The Rehabilitation Of A Cop

This is going to piss off many of you, but consider that Salt Lake City detective Jeff Payne, who was universally condemned for his arrest of nurse Alex Wubbels, isn’t an animal, a terrible human being, a bad cop. Consider instead that he was a pretty ordinary cop, following orders, trying to perform what he understood to be his duty. Consider also that on another day, he would save a kitten from a tree, walk an old woman across the street and play b-ball with orphan kids.

Consider that Jeff Payne was a good father to his children, a loving husband, a pillar of the community and a charitable human being. But the only thing we know about Payne is what he did to Wubbels, and since that was awful, he’s awful. Some will argue that if he’s awful, that’s all they need to know. Some will argue that his awfulness reflects the systemic problem with cops, flexing their muscle at the expense of other human beings, equally (if not more so) worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. Some will argue that Payne embodied what’s wrong with policing, and no kittens in trees make that go away.

All of these things are fair arguments. But Stephen Hartney, president of the Salt Lake Police Association, didn’t make these arguments or refute them. Instead, he went by the book.

The Salt Lake Police Association on Monday broke its silence regarding the widely publicized arrest of a University Hospital nurse by two officers, saying the union is “extremely concerned and dismayed” at how the city has handled the investigation and release of information.

“The premature release of body cam footage, and information related to the disciplinary investigation, and repeated statements by city officials to the media has unfairly and improperly made pariahs of the involved officers,” according to a letter written by Stephen Hartney, the police union’s president.

The attack is focused on the “premature” release of the video. The video went viral. Had it been released a day, a month later, would that have changed anything?

Hartney said releasing the body camera video while the investigation is still ongoing “has created a public furor which makes reasoned determinations difficult, if not impossible. A furor which did not have to occur,” while later adding that release of the video also “creates an explosive atmosphere for no reason whatsoever.”

“The premature release of body cam footage is particularly demoralizing as it allows the public who have not trained as police officers to make what often amounts to biased and ill-informed judgments of the police,” the letter states.

The key language in there doesn’t challenge any impropriety reflected in the video, which Hartley says isn’t the point of his letter, but that it put the video before the public “who have not trained as police officers.” This has long been the cop go-to argument, that nobody understands cops except cops, thus enabling cops to dismiss all views but theirs.

And the upshot of putting video before the public “prematurely” is that the public’s view “amounts to biased and ill-informed judgments of the police.” Just so it’s clear, watching a video and reaching a conclusion is the opposite of bias, but Americans really suck at definitions and do so enjoy buzzwords.

These complaints aren’t random. They are part of the generic playbook. And it should come as no surprise that there is, at least now, an actual playbook.

Police unions have been under fire lately for protecting bad cops, opposing reforms, and engaging in bullying behavior in response to public criticisms of unwarranted police shootings. So, in the wake of this latest round of attention, let’s take a look at the police-union playbook when it comes to responding to controversial police use of force incidents.

We’re a nation easily swayed by simplistic platitudes that confirm our bias, and just as slogans and chants push one side to hysteria, they cut the other way as well. Police unions aren’t foolish, despite whatever you want to think. They are often unsophisticated in their presentation, but they know what they’re there to do, and that’s defend their people when a cop finds himself in the media’s crosshairs. Here’s Scott Henson’s description of the “rules.”

Rule One: Do Not Defend the Indefensible

Argues that, in racially charged debates, union leaders may need to sacrifice individual members to the media maelstrom because, “If the unions stands directly in the blast and tries to stop it, the blast will overwhelm and discredit the union and the officers it represents.” They gave an example in which “the officers were terminated and the union received favorable press.”

Rule Two: Redirect the Message

Specifically, “The union should look to see if management or elected officials are overreacting and have jumped to conclusions about the ‘guilt’ of the officer or officers.” Then single that person out and attack them. “The union’s attack on the offending officials will start a war of words between the parties and distract the media.”

Rule Three: Wrap Yourself in the Flag

“If the high profile incident appears to be really bad and there is no logical explanation in the initial aftermath that the union can give to the media and the public for the officer’s actions, the union should wrap itself in the flag.” Further, “The union may consider going on the offense at this point.” For example, “If the incident has racial overtones, make the message that the debate is about criminals, not race.”

Rule Four: Remind the Public Who the Real Bad Guys Are in the Case, and Pray There Are Some

Most high profile incidents begin “when someone starts acting badly or breaking the law, so they suggest that unions investigate the victim (“get the public record on this person”) and publicly blame them. They add, “If the incident involves a carload of preachers, revisit Rule Number Three (Wrap Yourself In The Flag).”

Rule Five: Educate the Public About the Hazards of the Job

They encourage emphasizing how dangerous police officers jobs are  and advocate taking reporters to ride along with officers, attend training classes on tactics, or participate in shoot-no-shoot exercises.

Rule Six: Time Heals All Wounds

Drag everything out as long as possible, they advise, and the public will eventually move on. “The longer a high profile incident is off the front page, the easier it is to resolve the case” because “The judge or arbitrator assigned to these cases sometimes feel more media and public pressure immediately after an incident than a year or so later. The more controversial the incident, the more time is your friend.”

Rule Seven: Public Trust is Key

They encourage the union to cultivate relationships with businesses and community activists because often they “will step forward to defend police officers in controversial cases. If community leaders come to the defense of their officers, it may lessen the likelihood the officers will face criminal charges, especially if the prosecutor has an elected boss. It may sway management away from severe disciplinary action.”

Rule Eight: You Cannot Control the Actions of Your Members 24/7

For union leaders, “The only sin is not expecting anything to happen that would be characterized by the media as controversial.” Because it will. “It is not a matter of if, but when the crap will hit the fan.” So prepare accordingly.

Before anyone gets crazy about the union’s efforts to manipulate the media and public opinion, which is the only possible explanation for why your crazy Uncle Charlie loves cops no matter what, consider that everyone tries to play public opinion, and doing so is as American as apple pie. Consider also that it works because so many people prefer the black and white world that simplifies who are heroes and villains, so we don’t have to actually think.

Maybe Jeff Payne is a good guy, aside from what happened in the video with Alex Wubbels. Maybe he’s that fifth cop who shows up after the perp is cuffed on his stomach with a knee choking the life out of him who still plants that kick to the head. We don’t know. It doesn’t change the wrongfulness of what happened on video, but it might change the screams for his head.

16 thoughts on “The Rehabilitation Of A Cop

  1. KP

    Nope! Maybe I lack imagination, but I can’t imagine a scenario that would allow the cop to behave like he did and somehow claim he was in the right.

    That behaviour was unacceptable in any civilised country, but I suppose its unsurprising these days in the USA. As a Kiwi, where the police are not armed, and living in Aussie, where the police never draw their weapons, I am often horrified at the stories about police behaviour in here.

    The union?? Meh- no credibility at any time anyway, just shills paid to flood the place with propaganda.

    The comment about time heals all wounds is also striking, and reflects badly on the whole justice system in the eyes of the public. Can it all continue downhill..??

    1. SHG Post author

      This is one of those comments that I wish hadn’t been written. Whether the behavior was acceptible or not isn’t based on whatever shit goes on in your head, but the law. The law could very easily have permitted Payne to do a blood draw, and arrest Wubbels for refusing. You don’t think that would be civilized? Who gives a fuck? it’s about the law, not how you feel about the law. This is the same inane argument against the 1st and 2d Amendments, but you fail to grasp that you do the same thing, just in your own direction.

      1. Frank

        It appears to a non-lawyer like myself that the law was [Ed. Note: Balance deleted so no brain cells suffer a needless, painful, brutal death.]

  2. B. McLeod

    Of course, to make any progress, they do need to get rid of the furor.

    The other important thing would be to make good judgments as to what is “indefensible.”

        1. SHG Post author

          True, it works both ways as some rush to condemn, though the “wait until the investigation is complete” side is worse than the hot take side.

  3. Kathryn Kase

    Will police union president Stephen Hartney next express his extreme concern and dismay about how public officials regularly try criminal cases in the media? Will he condemn “the premature release” of information (ahem, usually by police) when charges are filed against people who lack shields and guns? Will he decry “repeated statements” by police to the media that makes “pariahs” of the criminal accused?

    Inquiring minds want to know — although we are not holding our breath.

  4. Edward

    I think it is rather unlikely that was the first time Payne abused his authority. His hubris got the best of him and he finally got stupid enough to do it on video with countless witnesses.

  5. Casual Lurker

    “…unless you have evidence so show it, it’s just rank baseless speculation. It’s worthless”.

    It may not be accepted in a court of law. But that doesn’t make it worthless. Public shaming can be a powerful deterrent.

    Sure, maybe the incident was an outlier. But using the lesser standard of “more likely than not”, with some additional background investigation, I suspect a sufficient behavioral profile could be developed to support one or more personality disorders.

    Further, just about every textbook on behavioral psychology says “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior”. You’ll hear that exact phrase repeated time and again by psychology bigwigs like Stanford’s Dr. Philip Zimbardo. You’ll also hear TV shills, like Dr. Phil, often say it. For good reason it’s become the mantra of many a shrink and prison official.

    While there are those who argue the science is soft, note that it’s backed by stochastic probability. For the math challenged, note that epidemiology uses it to accurately predict the spread of disease, Wall street uses it for AI driven trading, and Stanislaw Ulam (the engineer who designed the template for all thermonuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile, known as the Teller-Ulam design), who developed an early form, known as a Monte Carlo Analysis, to reliably predict the minimum number of fissions required to achieve explosive criticality for any particular yield. In other words, it’s not subject to same criticism of statistics proffered by Benjamin Disraeli.

    As to the union griping about not having an opportunity to control the narrative, I can hear Richard Pryor’s voice saying “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

    1. SHG Post author

      Should we sentence defendants for the crime of conviction, or for having committed the crime plus their speculative history of having been criminals, since even if we don’t know whether they’ve ever committed a crime before, “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior,” and now that they’ve been convicted once, we can safely assume they’ve committed prior crimes and gotten away with it. Should add on additional sentences for one more crime, ten more, one hundred more? After all, as long as we’re just making up bad things that we assume they did, why not assume the worst?

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