A Police Department On Edge

Sam Eifling remarks that the NYPD “has behaved like it’s at war since officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were murdered in their patrol car last week”:

A basic principle of good policing holds that officers in the field should seek to de-escalate, rather than intensify, tension and use of force. (Police escalation of force was instrumental in many if not all the recent deaths that have sparked nationwide protests.) Yet thousands of New York’s finest created a political spectacle at Ramos’ funeral Saturday by turning their backs on the mayor during his eulogy. And while it’s [police union head Patrick] Lynch’s job to antagonize the sitting mayor when his union is in protracted contract negotiations with the city, it’s also his job to represent police to the city. Cranking up the heat, especially at funerals, does police no favors. Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has started pointing fingers, saying on the “Today” show that the “targeting of these two police officers was a direct spinoff of this issue of these demonstrations.”

Tomasky wants cops to “understand that some criticism of them is legitimate; that not everyone who levels criticisms is a cop-hater; and that in a democratic society, no institution is above criticism and accountability”:

We don’t criticize the armed services much in America these days—this isn’t the early 1970s, with anti-Vietnam protesters cruelly calling legless veterans pigs and so on—but by God, when something goes haywire (Abu Ghraib), at least there are some prosecutions and forced retirements. The CIA spends years getting away with the stuff it gets away with, but eventually, something happens like this month’s Senate report, and with any luck a couple of heads will roll.

These people put their lives on the line for the rest of us, too. It’s not only possible but also right to find the deaths of CIA officers in the field to be tragic while also demanding that they follow the law and international treaties the United States has signed. And it’s possible and right to be sickened both by the murder of those two NYPD cops and by incidents of police violence that seem to have a clear racial element to them. But somehow, it feels like the Army and the CIA, rigid as those institutions can be, are more responsive to democratic accountability than police departments. That’s the reality that needs to change. And in New York, at least, Bratton has to lead the way.

Ilya Somin argues along the same lines:

As A. J. Delgado points out in a recent National Review article, police departments exhibit many of the same pathologies that conservatives rightly decry in other government bureaucracies – including a tendency to avoid accountability like the plague. Just as pointing out the flaws of public schools does not make conservative and libertarian critics “anti-teacher,” so condemning the comparable failings of police departments does not make you “anti-cop.” Both cops and public school teachers are members of valuable professions. But both also often get away with poor performance because of perverse incentives.

But Thomas Knowles, who has “spent the last 39 years working as a Military Investigator, a police officer and then 23 years as an FBI Agent and supervisor,” thinks the focus on cop quality is a mistake:

Yes, bad cops do exist—and they must be held accountable. They deserve the full weight of our criminal justice system brought down upon them.

But I don’t think that’s what this fall’s protests are really about. We’re not talking about bad cops. We’re debating bad policies and broken systems. And too many people are trying to indict the system itself by pretending that the cops are the enemy.

In almost every instance, by the time a cop pulls his or her service weapon and fires, the system has failed. A police officer’s use of lethal force, in almost every instance, isn’t the disease. It’s a symptom of broader challenges and bigger problems. Deadly force, most often, is the end result of a failure—and often many cascading failures—elsewhere in our society leading up to that fatal encounter.