It’s somewhat painful to see sincere people put in a great deal of effort to fix a very real problem and not blindly root for their success. It’s not that I don’t want them to be successful. I do. Really. It’s just that they lack the experience to appreciate that theoretical solutions that fail to take reality into account are doomed to fail, and that all their effort and good intentions won’t change reality.
Campaign Zero, the solutions wing of the Black Lives Matter movement (the real one, not the faux college microaggression movement seeking to usurp the serious problem of cops killing black guys with their hurt feelings over sandwich meats and mistaken word usage), is trying very hard to provide ways to fix the problem.
The effort is worthy of applause and appreciation. The problem needs to be fixed. No, it’s not the only problem in need of a solution, and no, it’s not the only harm to black lives, or white lives. And it’s not even the problem that harms the most people. But it is still a terrible and inexcusable problem. And it needs to be fixed.
But will this fix it?
POLICE OFTEN KEEP USE OF FORCE INFORMATION HIDDEN FROM PUBLIC VIEW
- Baltimore, Houston, St. Louis, and New York police departments do not make their use of force policies available online
- Many police departments redact significant portions of their use of force policies before making them public
- Only three of the seventeen police departments in our analysis require police to report every time they used force, including incidents where police point a firearm at civilians.
- Minneapolis, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Seattle police departments do not post police shootings data online. Other police departments, including Philadelphia and Houston, routinely refuse to release the names of people their officers kill.
Police use of force policies are the sort of stuff that seems very important, very real, to people who have never been in the trenches alongside someone who’s enjoyed a good tuneup by a cop for having a big mouth. But they’re crap. Nonsense. A bunch of words on paper that no one gives a flying shit about on the street. They’re the sort of thing that people who love officialdom agonize over, while the people, the cops, who actually make decisions couldn’t care less.
It’s hard to fault Campaign Zero for taking use of force policies seriously. What else would they do? The unwritten rules of force can’t be addressed because they’re unwritten. The First Rule of Policing never appears in any official document. Like the marketing material pasted on the side of cop cars, the “protect and serve” puffery, or NYPD’s CPR, “courtesy, professionalism, respect,” it provides a basis for outsiders to point at and say, “see? see?!?”
But cops just laugh at these well-intended but clueless efforts, because nobody takes them seriously. On the street, it’s one cop at a time, making one decision at a time, whether to be nice and respectful, or put a bullet in their head, or something in between.
Policies are words, aspirational words, constructed with the intention that street cops follow them to the extent that the vagaries of words have actual meaning. But there is no policy that can inform a cop when he should be sufficiently afraid that he shoots before taking a bullet or blade. There is no policy, nor will there ever be a policy, that will make a skittish cop die rather than take a life.
Police should have the skills and cultural competence to protect and serve our communities without killing people – just as police do in England, Germany, Japan and other developed countries. In 2014, police killed at least 253 unarmed people and 91 people who were stopped for mere traffic violations. The following policy solutions can restrict the police from using excessive force in everyday interactions with civilians.
They “could” restrict police from using excessive force, but they won’t. It’s not that your policy initiatives are bad or wrong, although many are already in place and don’t do squat. Why? Because they’re the official version of what cops are supposed to do, replete with the usual wiggle words that allow a cop to utter “but my life was threatened” and have his bosses reply, “well, then, that changes everything.”
But more to the point, these are policies. You’re not lawyers, so you can be forgiven for not understanding that policies are nothing more than internal employment rules by which employees are supposed to handle their job. The remedy for a violation of policy is employment discipline, maybe even getting fired.
But when the option is risk getting fired or risk getting killed, no cop on the street will ever let policy get in the way of his making it home for dinner. And, truth be told, as long as the other cops watching don’t say anything, they won’t stop a cop from smacking around some kid for “interfering with his command presence.” Cops, you see, have a lot of experience coming up with jargon and excuses for doing whatever they please, whatever they’ve always done, whatever they want to do.
Hell, even when it’s on video for all to see, they can usually squirm their way out of it with some fancy footwork and a few trite phrases.
Now if your efforts and good intentions were put to changing the law about how police conduct was excused after the fact, so that the dreaded “Monday-morning quarterbacking,” oft-ridiculed but used for every other person in our society to determine whether their conduct violated the law, it might have some impact.
But even a seismic shift in the law comes after the fact, after there is a dead body lying in the street, a kid walking to school who gets tossed against a brownstone wall so the cops can check his book bag for weed or a gun.
This is a product of cop culture, the unwritten “policies” that really control how police behave on the mean streets, to real living people, and why harm happens despite the sweet words that police policies would seem to require. The greater the well-intended focus on matters like written policies, the less appreciation there is that you’re obsessing over nonsense while the real reasons harm happens are ignored. It’s got to stop, but changes in policy won’t accomplish changes in how cops behave on the street.
The harm happens in the street, not in official meetings, and fighting over the language of policies won’t save anyone’s life. If saving lives is the point, then focus on the place where it’s happening, and forget about tweaking the official public relations crap.