I’m revolted by the very idea of snuff films, so I haven’t watched the video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin cold-bloodedly murdering George Floyd. But according to news reports I’ve seen, Thomas Lane, one of the officers assisting Chauvin, suggested they roll Floyd on his side, which might have saved Floyd’s life. “No, staying put where we got him,” Chauvin responded — and that was that, because Chauvin had been on the street for 18 years and Lane, his trainee, had been on the job a mere four days. Officer J. Alexander Kueng, working his third day, reportedly told Chauvin, “You shouldn’t do that,” but backed off when Chauvin refused to budge.
As noted in an early post, I see the police as the ultimate social justice warriors (sadly, many of them would take that as an insult) because rule of law is a radical left-wing concept and they have sworn to uphold it. Most police officers are highly motivated to protect the weak from the predatory strong, and do so despite the personal danger and intense pressure of the job.
But if the news reports are accurate, the video highlights two inherent problems with policing.
The first is its rigidly hierarchical nature. Police forces are paramilitary organizations. They use the same pyramidical structure as the military, with a command staff of chief (i.e. general), deputy chiefs (colonels and majors), captains, and lieutenants; a middle management of sergeants; and an infantry of regular officers. Although it appears Chauvin held the same rank as the rookies, he had far more experience and was effectively their supervisor, so they meekly deferred to him in a life-or-death circumstance.
The second is the stress of front-line duty. Police officers deal with horrible stuff the rest of us are spared. It cannot help but mess with their minds, with consequences including trauma, cynicism, and dehumanization of others. Chauvin had been on the front lines for 18 years and been the subject of 17 internal affairs investigations. Thu Thao, the other veteran officer on scene, had six complaints lodged against him since 2012. That’s likely evidence they both suffered street fatigue.
So the first thing that can be done is to encourage all police employees, regardless of rank or service time, to intervene in and/or report misconduct. This includes conducting neutral investigations and stiffly penalizing those found responsible for violations. It also includes discouraging omerta culture by rewarding whistleblowers and punishing ostracisers. A National Institute of Justice research brief from May 2000 shares survey results of 925 officers from 113 departments. Nearly 22% agreed that “police officers in [my] department use more force than is necessary to make an arrest.” Over 52% agreed that “it is not unusual for police officers to turn a blind eye to other officers’ improper conduct.” And 61% agreed that their colleagues “do not always report even serious criminal violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers.” That culture needs to go.
The second thing that can be done is to create an up-or-out ethos for street service. No officer should be allowed to work patrol more than, say, ten years. That wouldn’t have fixed the problems caused by Thao, but would have gotten Chauvin off the street. Officers unable to win a promotion or transfer to a non-front-line position, such as detective, within ten years should be thanked and let go, and a national database should assure they don’t hook on with another department.
This is hardly a complete list of reforms, just a couple prompted by the video. My wish list would also include hiring only four-year college graduates or better, increasing de-escalation training, and banning chokeholds and strangleholds. Even if implemented tomorrow, though, results from these changes would take time. My worry is that politicians, in their haste to prove they hear the protesters, will act out of expedience rather than wisdom, as the Minneapolis city council seems to have done by pledging to dismantle its police department without a plan for replacing it.
Bad or emotionally wounded officers need to be taken off the street. Many problems handled by officers, such as disruptions caused by the homeless and mentally ill, should be handled by other agencies. But when someone’s breaking into my house at 2 a.m. and I call 911, I want an ultimate social justice warrior dispatched to my rescue.