Cop Myths Debunked, Or Not

Seattle police detective, and former soldier, Christopher Young, begins by Gertruding to establish that he’s not just one of those bad cops and consequently easily dismissed.

As a progressive who wants to decriminalize drugs and advance the welfare state, I fit in well in my Pacific Northwest community. Except, that is, for my job: I’ve been a big-city cop here for 26 years. Before that, I served in the military. The raging #DefundthePolice movement doesn’t know me and my colleagues at all — and persistent myths about police and their critics do more harm than good.

Is he a progressive? So he says, and since there’s nothing more to go on, it’s only fair to assume he’s telling the truth. He says he wants to decriminalize drugs and advance the welfare state, which is a curious phrasing of a very vague notion, but okay. But its purpose is to preface his subsequent “debunking” of four “myths” about cops.

1) Police are killing large numbers of civilians. That’s simply not true. In New York City, the police department has meticulously tracked every shot fired by its officers since 1971. These officers represent roughly 5 percent of the entire American force, so it’s a large sample. The NYPD’s annual report shows a dramatic, sustained drop in killings by police — from 93 in 1971 to just five in 2018.

It’s certainly true that the idea has been pounded over and over that cops are regularly, maybe even constantly, slaughtering people in the streets, particularly black people, which gives rise to the outrage, protests and riots whenever a black person dies at the hand of the cops. The details of the death are almost insignificant at this point, the assumption inherently being that if a black guy is killed, it must be “systemic racism” as opposed to circumstance.

But then, the number of cop killings doesn’t tell the story. How many beatings? How many wrongful arrests for contempt of cop? How many acts of needless humiliation at the end of a gun or threat of arrest?

New York City cops fired their weapons 27 times in 2018, the year used by Young. This year, it was up 74% to 47 for the first ten months of the year. Were they good shoots? Were they justified? Without that information, the numbers mean little.

Young’s initial point, that cops rarely kill anyone, no less black people, is correct, and it’s an important point given the pervasive and flagrantly false belief that there is an epidemic of cops killing black people. But it doesn’t sufficiently address the problem to offer much comfort.

2) The anti-cop movement is largely peaceful. Again, false. The movement, rather, is akin to the Batman villain Two-Face. Anyone who watched the protests on television would know that the daytime ones were lawful free speech. But the dynamic changed dramatically at night. Protests became intentional ­riots, designed to draw a police response that allowed rioters to claim victim status.

Again, there’s truth to this, that we’re shown peaceful protests, if we’re shown anything at all, and not the riots or violence, which is happening as well. But if there are ten people in a hundred who engage in violence, does that put the hundred at risk of being beaten, gassed, shot by less-than-lethal rounds and arrested?

Granted, dealing with people en masse when violence breaks out is problematic; how does a cop distinguish the bad actors from those exercising their constitutional right to protest? Sure, the peaceful protesters could get out when violence happens, but that’s not their duty and often not possible when police react immediately with significant force. To the cops, it’s a large group. To each individual in the group, they have a right not to be shot for what someone else did.

3) Abolishing police wouldn’t lead to lawlessness. Many of the defunders are genuine anarchists, who want no government at all and believe in a society of angels who serve each other voluntarily.

Of course, abolishing police is an absurd notion propounded by fools. But then, expansion over the past 50 years, both in pure numbers of cops and in hybrid groupings like joint task forces, has expanded the police presence and expense enormously. Cops are expensive, both in their salary, benefits or infrastructive as well as the cost of their malfeasance, both in dollars and harm to people.

Whether the money could be better used elsewhere is another, far more complicated, question, but that the numbers and expense should be subject to review and reduction is hardly beyond question. New York City has about 38,000 cops and almost 20,000 non-officer support staff. Do they need that many? It’s a fair question to ask and a question in need of a serious answer.

4) Today’s police are “militarized.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. As a soldier, I rode in an armored vehicle and sat in a turret with a belt-fed machine gun. My job was to shoot enemy soldiers. In my 26 years as a cop, I have done no such thing.

Young says he’s done no such thing. So what? This isn’t about Young, but about militarization, and the problem isn’t that cops behave exactly as soldiers would, but not as cops should.

Contrary to activist complaints, SWAT teams’ armored vehicles, armored clothing and special training help them avoid deadly force, not commit it. A regular cop is often justified shooting someone who threateningly brandishes a gun. A SWAT officer wearing protection, however, will wait longer before resorting to deadly force. In Seattle, our SWAT team recently saved a suicidal young black man with a gun.

An interesting theory, which might well be valid if that was how it played out in the real world. But as Radley Balko demonstrated in Rise of the Warrior Cop, that’s not how it works. Rather than be armored sheep dogs protecting their herd, they perceive themselves as soldiers at war against the non-cops, all likely threats to their lives and criminals.

Young’s points aren’t entirely wrong, and certainly present some moderation to the falsity and excesses of complaints against and characterizations of police. They’re not all evil. They’re not all killers. At the same time, they’re hardly the protectors they want to believe they are and can’t make their excesses, their violence, their racism and abuse disappear by noting that it doesn’t happen all the time, thus pretending it doesn’t happen enough to demand reform.

12 thoughts on “Cop Myths Debunked, Or Not

  1. DaveL

    Contrary to activist complaints, SWAT teams’ armored vehicles, armored clothing and special training help them avoid deadly force, not commit it.

    That’s… that’s quite a take. Aren’t you glad we don’t send cops to serve search warrants with just pepper spray and a copy of the warrant itself? Why, there’d be nothing left but a smoking crater, I’m sure.

  2. Erik H

    Seems he can’t make up his mind about how to frame small-frequency issues.

    When it’s cops, it’s basically “these things are rare, we should view them as such.”
    When it’s citizens, it’s essentially “a few people in a larger crowd of non-violent folks can really be dangerous.”

    That calls any purported neutrality into serious question, I think.

  3. mike parr

    Years ago we had statistical evidence compiled by the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project. The founder, David Packman, was unable to get funding and gave his project to the Cato Institute (that at the time was an independent non-partisan organization) who renamed it Unlawful Shield. Soon after Trump’s election the Koch brothers shut Packman’s project down deleting all of the findings from years of research from the web.

    The NPMRP as it was known proved beyond any doubt that there was an immense problem within law enforcement. Anyone claiming there’s not a huge problem within law enforcement are either uninformed or are being deceitful.

    1. David Meyer-Lindenberg

      What in the world are you talking about? I interned for Cato’s crimlaw division in early 2018, after Trump had been president for over a year. The others were only just then putting together the Unlawful Shield website – even the name was still being workshopped. Moreover, as far as I’m aware, Cato’s funding no longer comes from the Koch brother even in part (though he does still fund scholarships to work at Cato – full disclosure, I received one). Your comment is total nonsense.

      1. mike parr

        I’m not going to debate this subject any further but I feel it’s necessary to reply this one time out of respect for integrity in case others come across your comment in the future.

        The owner of this blog doesn’t normally publish links but I’ll post one in case he makes an exception. As the link proves, Unlawful Shield has been inactive since 2017, and were woefully inept since they received David’s project.

    1. SHG Post author

      If you don’t disagree, it’s not a rebuttal. You made excellent points from the cop’s perspective.

      And if you want, I can post it here as well.

      1. Gregory Prickett

        Feel free, I would appreciate it. Not disagreeing with one or two minor points does not negate the disagreement on the other issues, which still make it a rebuttal…and I’m rebutting Young, not you.

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