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I’ve been a cop, an academy instructor, a criminal justice instructor (university level), a defense attorney, and even a part-time criminal magistrate. Some of my best friends have been cops, and a few still are. But, I also have known cops who, in my opinion, were on the wrong side of the jail bars. To the extent that I am political, I am more libertarian than anything else, and I have a very visceral reaction when cops (or the courts, for that matter) trivialize or ignore the protections of Bill of Rights.
I am very pleased that this site provides a forum for citizens (and hopefully some decent cops) to post stories about incidents they have witnessed or participated in. All abuses of authority should come to light, but that seldom happens. At the same time, merely bitching about a pervasive problem may be cathartic, but, like complaining about the weather, doesn’t bring about change.
So, what is my solution…my plan of action? I have none. I believe most of the problems are so pervasive and fundamental that we will never bring about real change within law enforcement organizations from the outside, at least with our current political system (it’s not a matter of parties…it’s that we have a system that is based on interest groups and alliances). If there is any real hope in changing the mindset of cops and the organizational cultures of their agencies, subversion and co-opting are called for.
For example, we need bright, well-educated people who oppose abuses of authority and who believe in protecting the rights of others…including suspects…to pursue careers in law enforcement. That’s what I did, and I ended up having an impact on several agencies (the one I ended up heading and the several agencies that people under me eventually headed). Why couldn’t other like-minded people do it? If you did, you would find that, in almost any medium sized department, there are at least a few (usually young) officers who share at least some of your values, though they may choose not to express them very often. They need you…for affirmation, encouragement, and to watch their backs.
And, there are at least a few departments with enlightened leaders who are trying to do the right things in the right way, but are having to drag and cajole the reactionaries they inherited when they took over their departments. If you were to join one of those departments, it might not be too long before the chief would see that you, unlike your sergeant and lieutenant, “get it,” and you could find yourself moving up quickly, or at least being entrusted with projects that could affect policy (but, that scenario is most likely to occur in departments with less than, say, fifty officers).
Best of all, police work provides almost daily opportunities to make a difference, to help people, and to give hope. Imagine the impact a good, caring officer can have working a burglary in a housing project, where only a kid’s boom-box was taken, and showing that he/she actually gives a damn…and understanding how long it took that kid to earn the money to buy that boom-box. Or, just think about what it might mean to that kid’s parents that you treat them with courtesy and respect, and seem to recognize how hard they have tried to raise good kids, and to keep them safe, in the face of daunting odds. I remember when a cop like that was killed by a drug dealer. On the day of his funeral, thirty miles away, people from the housing project he patrolled car pooled, took buses, etc. to attend and show their respects. They were black and the fallen officer was a blonde haired white guy, who’d cared about them.
It will never be easy, though. Members of the public often (and with good reason) will assume that you are “like the rest of them,” and your fellow officers, when they figure out you aren’t buying into the bias, cynicism, pettiness, and minor corruption, won’t trust you. But, if you bide your time, you can have a real impact.
That assumes you can get a job. Many police departments have either de jure (upheld by federal appellate courts, on less!) or de facto policies against hiring candidates with I.Q.s much above average. I’ve seen reports warning against hiring an applicant who scored around 110 (and hired him anyway, along with applicants who scored a lot higher..even some who already held a degrees, a masters degree, or, in one case, a Ph.D. from a prestigious university…but in some cases they applied with our department because they had been turned down by others). Some departments try to avoid hiring people with degrees. But, all you need is to be hired by one, right?
I will briefly digress, then wrap this up. One of the biggest problems in law enforcement is television. The misinformation is not only contained in cop shows, but even in news coverage. Even when cops hear, read and are shown the right way in the academy, they usually hear, read, or see it only once. They’ve already seen the wrong thing dozens, even hundreds of times, in TV shows and movies, and will continue to do so. They may realize that’s fiction, and sometimes even mock the scripts and special effects, but, on other levels, it is what they are most used to, and, after all, it’s been made to look cool.
Have you ever heard a cop on TV or in the movies argue that his or her duty to protect a suspect’s rights are even more important than the duty to try to recover the victim’s property? I haven’t, but shouldn’t that be true? And, how many times have you heard a cop, usually a lieutenant or captain, decree that a suspect should be picked up for questioning, or heard a detective say, “We can talk here, or we can take you down to the station. Your choice.”? I can think of at least four U.S. Supreme Court decisions that indicate that doing so would amount to unlawful arrests. And, how about telling people that withholding information is a felony? Or that they have to produce identification? And, some of the stupid stuff you see with guns, e.g. a TV or movie cop holding his or her sidearm vertical, up next to the face (which they are doing to allow the camera to capture the gun and their profile in the same frame) undoubtedly has gotten real life cops killed, when they emulated their fictional counterparts.
So, if you DO decide to try insurgency…to be a progressive cop/institutional guerrilla, you have to first promise to forget, or at least ignore, all the fiction you’ve seen, read, or heard. Please!