We Made Police Misconduct Inevitable, Ctd

by Freddie deBoer

National Guard Called In As Unrest Continues In Ferguson

Readers sound off my post about our complicity in police misconduct:

You write, in part, “It’s human nature: people who are subject to little or no review will inevitably behave badly.” Hogwash.  What you have, apparently, bought into is the belief in some parts of Christianity that we are all born evil.  And that, therefore, we all require constant outside pressure in order to behave well.  I’m guessing that, consciously, you would reject that worldview.  But it’s what your statement comes down to.  (And personally, my experience of humanity has been very much otherwise.)

The problem is rather that some people do need outside constraints.  I would suggest that it is, most of the time, only a very small portion of the total.  But that small portion is highly visible when their constraints are off.  (It’s the same phenomena which causes people to believe that the streets are more risky than ever, even as crime rates have been falling for a couple of decades.  Bad things make headlines.)

Yes, police misconduct is a problem that needs to be addressed.  And may even be especially high in some minority urban areas.  But to address it effectively, we need to have a clear view of the police as a whole.  There are doubtless some places, possibly including Ferguson, where the police department as a whole is a problem.  Then again, it would only take a couple of people, even there, to lead to the problems we have seen.

Suppose you have three problem individuals, out of 50+, on the Furgeson PD.  One is the guy who ordered everybody into combat gear.  One is a guy who started the shooting (since once that starts, in a tense situation, many others will follow).  And, of course, one may be (depending on what really happened) the guy involved in the original incident. That’s all it would take – less than 10%.  I’m not saying that that’s all there were; just that no more are actually needed for things to deteriorate.

Saying, or acting, like we believe that everybody on the police department, there or elsewhere, is nasty unless tightly controlled is only going to make it harder to make things better.  People, even good people, get defensive when they are accused of being evil.  If you really want to get positive changes, you have to recognize that most of the police are dedicated good guys, who would join in your efforts with a will … if you refrain from tarring them all with the same brush.

Well: it happens that I don’t believe that human beings are basically good, despite how often that’s said, but I don’t think I’ll convince anyone of that in the space of a blog post. I’ll just say this: maybe it’s true that only some people need to be subject to close scrutiny to behave well. As you say, it only takes a small amount of people to ruin everything, and as I indicated, the cyclicality and regularity of these problems seems to suggest that the problem is systemic rather than individual. Indeed, some readers are complaining that I’m going after the cops in an unfair way, but I’m actually arguing that the system we’ve created has given the police little incentive to behave well. That’s not an exoneration of the individuals, but it is a way to look for deeper causes than personal immorality. I would add that it’s impossible to know who’s going to be good and who’s going to be bad, without scrutiny, before the fact. So we’re still left in a place where we need strictly defined and strictly enforced accountability measures for police, and we need them to operate in an atmosphere that does not default to deference. And finally, whatever is hypothetically the case, we are hearing every day from the poor and racial minorities, in this country, that they fear the police. That’s their reality, and we need to respond to it.


Thanks for this posting. However the problem very much pre-dates 9/11. The National Registry of Exonerations lists more than 2,000 wrongful convictions since 1983, and, I think it is safe to say, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a corrupt system that includes prosecutors who are happy to convict and then unwilling to reverse their position once new evidence comes to light. We see the problem all too clearly in my state, Illinois, where Governor George Ryan put a moratorium on implementing the death penalty in 2000 after 13 people had been exonerated – most of those exonerations requiring many years and often bitterly fought. In Chicago, taxpayers have been required to pony up millions of dollars in settlements over and over again in cases where the police have over-reached (to put it mildly). The most notorious cases being John Burge who was found to have been involved in torturing 200 suspects between 1972 and 1991.

The problem is African American and low income communities of all races know/believe this stuff goes on all the time. But, in general, white and better off communities either don’t believe it or don’t want to believe it or don’t care or some combination of all of the above. Which goes to your point that we get the police department the public wants to have.  Most police officers are good. But the system defends the bad ones with such vigor, it tarnishes the entire system among the people who need it most, but are also most victimized by it – low income communities. The public needs to re-think what is costing everyone to continue like we have.

And another:

This is not merely a post-9/11 problem, although I agree that the outpourings of public support (for first responders) you cite certainly contribute. History repeats itself. I recall my own experience from the 1960s-70s.

After a stint in the military, I came home to my west Bronx neighborhood to find it in transition from a middle class, Irish-Jewish enclave to ghetto. It was 1968. Heroin ruled the streets, crime was rampant, students at nearby Columbia were rioting and, shortly after, the South Bronx would literally erupt in flames. I continued to work in the neighborhood for the next 13 years as a public utility employee. While I watched my old neighborhood burn down, I was able to observe much else that occurred on the streets.

Then as now, the police routinely despised and brutalized the people they were supposed to serve.  Granted, they were overwhelmed and often demoralized.  At the same time, they had no incentive to address the root cause of much street crime, heroin.  The reason was precinct-level corruption which, as revealed in testimony before the Knapp Commission, was endemic. There was little incentive for a cop to run drug dealers off his beat when they might well have been the source of income that may have equaled or exceeded his regular paycheck.

Hopefully, that cycle of despair doesn’t exist to impede efforts to resolve today’s already daunting societal problems.

(Photo: Police officers arrest a demonstrator on August 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. By Joe Raedle/Getty Images)