by Frank Sharpe
In our world there is a drive to see things either one way or the opposite way. Issues are presented only as left/right, up/down, or black/white. We’re inundated with pressure to choose a side and then defend that side no matter how ridiculous the argument becomes. However, when we are honest about most subjects we see that there are levels and grey areas and unknowns. It’s true of politics, race relations, relationships, religion, and anything else that involves human emotions over scientific method. When people have an emotional stake in something the truth often suffers. As I write this, truth is suffering due to the emotional reaction of many to the Brown and Garner Grand Jury decisions. My intent is to offer a few different essays on various components of these events, and today I offer my thoughts on American policing.
As a generalization, when given power to do so, there is nothing government can’t mess up. Usually it amounts to obscene wastes of tax money, but on occasion it steals people’s lives. If we look at government on a world-wide scale, it has outright murdered close to 200-million people in the last 115-years.
History, coupled with the basic American birthright of revolting against anyone who treads on you, means that we always have and always should consider anything labeled government as an adversary and a threat to liberty. President, Congressman, State Senator, mayor, code enforcer, school board member or dogcatcher matters not. All occupy a place of power and exist on the public dime, and because of that they simply can’t be trusted. It’s nothing personal; it’s just the nature of the relationship. And why is that? Because we (private citizens) are the employers of these public servants – but unlike the company hired to drywall your basement, these public servants have men & women with guns backing up all of their bright ideas. Those government enforcers are Police.
Police are supposed to have a specific job – in short, that job should be to respond to breaches of the peace and restore said peace. They accomplish peace restoration through verbal and physical contact with the public. Sometimes it involves warnings, sometimes citations, and sometimes arrests. Arrests are usually non-events, but can include many levels of force up to and including lethal force. Sworn Peace officers are unlike any other citizens in that they have the right to suspend a citizen’s rights. Under the correct circumstances police officers may detain, arrest, and even kill a citizen. They literally carry the power to deny a person their right to life, limb, liberty and property – Heavy stuff that carries major responsibility.
With such an immense responsibility comes a natural public distrust focused on the actions police engage in. This is healthy. It’s a check and balance that needs to be there. Why? Well, aside from simply being public servants, police recruit from the human race and suffer the same mental, physical, legal, moral, spiritual, and ethical dilemmas we all do. Police are human. They can and do make mistakes, and on occasion even act in a criminal manner – again, while wielding arrest powers. That means they are capable of serious damage to citizens should they choose to operate outside the law or be used as enforcers for corrupt politicians and unconstitutional laws.
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of police officers actually do a pretty good job in spite of having to deal with people lying to them daily. And, yes, the majority of official interactions police have with the public involve someone, or many people, lying to them. Add in the political motivations of their superiors, the odd hours, high levels of stress, constantly dealing with domestic calls, and cleaning the vomit and feces out of the back of the patrol car, it quickly becomes apparent that even officers with the best of intentions can become jaded.
Being a police officer is not something I would want any part of; it’s a thankless job that has little glamor and far too much paperwork. The Hollywood presentation of the lives of police is exactly the same kind of fiction as the Hollywood presentation of all things firearm related – that is, completely removed from reality. I understand the job, and we’d live in a better place if more Americans did.
That being said, police officers all raise their right hands and swear an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. They, like all public servants, are supposed to be focused on protecting the rights of citizens not abusing those rights. So, when an abuse is observed, whether it be speeding without their lights and sirens on (which most of us see daily) or panic shooting a man in the back during a traffic stop (see video below), it creates distrust. Police are granted authority that the rest of us don’t have, and regardless of how some officers suggest that their “hands are tied”, or they are “outgunned”, or that they “don’t have the tools they need”, when it comes down to it, should they decide to violate their oath, they can ruin the day (or life) of any of us. And given the Thin Blue Line and a tendency for administrators to avoid embarrassment at all costs, abuses can and do get covered up.
COLUMBIA, SC (The State) — An S.C. trooper who stopped a man for a seat belt violation outside Columbia and then shot him – apparently without provocation – was arrested Wednesday and charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.
Sean Groubert, 31, a lance corporal who was fired from the Highway Patrol after the shooting incident, now faces 20 years in prison if convicted of wrongfully shooting the driver, Levar Jones.
In the minds of the public, one person unjustly shot, one person unjustly arrested, or one person unjustly written a ticket, makes all police bad. I’m not saying that’s a proper conclusion, but it becomes the perception of many – and that perception becomes “reality.” An officer talking on their cell phone while driving in a town that makes such a thing a ticket priority ruins the credibility of the department – and that’s just a minor thing. Video appearing of a patrolman berating and swearing at an EMT for not getting out of his way, while a patient sits in the back of the rig, even though ambulances have the right of way, enforces a stereotype that “police are power-tripping tyrants.” And that’s bad for everyone.
Police have a public relations problem right now. Our fault, their fault, nobody’s fault – doesn’t matter. The distrust gap is growing and needs to be addressed immediately. In my opinion a number of things need to happen.
1- Hiring qualifications need to be stricter – especially intelligence and ethics testing, as well as psychiatric evaluations. The job requires a certain type of personality. Those quick to anger, or motivated to be police for the wrong reasons, shouldn’t be employed. We all know people in our chosen professions who shouldn’t be there. Luckily for most of us, a bad garbage man or a bad plumber doesn’t usually cause deaths or end up with people serving prison time when they shouldn’t. Because of the responsibilities police carry they should be culled from the best humanity has to offer. This should coincide with an appropriate pay raise. In the big picture, higher salaries will save money as it creates competition and attracts a higher caliber individual, which will in turn reduce the amount of lawsuits brought against departments.
2- Officers need to meet and greet the public on a daily basis. There needs to be hand shaking and introductions, and that needs to happen from both sides. In fact, I would suggest that all of you reading this make a point in the next few weeks of inviting a police officer for a cup of coffee, and instead of telling them your problems ask them if there’s anything you can do to make their job easier. Stop in and make an appointment with your sheriff or chief – not to complain, but to ask them if there is anything they need from you or the public. Just show them some support and that you’re on the same side. How often do you think that happens in any of their lives? Imagine how that kind of relationship building will affect your community.
3- Officers need to step up and not tolerate bad cops in their ranks. Yes, one risks being skipped over for promotion and becoming the “black sheep” of a department, but the reality is that if you look the other way when a fellow officer violates the rights of a citizen, you’re complicit. If allowing bad police to continue being bad police is part of your job description, then a good person is left with no choice but to consider other employment.
4- All of us need to become well acquainted with use of force statutes and legal concepts such as Disparity of Force. Familiar to the point we can articulate them to others who don’t understand what they are seeing on a video or why an officer or armed citizen took the course of action that they did.
5- Police leadership needs to do exactly that – LEAD. Playing politics with the rights of citizens and the lives of officers, having “CYA” as a priority, and allowing others do their dirty work and take the fall, is not the work of noble and honorable people. As the old saying goes, it all rolls down from the top.
6- Police need to stop being used as revenue sources for states, counties and municipalities. Asset-forfeiture-seizure laws are a travesty, and in many cases have been used for outright legalized theft. Nothing destroys the public trust more than knowing an officer can steal cash, cars, or homes without arrest or due process.
These suggestions are just a short list. I’m not counting on points 1, 3, 5 or 6 happening anytime soon, but 2 and 4 are something we (both officers and the public) can take upon ourselves tomorrow.
The last thing I’d like to address is police arrest powers and how they need to be understood by citizens.
When an officer says the words, “You’re under arrest”, understand that one way or the other, you’re going to be arrested. There is no talking your way out of it, and there is no physical way to stop it and go off to live in peace. You can either comply, or they will get physical. It might involve you eating pavement, or it may involve a compliance device or even a gun. But when you resist – and that can be as simple as locking your joints – all officers can assume is that you will continue to escalate your resistance and that they need to over-power you immediately before you gain advantage. During an arrest officers are not interested in your politics, race, income, GPA, or who you or your parents know. Their only interest is getting you to lock-up without getting themselves injured or killed – that means they will use whatever force is required. Understand, every officer knows how quickly their lives can end.
(Warning: Graphic scenes in video)
If arrest powers are up for debate at the time of an arrest the entire purpose for having police is moot. An unlawful arrest is something to be fought at a later date in court, not on the sidewalk. Fighting it there, even if you momentarily prevail, will result in life as a fugitive and eventual arrest on a greater charge.
As serious as this is, it would stand to reason that we need to strongly consider what it is that we want our police making arrests for. I make a point of considering every new piece of legislation through this lens: Is this something I’d personally be willing to shoot someone over? That’s my litmus test for all law, codes, and statutes that will be enforced by people with guns. Using that as a guide I can honestly say that there is little I’m willing to shoot someone over. Seat belt usage, the length of someone’s grass, and selling untaxed cigarettes are a few I don’t consider trigger worthy. Maybe your opinion differs – but here are the facts of life: The more laws there are, the more interaction with law enforcement there will be. And the more attempts at arrest that are made, the more opportunities there are for injury or death.
The laws we support had better be worth that price.
“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” –George Bernard Shaw