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.
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.