Theory, Practice and Dead Bodies

At Popehat, Ken White eviscerates a conceptually bankrupt justification for the “shoot first” mentality of law enforcement promoted at the Blaze.  A Birmingham cop was cold-cocked and pistol-whipped at a traffic stop. Afterward, he explained:

“A lot of officers are being too cautious because of what’s going on in the media,” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous for the safety of his family. “I hesitated because I didn’t want to be in the media like I am right now.”

As Ken emphasizes, he didn’t exercise restraint because he lacked a factual basis to take pre-emptive action, but because he didn’t want to be the next cop excoriated in the media for needlessly harming an unarmed person.  Then advocates of police safety took up the cause.

Police Chief A.C. Roper sees the episode — as well as the reaction, including celebratory and vitriolic comments posted online alongside images of the wounded officer — as symptomatic of a larger problem, in which some don’t respect law enforcement.

“The nobility and integrity of policing has been challenged,” Roper said. “As a profession, we have allowed popular culture to draft a narrative which is contrary to the amazing work that so many officers are doing everyday across this nation.”

The chief’s hyperbole aside, as he’s allowed to think well of his chosen occupation, Ken reduces the underlying point to crystal clarity.

A cop made a bad use of force call. Thank God he lived. But a bad use of force call is not a good argument for less scrutiny of use of force. “I have trouble making decisions because of fear of how I will be treated in the media” does not convey “I’m capable of good judgment about the use of force, so you should trust me more.”

In a comment to Ken’s post, Patrick Frey, Los Angeles County prosecutor better known online as Patterico, challenges the practicality of Ken’s point:

You say that as if it were damning, but it’s not.

In other words, they are saying that in normal circumstances, they would make a decision based on their training and experience. But the new media climate has resulted in some officers being vilified and threatened even when their actions actually were justified (see, for example, Michael Brown). Thus, these cops are saying, they may hesitate even in situations where they believe they are justified, because their justified action may turn them into a TV cartoon villain and turn their life upside down.

This attitude will result in less aggressive policing. It will result in fewer unjustified stops, and fewer unjustified uses of force. It will also result in fewer justified stops, fewer justified uses of force, more injured or killed cops, and more criminals going free.


This sets up the perpetual conflict between a doctrinally accurate view and the view from the street.  There is no doubt that Ken’s argument, that the alternatives aren’t limited to bad decisions to shoot without cause or bad decisions not to shoot at all, is accurate.  The police perspective excludes the possibility that police could make good choices instead of bad, shoot when proper and necessary and not shoot because they’re scaredy-cats.

Patterico, though he doesn’t quite explain it this way, admits that the expectation that police make smart decisions despite the media because they are competent, trained, well-intentioned guardians of our safety, rights and law, demands too much.

Trade-offs.  Cops will make poor decisions because that’s the best we can expect of them.  Despite all the kind descriptions given them, by others and especially themselves, they really aren’t very good at what they do, and that is making the call on when they are faced with an actual threat of serious injury or death such that they ought to pull the trigger.

If the aspirational desire for police making good choices to use deadly force is real, then the incentive system should be directed toward that goal.  Bad choices should carry negative consequences, whether criminal or civil liability or public shaming.  And good choices should produce applause, medals, promotion and the occasional bridge named after an officer.

But if this is an aspiration too far, and the incentive system serves instead to create hesitation lest a police officer see his face on CNN with as pathetic an apologist as Sonny Hostin coming up with lame excuses not to hate him, what then?

Trade-offs.  There will be an uncertain but necessary percentage of people dying. Will those people be police officers or innocent non-cops?  Someone has to die because they have to either shoot the innocent or suffer the attack of the criminal.

Trade-offs.  It seems that the answer goes back to the question of “if we have police officers” for whom good choices are too much to ask.  The cop chooses his job, one that offers some spectacular benefits such as twenty and out with a damn good pension, with full knowledge of what that job entails.

The downside is that a cop can get hurt or killed. Anyone entering the police academy knows this, though he will learn the First Rule of Policing as well during his first week on the job.  All the platitudes uttered for public consumption about protect and serve, risking their lives for our sake, is tempered by their truth, that their first driving motivation is to make it home for dinner.

Yes, if police can’t possibly be sufficiently well-trained, sufficiently smart, sufficiently brave to make good choices, Patterico’s trade-offs will happen.  But the innocent non-cop didn’t have a choice in the matter.  She didn’t ask to be wrongfully stopped. She didn’t ask to have a cop misinterpret her innocent movement, her exercise of constitutional rights, her skin color, to feed into a cop’s bad choice.  She didn’t ask to die, and she wants to get home for dinner just as much as the cop does.

If there have to be trade-offs, then there is no question who prevails. There is no “officer safety” exception to the Constitution, and along with the authority to use a gun comes the responsibility of making smart choices. The people win.


13 thoughts on “Theory, Practice and Dead Bodies

  1. David M.

    I’d like to know how “fewer stops” can lead to “more police injured or killed.” That seems like the kind of trade-off you only get in a tequila dream.

    1. SHG Post author

      He threw that in to remind us that we’ll be raped in our sleep if cops don’t get to kill. It’s scary because criminals will get away.

      1. David M.

        I hate those criminals that drive around killing cops, but only when the cops don’t pull them over. They’re the worst criminals.

  2. Francis W. Porretto

    — Yes, if police can’t possibly be sufficiently well-trained, sufficiently smart, sufficiently brave to make good choices, Patterico’s trade-offs will happen. —

    Of course, the most important word in that sentence is if.

    I grant your argument; it’s perfectly sound. Frey also has some points. Yes, we must insist that “officer safety” is an unacceptable reason to draw and fire on a citizen not yet known to be a felon nor engaged in violence. Equally yes, we should be looking for ways to improve the outcomes…and if one of the avenues of improvement is that new candidates for the police force must be compelled to accept that their job will always carry the risk of death, so be it.

    1. SHG Post author

      I can’t begin to tell you much it means to me that you grant my argument. I have a warm glow all around me.

  3. InalienableWrights

    Cops bring this on themselves because they are acting as the slave over seers for the people that run this country. Let’s go back 100 years and get rid of cops. The world would be a much safer and better place without them…

  4. Jerryskids

    While it is terrible for the cop who got pistol-whipped by a member of the public, I feel as a member of the public that I should assure the police that this was just an isolated incident involving one bad apple and we shall see to it that this gentleman is given a severe written reprimand and a couple of weeks of paid leave followed by a six-hour refresher course on the policies and procedures followed here in the general public. Now let us put this tragic incident behind us and hear no more about it.

  5. JD

    I’ll be honest, I am just an average [non-lawyer] guy that struggles with both sides of this argument – innocent people should never have to die or be injured, civilian or cop. While my comments are usually in the vein of, “…legitimate stop or not, you as the subject also control what happens next, and no amount of pride or constitutional right is worth your life during a traffic stop…” I do have to pause and rethink that position after reading this post, SHG. While I certainly believe that we need to protect our police AND our citizens, we can’t always do that, and I do enjoy your point that all things being equal, the cop chose his profession, the subject didn’t chose to be stopped illegally.

    I hate this topic – it makes my skin crawl – probably because I know that the best way to end an invalid stop is to shut my face and kiss as much ass as possible, maybe even thanking him for a ticket I should have never been issued, all the while knowing that while this may get me home faster and safe[er] that it also will do nothing to stop the culture of overreaching cops that have little idea of what the actual laws say.

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