Police Culture is the Problem

To all those who say that the problem leading to incidents such as the shooting death of Kathryn Johnston is not a police problem, I point you to some comments I’ve made about what police should be vs. what they are. Specifically, I’ve said that cops have an obligation to protect citizens and that protecting citizens, even ones that may be criminals, takes priority over their own life.

I firmly believe that the “War on Drugs” and the militarization of our police forces has led us to a position where police tend to shoot first and ask questions later. Further, police are now agents of a government executing a policy that this blog has stated, over and over, is immoral and unethical. We can see the outcome of such a situation. The deaths of Sean Bell, Kathryn Johnston and Salvatore Culosi, to name just three of the hundreds killed or wounded in paramilitary police actions are the outcomes.

To reinforce that view, let’s take into account some editorial commentary by Joseph McNamara. He has a strong position to speak from, as a retired NYPD deputy inspector and former police chief of Kansas City, MO and San Jose, CA. In an editorial [subscription required, so I posted most of the article in toto to comment on] in the Wall Street Journal today, Mr. McNamara said:

Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on “officer safety” and paramilitary training pervades today’s policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn’t shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed.

Yes, that is the police culture I remember. Certainly the one I see today, officer’s wearing military clothing, carrying military weapons and using para-military tactics is far different from that. Worse, it is the sort of police culture that I saw, and found abhorrent, in Europe when I lived there. It was one of the things I was proud of about America, that our police were there to protect citizens, not to make war on them.

Mr. McNamara goes on to say:

Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.

One of the predicted outcomes of the “War on Drugs”. Now that it has come to pass we have the perverse situation where self-proclaimed libertarians defend cops who take the lives of citizens when the citizen should never have been in lethal danger. These folks trumpet about the cops “right to self defense” and how “all the facts are not in”, completely ignoring that men and women voluntarily executing government policy are responsible for these deaths. They prefer, instead, to blame a policy and put the cops on pedestals. What happened to being skeptical, to questioning authority, to the realization that “following orders” is not an adequate defense, morally or legally?

Mr. McNamara then points out an interesting set of facts:

Yes, police work is dangerous, and the police see a lot of violence. On the other hand, 51 officers were slain in the line of duty last year, out of some 700,000 to 800,000 American cops. That is far fewer than the police fatalities occurring when I patrolled New York’s highest crime precincts, when the total number of cops in the country was half that of today.

You know, there’s one more statistic I’d like to see. What’s the increase in the number of citizens shot by a cop? As part of that, what would be very interesting is the increase in the number of citizens shot when there was no weapon present OR it was a no knock situation involving someone who was not the actual target of the warrant being served. I’d be willing to guess that the statistics would show a dramatic rise in such deaths completely out of proportion to the changes in numbers of cop deaths or changes in violent crime statistics.

A couple of final points from Mr. McNamara

Each of these police deaths and numerous other police injuries is a tragedy and we owe support to those who protect us. On the other hand, this isn’t Iraq. The need to give our officers what they require to protect themselves and us has to be balanced against the fact that the fundamental duty of the police is to protect human life and that law officers are only justified in taking a life as a last resort.

In the three cases I cite above, taking the life of the citizens in question was absolutely not the last resort.

After the Diallo case [ed: a shooting death in 1999 of an unarmed man in NYC], I wrote that I, my father, older brother and countless other relatives had collectively served the NYPD for more than a century and a half and that none of us would have fired at Mr. Diallo. I say the same about the lethal volley that took Mr. Bell’s life, based on initial reports.

So, a very experienced cop says that he, and other cops he knows very well, would not have used deadly force against Mr. Bell. That, to me, is the most damning indictment of the cops in question. But, more importantly, it is the most damning indictment of a law enforcement culture that has shifted from protecting our society to waging war on us.

The sad reality is that we citizens no longer view police as civil servants here to protect us. We view them as adversaries here to enforce laws we don’t respect. We view them as agents of a government waging a war on us. We view them as the enemy.

One more casualty of the immoral War on Drugs.

Update: McQ at QandO has a similar, although perhaps less indicting, entry today. The punchline?

Time to disarm the vast majority of them [AS: para-military police organizations].

Sounds like a plan to me.

  • http://www.kipesquire.com KipEsquire

    “police tend to shoot first and ask questions later”

    Which of course was exactly what didn’t happen with Kathryn Johnson. She shot first.

    “The deaths of Sean Bell … killed or wounded in paramilitary police actions are the outcomes.”

    There was nothing “paramilitary” about the Sean Bell incident. It was incidental to an undercover operation, not a paramilitary raid. Oh, and his car rammed first a cop on foot and then a police van. Seems to me the victims were the ones being “paramilitary.”

  • Eric

    Kip, it seems to me you would rather quibble with little things than see the bigger problem.

  • John Newman

    I can’t tell you the exact date when the cop culture changed, but it was when cops went from being ‘peace officers’ to being ‘law enforcement officers.’

  • http://kingcast.net Christopher King

    Kip misses the point:

    There is substantial disagreement over whether the police identified themselves. But it was easy for the police to identify the young men as less-than-savory:

    Note how in America today everyone is supposed to dress casual and act ghetto/thug/hip-hop; this makes it easier for the police to target folks who are less apt to have any real power in society.

    Anyway, as a former NAACP legal redress chair and as an attorney with a fair amount of Civil Rights experience (stateside and in private practice) I believe it still remains to be seen if these gentlemen are crime victims pursuant to New York Statute.

    I discuss that issue, and my successful arguments for crime victim status at the hands of Ohio police in my post on this matter, as I also wonder why the survivors were apparently handcuffed to their respective hospital beds without a warrant:


    And by the way, I love me some old-school (and some new) hip-hop, so this is not an anti-rap rant by any means.

    Just an observation.

    Peace to all.


    PS: I dig your site and will definitely blogroll it.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/2006/11/22/comrades-i-hereby-declare-the-revolution/ Adam Selene

    Look for some more discussion of this. In any case, while we’re at it, let’s consider what Kip is arguing.

    1. He is arguing that the police were completely in the right in shooting Kathryn Johnston, although they obtained a warrant under, at best, questionable circumstances.

    2. He is arguing that no knock raids are okay so long as you have a warrant and the police should not be held accountable for the outcome of such dangerous, violent raids.

    3. He is arguing that 3 men confronted at 4 AM should respond meekly to undercover police. Given the number of reports I can find relatively easily of violent encounters with men pretending to be police this encounter seems more understandable than Kip makes it out to be.

    4. Kip appears willing to be far more forgiving of government agents than citizens.

    How have we reached the point where we are more forgiving of armed government agents than we are of citizens? What ever happened to the idea that the government, and its agents, were to be viewed with suspicion? That citizens were in the right in a confrontation with the government until proven otherwise?

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