To Reform Cops, Be One

The buried lede of the New York Times’ otherwise hyperbolic and simultaneously vapid editorial that the NYPD can no longer “reject” reform is that the Times doesn’t call to Abolish Police or Defund Police, but reform police.

Faced with enormous suffering during a pandemic, a possible economic collapse and maybe the largest civil rights movement in history, a healthy police department could have acted as a balm. Many members of the New York Police Department work hard every day to do just that, putting their lives on the line alongside the city’s nurses, Emergency Medical Services workers, mass transit employees and other essential workers.

How the police are supposed to act “as a balm” is unclear, just as is the suggestion that it would have been different, but for the pandemic, economic collapse and civil rights “movement,” of little significance compared to the 1960s) (where the word “maybe” can’t possibly do the heavy lifting demanded of it). But vague covers a lot of intellectual failings and is rarely recognized as an empty rhetorical device to woo the passionate.

But too often in recent months, instead of a balm, the Police Department has become another source of trauma. It unleashed disproportionate force on crowds of overwhelmingly peaceful protesters, beating them with batons; punching, shoving and tackling them; and driving a police vehicle through a large group.

Yes, it did, and there is plenty of video to show it, although there is also plenty of video to show that the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters didn’t mean there weren’t underwhelmingly unpeaceful protesters as well, and peaceful protesters who refused to heed lawful orders, leaving the police in a hard position, either to cede control of the city to protesters or do something about it. There are very real arguments about what to do, how to do it, and how to do it without doing needless harm, but that’s a different argument than whether the protesters, with a smattering of rioters and looters, should be allowed to take over the city.

But reform, it’s argued, is the answer, rather than abolish or defund. So reform what?

Last month, the approved several police reform bills, including one requiring officers to show their names and badge numbers and another making it illegal for officers to use tactics that restrict someone’s airflow. Over the coming year, its members will have to do more.

Both these “reforms” were already reformed, but that didn’t work, so the City Council “reformed” it again, so this time they really, really mean it. Well, that’s serious. Got anything else?

Good places to start would be by holding more public hearings on the department’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests and by examining questions like whether officers have engaged in a work slowdown, something officials have denied.

Oh my, public hearings. Why didn’t anyone think of that before, since that will really fix the problems? The New York Times doesn’t even bother with the usual stand-bys, implicit bias, cultural sensitivity and de-escalation training, because a person with a shield can’t figure out not to shoot some unarmed guy looking into his eyes without a class telling him that black people are human beings too.

Having proffered a great many specific problems with policing over the years, there has been a recurrent theme underlying all of it. Cop culture has to change, so that they are less racist in the sense of jumping to assumptions that black people are more inclined to crime and violence such that they use too much force with too little restraint, beat too soon, shoot too soon, care too little about the physical harm they inflict on people. The culture is from the bottom up, the brotherhood on the bottom applying the First Rule of Policing at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve, but they instead see as their enemies, threats to their authority and lives.

Ironically, sociologist Neil Gross has an op-ed that suggests a radical solution.

For the past few years, I’ve taught a seminar on the sociology of the police at Colby College in Maine. My students, mostly progressive, ask me whether there’s anything they can do to help solve some of the serious problems that exist in policing, such as racial inequities in the use of force, the overpolicing of minority neighborhoods and rogue officers who lie to justify arrests. Today, young people all over the country are asking the same question.

Here’s the answer I give my students: Consider becoming a police officer.

This is one of those <head explodes gif> responses. If the culture of the rank and file police is “toxic,” then get a better rank and file. And if you believe you’re better, why not be that better rank and file cop?

To many progressives, the suggestion to join the police force may be counterintuitive, even offensive. If your belief, based on what you’ve seen or read or experienced firsthand, is that policing is a racist, oppressive institution, why would you want to become a part of it? But if there were more police officers who cared about the things progressives support, like minimizing police violence, finding alternatives to incarceration and ensuring the right to peaceful protest, we’d all benefit.

The reaction to Gross’ idea has been, unsurprisingly, to take offense. After all, almost no one who is fighting against police abuse wants to be a cop, and urging them to do so is, in the scheme of progressive rationalizations, victim blaming. After all, what kind of a response is “if you don’t like the way cops are doing it now, why don’t you do it better”? Gross realizes that the job isn’t as easy as detractors would have it.

One of the main challenges when it comes to controlling police behavior is that by necessity, police officers are granted a great deal of discretion. They deal with so many widely varying and ambiguous situations that even the most intricately laid out rules can’t always specify how they should respond. Officers must follow applicable laws and policies, but they’re also expected to use their own good judgment, as informed by their training and experience. When that judgment isn’t good — when it’s clouded by racial animus or implicit bias, for example, or a greater sense of loyalty to one’s peers than to the cause of justice — problems arise.

This isn’t to say that the options are “be a cop or shut up,” but that while we’re vilifying cops at the moment, if you want the culture to change from search and destroy to protect and serve, a far more effective way to do that would be to change cop culture by being the cop you want cops to be. And it’s not too dangerous, provides a great pension and makes it pretty easy to decide what to wear to work every day.

23 thoughts on “To Reform Cops, Be One

  1. B. McLeod

    Yeah, the fine progressive citizens have realized they don’t want thugs gut-shooting infants in their strollers. But serve on the Balm Squad? That’s dangerous.

      1. John Barleycorn

        To heal or soothe is the purpose of the balm…. Community College Criminal Justice 101.

        Sort of like the Ballad of the Boob but the mammary
        melancholy persists…

  2. jeffrey gamso

    At a CLE many years ago, a (state) judge said that when he was asked by a law student what the best thing he could do to give teeth back to the Fourth Amendment, he said, “Go to DC, become a cop, and roust Scalia for no reason.”

    A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but not without some sense to it.

    1. Kathryn M. Kase

      I wasn’t at that CLE, Jeff, but I do remember another in which at the cocktail party afterwards (because there’s always a cocktail party somewhere at a CLE) a colleague suggested that the best way to “reform” the Federalist Society and the NRA was to join both.

        1. Sgt. Anon

          Does this mean I get to tell the story of the cocktail party after a CLE where I got a blow job from a judge?

  3. Jake

    Mayhaps enough progressives have heard the story of Adrian Schoolcraft to know how dangerous it could be?

    1. SHG Post author

      If there were enough Adrian Schoolcrafts, there wouldn’t have been an Adrian Schoolcraft. It’s not going to be easy to change the culture, and there are huge risks in trying as Adrian (and others, from Serpico forward) have shown. But if there’s a critical mass for change, then it won’t be one person against the NYPD.

  4. grberry

    If any of those progressive students did looks to join the police, they’d quickly see that the things they hold dear aren’t what is valued in the hiring process. Education requirement of “must have a high school degree or equivalent” is typical so their college degree isn’t valued much, and if a college degree is wanted then the major wanted is criminal justice which probably isn’t even taught at their school. Preferences for military veterans – the horror. Ability to mouth progressive slogans won’t be evaluated.

      1. Lex

        “There is no reason they couldn’t be hired.“

        Bet the PT test, entry exam—math, situational judgment, and non-academic portions in particular— and background check/poly might stop more than a few. Which would be rather embarrassing to anyone why think cops are the dumbest of the dumb.

        1. LocoYokel

          Because the courts have said that it’s legal for police departments to refuse to hire intelligent applicants [Ed. Note: Link deleted], and that the cops don’t have to know the law when you are told that ignorance is no excuse (Heien v. North Carolina, US vs Shelton Barnes)

      2. F. Lee Bailey

        Speed-limit IQ is the minimal requirement, dumdums. Does this need to be repeated?

  5. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Being a police officer is hard. Policing microaggressions on twitter is substantially more rewarding. Also real police officers have to put clothes on and leave the basement; which would be a deal-killer for many armchair critics.

    In the debate over police behavior it is easy to forget that being a police officer is a shitty job, and that many of the people who are motivated to become police officers are the least qualified for that role. If we can’t figure out how to change that dynamic, then the problems will never be solved. How can honest, intelligent young people be motivated to want to become police officers? I don’t have an answer for that question, and the half-formed answers that come to mind are politically impossible.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are a lot of cops who will see this posture and reply, “Right, you see what the job is really like and then tell me about your feelings.” They’re not always right, but they’re not always wrong either.

  6. Tom H

    I believe the culture of policing is more likely to change the new recruits than the new recruits are likely to change the culture. I could relate a experience with someone I knew that became a cop planning to change things. Knowing how much you love personal anecdotes I won’t.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s certainly a possibility. Some experienced officers would likely argue that it’s not the culture, but the reality on the streets, that changes people. I have no idea whether that’s correct, but there is a good chance that being on the inside makes the job look a little different than it does from the outside.

  7. Bob

    I guess we’re not allowed to post links, but not too long ago the NYT ran a story with this headline:

    Black Officer Who Detained George Floyd Had Pledged to Fix the Police

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