Culture Shock

An offhand comment at Hacker News caught me by surprise. It was in response to a link to the post about Bankruptcy Judge Shelly Chapman’s visit to the Bronx Criminal Courthouse,

As far as I can tell, the point of view of that ‘deconstruction’ is “Yeah, criminal court is totally fucked up, but we’re used to it, what you think you’re better than us because it’s still shocking to you? fuck you elitist!”

I’m sure lawyers and judges look up and down at each other with elitism, and they can take that up among themselves or whatever. But this “too cynical to be outraged at a really fucked up system” stuff helps nobody, and is just it’s own kind of pretentiousness, directed at the rest of us.

Putting aside the usual narcissism that the post was “directed” at or anywhere near the writer of the comment, that he interpreted the post through his lens is understandable. What else could he do?  It would be unreasonable to expect a hacker-type to grasp the higher-order concept that, within lawyers practicing criminal law, the epiphany of Judge Chapman (and him) had long been known and recognized. Contrary to being cynical these failings have been the subject of daily, hourly, efforts to compel change. Not that anyone gave a damn.

The post wasn’t about lawyers being “too cynical to be outraged,” but being outraged by the fact that people like Judge Chapman, like him, were so isolated in their own bubble of self-interest that they didn’t know about this. It’s not, “we know so much,” but how is it possible you know so little? Every once in a while, a tidbit makes its way onto your radar and you enjoy a few minutes of clueless shock, then go back to your world to play Pokemon Go.

But too many of us do the same when we look at the world of one of our constant bogeymen, police. In response to the “one bad apple” cries of police supporters. we point out the cops who stood there, watched and did nothing. We highlight the cops who remained silent knowing that another cop lied, planted evidence, beat a perp. We name and shame the cop who failed to stop a fellow cop from wrongfully killing someone, who lied to cover the killing. One bad apple, my ass, we say. And it’s true, but it’s not the full story.

Joe Crystal was a Baltimore cop who decided not to play the game anymore.  When he saw two cops beat a drug suspect, he reported it to the State’s Attorney. For that, he was labeled a “rat,” forced to leave the job, leave Baltimore and fear for his life. From other cops.  The full Serpico.

Crystal isn’t the first cop to break the blue wall of silence, but by doing so, he earned the right to offer insight from the dark side. For those of you who think you know better, show him a little respect for the act of bravery he performed, the risk he took, the suffering he endured.

Joe Crystal tries to give us some insight into what the world of policing looks like from the other side of the blue wall.

In one incident mentioned in the report, a Justice Department investigator went on a patrol with a sergeant. The sergeant saw a group of young black men on a street corner and told an officer to order them to leave. The officer said he had no reason to do so. “Make something up,” the sergeant replied.

That the sergeant would do this in front of a federal official investigating civil rights violations may be astounding, but it demonstrated his mind-set. He didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. He must have been in the department for years and had probably been taught to take such action by his field training officer, and even the department’s commanders. It was learned behavior, part of a culture rooted in an “us versus them” mentality.

There is a lot packed into these two paragraphs. Part of it is why we saw wrongdoing when a cop shrugs and explains, it didn’t happen. What we see as wrong, they see as the job. The federal official in the car may have been there to investigate, but he’s still from the DoJ, still on the same team. Surely, he must know how the job is done? Surely, something as basic and commonplace as, “make something up,” would be understood as just doing their job.

As Crystal explains, this isn’t some nefarious scheme to engage in wrongdoing, but banal police culture.

I learned, bitterly, during my almost six years in the department, how hard it was to resist this culture, to do the right thing.

From the outside, it’s unimaginable that cops who engage in, or enable, or conceal, abuse and misconduct don’t realize what they’re doing.  How is it possible that conduct that outrages us isn’t worthy of a second thought by the cop engaging in it?

To get cops to care about doing things right, what needs to change in Baltimore, and in many other cities, is not just policy, but culture. And that’s a formidable struggle. Most of the majors, colonels and deputy commissioners do not know how to police any other way.

Crystal sees it as a top down problem, that when the brass approves of police abuse, perpetuates it through “informal” training, tolerance of lies and misconduct, the tacit understanding among cops of how the job is really done, the culture remains intact.  Crystal’s answer is that cops have to change the culture from the top and the bottom will follow.

Is this right? Beats me. At Fault Lines, Greg Prickett has often written about the disconnect between police brass and the street cops, who view them as the official “management” team, more worried about optics than the First Rule of Policing. But he too explains the problem isn’t malice, but culture.

If the first step in fixing a problem is to identify what the problem is, then it behooves us to stop trying to jam police misconduct into our paradigm, seeing it only from the outsider perspective, but to understand what it looks like from the inside and what drives cops to behave as they do. We may find it as reprehensible as the hacker views the “cynical” acceptance of a “really fucked up system” by criminal defense lawyers, but we would be just as wrong as he is.

9 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. Jonathan

    This is a particularly good post. In this echo-chamber world it’s hard but crucial not to be blinded by one’s own paradigm.

    1. SHG Post author

      One of the hardest things to do is realize that you’re only seeing the world through your own lens. The old adage, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, is rarely said anymore.

      1. Dragoness Eclectic

        This is why I like to read your blog, Mr. Greenfield. You show me the world through a different lens, and stereoscopic vision is always better for getting perspective than a narrow, single-angle view. You help me, and others like me, be less stupid in general.

          1. Dragoness Eclectic

            As I should always reply, I don’t have the information to comment about what some other person who is not me is thinking about you or how the topic at hand affects them. Selection bias.

            1. SHG Post author

              Most people who comment don’t use the word “I,” thus making their comment about the substance rather than about the commenter, the commenter’s personal experiences or the commenter’s feelings. Just an observation.

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