Last week my nephew graduated from a police academy in Southern California and began work as a deputy sheriff, fulfilling his professional dream. I am thrilled for him and wish him the best.
In an earlier post I argued that law is a radical left-wing concept. If that’s true, then by extension law enforcement officers are the ultimate social justice warriors. That would come as a surprise to most law enforcement officers (hereafter called police), who tend to skew conservative — my nephew included.
But I also noted that the strong try to subvert the law by arguing against its necessity, by putting themselves in charge of its writing, interpretation, and enforcement, or by ignoring it. When they succeed, they corrupt not just law, but law enforcement.
Nevertheless, I believe most police are highly motivated to protect the weak from the strong.
My evidence is anecdotal, but it’s based on more than a casual acquaintance with police and policing. When I moved to the Bay Area in the early Eighties, I spent several months doing administrative work for the Oakland Police Department. Later that decade my sister married a police officer. In the Nineties I developed a lasting friendship with a police officer who served until shot in the line of duty. And starting in the Aughts I worked closely with the UC Berkeley police department, which has more than 60 sworn officers. So I’ve known a lot of cops for a long time.
And I like them.
Their dedication to bringing bad guys to justice is so intense it’s hard for a chronic waffler like me to believe. But if you want to break through their frosty exterior, just tell them about your experience as a crime victim. At the very least you’ll hear kindly suggestions for protecting yourself in the future. More likely you’ll glimpse barely-concealed rage at the bastards who hurt you and genuine regret the cop wasn’t there to protect you.
But police also tend to be control freaks, and that’s where they usually get in trouble.
Officers deal with at least one emotionally overwrought individual every call they answer. To reduce the likelihood of harm to themselves and others, they need to control the situation. If they do so through authoritarian dominance and intimidation, it may be because they have no choice — but it may also be because they don’t know any other way. As in politics, the authoritarian approach can work in the short run, but over the long run it damages everyone — and in a worst-case scenario, provokes the violence it was meant to deter.
This is why I think the ideal background for a police officer is social work or psychology. The more successful the police are at talking an individual off the emotional ledge, the more effective they are. And I suspect it’s easier to teach social workers how to fight than it is to teach warriors how to de-escalate a confrontation.
I believe de-escalation and other more sophisticated tactics are gaining traction, but haltingly — and they may be squelched under Trump, who seems to favor old-style policing. In his new book, When Police Kill, Franklin Zimring quotes forensic criminologist Ron Martinelli:
The fields of contemporary police practices and applied sciences are rapidly changing. Applied science, by its nature, supports or rejects hypotheses and theories based upon the reconciliation of scientific statements, facts, and evidence. However, law enforcement is more inclined to be archaic and married to non-forensic, speculative dogma that often goes unchallenged and becomes widely accepted as fact.
Zimring is optimistic that over time, command staff will embrace empirically proven practices, and abuses of authority will abate. He is a professor in the School of Law at UC Berkeley, and I have gotten to know him through committee work. I greatly admire what he and other scholars are doing to marry the scientific method to police officers’ passion for justice. After my nephew received his badge, I gave him a copy of one of Frank’s books, inscribed by the author.
I’m acutely aware of the polarized feelings around the police. But I don’t feel we have to choose sides. It’s possible to sympathize with both the police and their victims.