We’re still only scratching the surface of police brutality, and yet it’s enough to throw this nation into moral and legal conflict. Add in all the force that didn’t make it onto Youtube and then talk about the availability heuristic.
4. Police violence is so rare that it isn’t worth talking about.
The small percentage masks a large absolute number. Applying the 1.4% figure to the nearly 67 million police-civilian encounters in 2008, we’re left with about 938,000 instances of police violence.
And this is just the violence the police report in their self-serving way.
5. Police violence is acceptable as long as it is legally justified.
Officers often believe that the public should not criticize an officer whose use of force was legally justified. But the law is not a moral compass. The real question should be whether a use of force was avoidable (and thus, unnecessary), not whether it was merely lawful.
This goes to the point raised during the Room for Debate, and it’s a good one. But it flies in the face of the First Rule of Policing, which goes unmentioned here. If police considered whether force is avoidable, it would put them at potential risk of harm if they make the wrong choice. There is a deeper problem, that if someone is going to get hurt, it won’t be a cop. So cops hurt first, because their going home for dinner matters more.
6. If suspects didn’t resist, officers wouldn’t use force.
Another common refrain is that suspects could avoid police violence by simply complying with officers’ commands.
As correctly noted in the discussion, this simply isn’t true, and is a simplistic and facile excuse. But one point needs to added: officers’ commands are not the word of God, even though God isn’t as likely to kill for failure to obey. Remember that opening note, about discourse overwhelmed by anger? The same applies to police refusal to listen to non-cops rather than comply or die.
7. Police officers work in an increasingly violent and deadly environment.
Actual data simply do not support this oft-repeated assertion.
Oft-repeated, indeed. And it’s a blatant lie.
8. Officers who engage in misconduct are isolated “bad apples.”
Isolating problems by blaming individual officers fails to acknowledge systemic features that contribute to those problems.
Individual and systemic failure are not mutually exclusive. But that’s not really the error of the “bad apples” claim. What of the ten officers standing there, watching the bad apple beat a suspect, who do nothing to stop him, who lie on reports to cover him, who maybe give a kick or two themselves just to be one of the gang? It’s systemic, but it’s individual. It’s not just the commission of police brutality, but the individual acquiescence in it. And make no mistake, any cop who does nothing when his partner rams an object up a suspect’s anus bears individual responsibility for his failure.
The Time listicle raises good points, and does so in a thoughtful and palatable way. This is valuable, as a means of explaining to those watching from a safe distance what is wrong. But it’s far more wrong than the listicle would suggest, and the wrong is far more harmful when it happens. Sanitizing it may make it more digestible to nice folk, but it conveys a false sense that the problem isn’t as bad as it may appear. It is.
H/T Walter Katz