The other day, the Beast of Brooklyn, Ken Womble, argued that the tide is turning, that while there may be a long war ahead of us, we’re winning the war on police, or at least not losing as badly as we have been up to now.
Prosecutors, judges and politicians turn a blind eye to reality when it comes to police. Prosecutors would rather let an innocent person rot in jail than stand up to the police. Many judges still think that questioning the word of a police officer is tantamount to blasphemy. Politicians cower before the political power of the police department, continuing to give cops everything they ask for despite decades of falling crime rates.
So, without accountability, how are we making progress? Through information. Five years ago, whenever the discussion turned to police misconduct or corruption, the inevitable government response was that we were dealing with just a few bad apples. That tended to shut down the conversation. Today, it holds no water. It has been swept away by a sea of Eric Garners and Tamir Rices.
Having been fighting this battle for a while, actually more than 30 years, it’s true that huge strides in accountability have been made in the past few years, largely as a result in the pervasiveness of video. It’s not that the same problems of police behavior, force and violence haven’t been happening forever, but that they were dismissed until video made that difficult.
Of course, not everyone sees it that way, and many still do gymnastics to deny the obvious, to rationalize any misconduct, to give the police the benefit of the doubt when the gun down a clearly unarmed, non-threatening human being for no good reason. But those people can’t be helped. If you’re inclined to forgive cops any trespass, then there is no wrong that can’t be excused.
New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton sees the battle lines and has decided to get ahead of the curve in shaping public perception before the next video of one of his cops killing someone on the street.
For the first time in its modern history, the New York Police Department is establishing explicit guidelines — backed by a sweeping new tracking system — for using and documenting force.
Every police officer will have to detail virtually every instance when force is used not only in an arrest but also in other encounters with the public, including the sort of brief, violent detention and release that occurs routinely on the street and, in the case of the retired tennis star James Blake, is captured on video.
Sounds great, right? Not just guidelines, but “explicit guidelines.” And not just explicit guidelines, but with a “sweeping new tracking system.” Sounds pretty high tech, and we all know that tech is the future, yadda, yadda, yadda. Problem solved?
If it was that simple, maybe Bratton should just issue a guideline requiring all cops to conduct themselves in accordance with the Constitution. There ya go, all the problems magically disappear because a guideline said so.
Not even the first responder to unicorns and rainbows buys this line.
Mr. Bratton’s announcement on Thursday was welcome, if overdue. It happened to coincide with the release of a sharply critical report from the city’s Department of Investigation, which found that officers could be appallingly ineffective at keeping the peace, and that their bosses had failed to teach them how to calm potentially violent situations. It found that the department had no comprehensive system to track the use of force, and had failed to impose discipline and accountability on officers who abused their power.
Mr. Bratton’s willingness to pivot on policy is a good first step, but it doesn’t yet solve the problem. It does not close the gap between the department’s view of its professionalism and the reality of officers like Daniel Pantaleo, who led the gang-tackle that killed Eric Garner, or James Frascatore, whose unprovoked attack on the tennis star James Blake was accompanied by an attempted cover-up.
And, I would submit, this is still a ridiculously naïve and rosy expectation. If a cop beats a guy and there’s no video to capture it, did it happen? Will it shock anyone to learn that cops might be no more diligent, accurate or honest about filling out forms than they were with stop & frisk 250s? The circularity of the outcome, if there is no form, then no one got beaten, will be the new proof of how great a job they’re doing.
Well-intended people of good will may find this refusal to fawn over this new plan cynical. It’s not. It’s just good, old-fashioned American skepticism, as it’s not that simple to turn a boat as big as law enforcement from what they’ve done for generations to a kinder, gentler heading.
And it’s a recognition that cops hate their overlords just as much as anyone else, believing as their training officer taught them on their first day on the street after the Academy to forget everything they were taught and learn the First Rule of Policing. Surviving their own bureaucratic lies is just as much a part of the job as surviving any threat, real or perceived, on the street.
There tends to be a reform effort every generation, whether it’s because of some major scandal of dirty cops or, as now, the ubiquitous video putting the lie to how brave, kind and righteous police are with the public. Should we buy it? Not even the co-opted officials are ready to bite.
As Commissioner Mark Peters of the Department of Investigation said: “The NYPD must still develop a plan for de-escalation training and improve its disciplinary process. Suggestions that today’s announcement represents a full resolution to this problem are premature.”
Does this mean we’re winning the war against the police, or merely that we’ve moved sufficiently forward to force the cops to shift gears and come up with a new shtick to create the appearance of looking better in the public’s eye?
If I was a betting man, I would pick the latter, having lived through too many reform efforts that were designed to give the appearance of improvement rather than actually change anything. And here we are again, because every attempt ever made failed. And yes, that’s cynical. Experience can do that to a fellow.