Principled Is Only Great If You’re Alive

Buffalo high school students get to hear what ex-state trooper, now lawyer, John Elmore has to say about encounters with police. He’s written a book about it, and stories about his lectures have appeared with some regularity in the Buffalo News.  The latest article was October 1st, but inexplicably no longer appears online.

The TL;dr version falls under the mantra, “comply or die,” including such advice as “never run,” “show your hands” and “never touch a cop.”  It’s all familiar and fundamental.

The boys are all too familiar with the images and the aftermath of the deadly police encounters, whether it’s Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., or Eric Garner in Staten Island or Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minn.

“It’s wrong to say all cops are bad,” Elmore told them. “Most cops are good people.”*

But Elmore understands its hard to be respectful to police if they’re not respectful in return. Nonetheless, he beseeched the boys not to take up that fight in the street or they could end up arrested or hurt – even dead.

“You don’t want to be the mistake that ends up on YouTube,” Elmore told them. “You want to go home.”

Nothing new here. Alone on the road is not the place you want to find out whether your police officer is that “good people” everybody keeps telling you most cops are.  It’s a familiar story, the “comply now, grieve later” that law students are taught when a judge is being recalcitrant.

The big difference is that the talk is about staying alive long enough to grieve later. It’s practical, and far better than some of the truly idiotic advice other former law enforcement officers provide.**  But frankly, Elmore’s advice is nothing new and not worthy of much discussion. It needs to be told to each new class of kids so they know what the class before them was told.

It’s the reaction to the Buffalo News’ article about Elmore that was curious. A Buffalo lawprof, Anthony O’Rourke wrote a letter to the editor critical of Elmore’s talk.

I am disappointed that The News published, as a news article, the opinions of John V. Elmore concerning how people of color should interact with the police. The Oct. 1 article, “ ‘Never run from a police officer’ and other tips,” demonstrates a disregard for the constitutional protections designed to protect citizens against abusive policing. Perhaps, in his full remarks, Elmore framed his “tips” to teens of color in a context that addressed this concern. Such nuance is strikingly absent, however, from the article.

Consider, for example, the admonition that “a big mouth and a screw face will get you arrested.” This amounts to an endorsement of arrests based not on probable cause – as the Fourth Amendment requires – but on the subjective biases of individual police officers. This is the very type of policing ethic that protesters have been lawfully organizing to challenge as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Should a police officer choose to interfere with protesters who are exercising their First Amendment right to free assembly, what is Elmore’s advice? “Disperse, disperse, disperse.”

This is the perennial conflict between rights and reality. O’Rourke has a firm grasp on, at least, basic criminal law. He’s quite right that a loud mouth and screw face aren’t probable cause, and should a cop arrest a kid for behaving in a way the cop finds disrespectful, the cop would be wrong.  No argument whatsoever.

But Elmore’s advice is to keep the kid alive rather than “right.”  The talk O’Rourke wants Elmore to have with these kids is about the glory of the law, the dignity of citizenship, their constitutional rights. Yay, rights!  And there is no dispute that these are of critical importance to these young people. Provided they live long enough to enjoy them.

The problem is that the talk O’Rourke wants Elmore to have with the kids is the talk O’Rourke should have with the cops. The problem is that the cop who puts a bullet in a kid’s body, or beats him for running or mouthing off, or makes up an offense to justify the tuning up he’s just given the kid with a loud mouth and screw face, may be totally wrong about what he’s done pursuant to the Constitution. But the kids is dead, broken or arrested anyway.

How can we expect young people to trust the rule of law, or have any investment in their citizenship, when this is the message communicated to them by those in positions of influence? In the future, I hope that The News declines to be a mouthpiece for the opinions of those who appear to be hostile to the constitutional rights of everyday citizens. The newspaper’s resources would be better allocated toward investigating and reporting on the realities of policing in our city.

For a guy who is deemed smart enough to teach students, this is pretty damn dumb.  Elmore wasn’t being “hostile to the constitutional rights of everyday citizens,” but practical about keeping them alive long enough to assert their rights later. As for the Buffalo News being “a mouthpiece” for keeping black kids alive, would O’Rourke feel better if they were complicit in getting kids killed by being the mouthpiece for an academic?

That it needs to change, that cops need to conduct themselves in a matter that is consistent with the Constitution, obey the law and limits of their lawful authority, stop harming people including black kids because they can get away with it, is no more an epiphany than Elmore’s “don’t run.”

But just as Police Officer Tim McMillan wrote that “somebody” has to fix this, maybe O’Rourke should put his efforts into fixing the problem rather than getting kids killed before the problem is fixed. The Buffalo police have long been rife with misconduct and abuse. If O’Rourke wants to stand up for a deep exposition of constitutional rights, he should put his efforts into fixing the problem at its source rather than complaining that Elmore and the Buffalo News want to keep kids alive long enough to enjoy the fruits of his nuanced brilliance.

*The “most cops are good people” trope is just as foolish an assertion as most cops are evil. Cops are people, and people can do good one day and bad the next. What this mantra fails to take into account is that when they put on a shield, they are no longer Just “people,” subject to whatever foibles people suffer, but agents of the state imbued with enormous authority over others.

When they choose to become a cop, they choose to forego the excuse that they’re just people and undertake a responsibility that goes with the authority vested in them. If that responsibility is more than they can handle, then they ought to be working at Dairy Queen. Most employees of Dairy Queen are good people too, but they don’t get to kill people with the authority of the state.

Let’s put this bullshit trope to an end. Cops are as good or bad as the performance of their duty at any given moment. It doesn’t matter that they saved a kitten in a tree yesterday if they beat a black kid for no reason today. A bullet from the gun of a good person will kill an innocent kid just as surely as the bullet from a bad person.

**Aside from some of the brutally stupid advice, the core distinction is physical actions (i.e., hands visible) as opposed to trust the cops, cooperate with the cops because they are the good guys who deserve your respect and adulation, do what they say because they deserve your compliance.

H/T Kathleen Casey

6 thoughts on “Principled Is Only Great If You’re Alive

  1. Billy Bob

    Dairy Queen employees kill people, unwittingly, with bad nutrition. But we’re not going there today. The problem of the good cop, bad cop syndrome is that they all look the same once inn uniform, even the “minority” ones. You can tell a bank robber from your friendly insurance salesman by just looking. The bad guy,… well, he looks baaad. He’s poorly dressed, wears the baseball cap backwards, or maybe a hoody. He probably does not shave. You don’t see too many unshaven cops. Against departmental rules and regs.

    And only in New York do they fail to shine their shoes. Too busy making unwarranted stops and shakedowns for that minor detail.

    1. SHG Post author

      But we’re not going there today.

      And yet you did. Bad guys don’t always look baaad. Sometimes, they look just like you. Okay, baaad example.

  2. Kathleen Casey

    The News is good for the First Amendment except when, who knows?

    John Elmore has been very much involved in practical life in our minority community. I have emailed asking that the editor repost the article and his advice but I doubt it will do any good.

Comments are closed.