Are You Ready For The Fallout?
Dr. Bradley R. Anders
For the past several months we have witnessed what appears the beginning of an all-out offensive on law enforcement training, tactics, and personnel. One cannot browse an online media news outlet without seeing a significant number of headlines exposing police brutality or some sort of racial disparity at the hands of police. To top off all of the stories written by journalists with very little knowledge of police tactics, we have President Obama and outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder reinforcing some of the most negative police stereotypes in existence, thereby furthering the divide between law enforcement and the communities they serve. The result? Continued civil unrest in America, an increased hatred and distrust for law enforcement in the minority community, and a dangerous message that may prompt police to hesitate in those most crucial moments when their training is needed the most.
Earlier this month I read a short passage written by a police officer in Wisconsin in which he expressed his frustration with how police are viewed. Much like Lt. Furseth (2014), the author of this writing, I am frustrated by the lack of understanding and the tendency for many in America to rush to judgment in policing issues (I said many…not all). It has a lasting impact on the morale of a police officer when the public and our government leaders turn their backs on officers who are thrust into the limelight simply for doing their jobs. At any moment this could happen to any one of us who have chosen this profession, but as we have witnessed in both the Ferguson incident as well as the New York incident, the officers involved were not indicted by Grand Juries. This has prompted responses from our nation’s government officials, community leaders, and even personal friends on social media sites; the majority of which have been negative. We have heard phrases like “secret Grand Juries” and “Black lives matter” while suspicion and doubt has been cast upon law enforcement across the country. Of course Black lives matter, so do White lives, or Brown lives, or any other hue that can be correlated with skin tone, but what the hell is a secret grand jury? This turned up in both the Ferguson rebuttal from the illustrious Al Sharpton and most recently from Eric Garner’s daughter in an interview with Katie Couric.
Reference the Eric Garner issue… when I started my doctoral studies my mentor gave me some advice in which she encouraged me to avoid writing about issues that are too close to home…issues that evoke strong emotion. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago during a lecture I was giving to one of my classes. As we touched on the topic of Eric Garner and the chokehold, I found myself becoming increasingly irritated; irritated to the point that I had to stop myself twice from dropping the dreaded “F-bomb” in front of my students. It was at this point I realized that this topic needed to be put on the back burner for a bit before I spoke or wrote about it. Why such emotion? Well… I guess I am an emotional person, or so I have been told. I have no direct ties to the officer involved, the NYPD, or Mr. Garner. I was not there and neither was 99.9% of those who are screaming about it, so none of us can actually cast judgment beyond a shadow of a doubt. But, much like Lt. Furseth (2014), I am frustrated because, “…a once noble profession has become despised, hated, distrusted, and mostly unwanted” (para.1).
The issue many are having with the Eric Garner case was the application of, what I have heard some refer to as, an “illegal” chokehold. It is important to note that just because something is not condoned by a police department does not make it illegal. Many departments have identified any kind of neck restraint as falling outside the parameters of their department policy not necessarily because of the danger it poses to the suspect but because of public perception; it looks bad when the police are choking people…I get that. I too cringe when I listen to this man exclaim that he cannot breathe. My department, on the other hand, trains and certifies all officers in what is called a Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint (LVNR). For those who are not familiar, and most of my blog followers are (all 10 of you), the result of the LVNR is an unconscious person, albeit for a very brief moment…very effective I might add. I bring this up because I wanted to note something about the training involved in this technique, and all other techniques taught across this country in every single police academy and in every single police department. At no time was I trained to apply this technique or any other technique specifically on any particular race. Also, at no time was I taught to not apply this technique or any other technique on someone because of their race. So why, if we are not trained to apply such techniques disparately, do we need to retrain officers on use of force? Why are we not addressing the failure to obey the command of a police officer? Why don’t we remind the public that it is unlawful to disobey the lawful command of a police officer even if you personally disagree with the command? Unfortunately, the more doubt that is cast upon this profession and the less credible we become in our communities, we are going to see more and more of these issues arise where people will demand answers before complying with a simple command such as “put your hands behind your back, you are under arrest.”
As a teenager, I remember my father pushing me to take responsibility for my own actions; teaching me to the best of his ability that there are repercussions for certain actions. Sometimes, those repercussions have unintended consequences, but that does not excuse the action itself. In both the Ferguson and New York incidents, the public has failed to recognize the behaviors that prompted police action. Eric Garner did not die because he was illegally selling cigarettes on the street corner as so many like to tout; he died because of an unintended consequence from police officers attempting to arrest an uncooperative subject. Should anyone die for selling cigarettes? Absolutely not…nor should they die for resisting arrest unless they are using deadly force against the officer. Nonetheless, some people have medical conditions that put them in a category that is dangerous not only for themselves but for the police officers dealing with them. Look at the Taser deaths that have occurred in this country and the medical issues often involved. The police do not have access to the medical records of those they encounter on a daily basis, and they do not have any way of knowing the conditions of those whom they encounter. If they did, I could have saved myself a whole lot of worry and doctor’s visits. My point is the police do not get to pick and choose what laws they enforce. If the City of New York has an ordinance stating people shall not sell cigarettes individually or unlicensed, then that is an ordinance that should be enforced regardless of who is violating it. Who are the police officers to say otherwise? They have discretion, yes, but to enforce some laws while ignoring others will eventually be viewed as unequal application of the law, unequal treatment, or just plain biased policing. Why? Because someone somewhere will insert race into the equation thereby negating any responsibility on part of the person being arrested; it will decriminalize a criminal act and displace blame erroneously upon the police officer. This is what our government is boisterously supporting in today’s society by drawing attention away from the illegal acts themselves and diverting it towards the new legislation they have created that in reality does nothing to address the handful of truly racist police officers out there.
Currently, just over half of our country has passed legislation in which racial profiling policies are a statutory requirement for all police departments, some of these states even criminalizing the practice. What I have found through my own research, however, is many departments have adopted these policies on their own without being required to do so. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for example, has adopted a policy banning the use of race as a factor in the decision to stop or investigate criminal activity when the state has yet to pass a law requiring this of its police departments. More recently, President Obama’s administration has announced new guidelines for federal officers in using race as an indicator of criminal activity, but is this really going to impact how we police? Absolutely not, because the majority of us doing this job are not racially profiling. This is just another example of knee-jerk, feel-good legislation intended to make a politician look as if he or she is pro-active in combatting racial profiling.
So, with all of the attention on racial profiling and police brutality claims for incidents deemed as justified, what is the response from police officers? Like Lt. Furseth (2014) stated, most of us will continue to put on our uniforms each day and muster the will to go out and do our jobs as if nothing is any different. On the other hand, some of us will go to work with a chip on our shoulders and exacerbate the us vs. them mentality, or some of us will choose an alternative response called depolicing.
Depolicing is a response in which police officers move into a reactive only mode and do nothing that would be considered pro-active. Cooper (2003) noted the depolicing effect and stated that in response to public criticisms or accusations of disparate treatment involving minorities, police officers may choose to pay less attention to neighborhoods populated by minorities to show solidarity in discretion. In other words, if you continue to criticize the way the police are policing, then you will get no policing at all (Cooper, 2003). Wait and see what happens in low-income, minority populated areas across the country if and when the police purposely choose to stay away and take no enforcement actions; you will see what Rudy Giuliani was trying to say.
When I wrote my dissertation, I specifically addressed the concept of depolicing. I conducted a small study of three police departments in the Midwest in an effort to analyze the impact of statutorily mandated racial profiling laws on pro-active policing; I wanted to see if police officers in states where such policies are mandated with minority contact ratios tracked were acting any differently than those who were policing in states with no mandated profiling laws. What I found through logistic regression data analysis was that police officers in states with mandated racial profiling policies were 4.70 times more likely to not conduct a traffic stop for a traffic violation if the race was observed to be a minority prior to the decision to stop or not stop (Anders, 2013). What does this mean? It means that officers are intentionally avoiding a stop that involves a minority citing the fear of being disciplined for disproportionate minority contact ratios (Anders, 2013). One responding officer even noted that he or she is routinely told by his or her supervisor to stop White people over minorities (Anders, 2013). Is this the correct response? Is this what we are aiming for? I sincerely hope not. We do not address racial profiling by racially profiling. Oh, and by the way, it is not called reverse racial profiling as I have often heard simply because you are profiling White people; it is racial profiling either way you look at it.
I do not know what the fallout from these incidents will be. As I told a police sergeant with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department on the night of the Grand Jury announcement in Ferguson, Mo, I am not worried about what the rioting and looting; I am worried about the social response from lawmakers and policy makers that are in a position, and seem most willing, to put officers lives at greater risk in the name of appeasement and public perception; there are those out there who want to disarm the police! What we have to remember is that we have an obligation not only to the communities we serve but to our families to stay safe. I would encourage my brothers and sisters in blue to not do anything different in the name of appeasement. If some tactic that we employ is legitimately found to be harmful towards a particular group of people then we should no longer employ that tactic, and I would expect broad, sweeping change to remove said tactic from a police officer’s repertoire. Until then, we must continue to hold people accountable for their actions using the tools we have been given without muddying the waters with race. Do not hesitate to act based on the color of a person’s skin, and do not act based on the same. Preferential treatment is unequal treatment, and unequal treatment is unconstitutional.
Anders, B. (2013). Racial profiling and its relation to pro-active policing. Retrieved from http://gradworks.umi.com/36/06/3606796.html.
Cooper, F.R. (2003). Understanding depolicing: Symbiosis theory and critical cultural theory. Villanova University Legal Working Paper Series. Villanova University School of Law Working Paper Series. Working Paper 17.doi: 10.219/SSRN.380022.
Furseth, D. (2014). Today I stopped caring… Retrieved from https://apbweb.com/hard-keep-caring/.