Sunday, December 21, 2014

From Individuals to Institutions and Back Again

The "execution-style" killing of two NYPD police officers, apparently in retaliation for the Eric Garner and Michael Brown killings, has shaken up the emergent conversation about police violence. And reasonably so -- after all, it was a shockingly brutal slaying by someone who claimed to be acting under the same banner as that motivating the protesters from Ferguson to New York. And so perhaps it is unsurprising that we fall into familiar patterns, with the protester groups denouncing the killing and labeling it an isolated incident and police unions responding Mayor De Blasio and the protester community has blood on its hands.

In some ways, this conversation is very familiar, but in others it is quite different. We have not seen, to my knowledge, any serious efforts to dig up dirt on the slain NYPD officers -- use-of-force complaints or litigation records. Nor have we seen much in the way of deflecting the motives of the shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley. While Brinsley had posted messages on instagram indicating a desire to kill cops, he also shot his girlfriend in Baltimore earlier that day and later killed himself. One could argue that he wasn't the paradigm case of a calculating, rational actor, but rather a disturbed man with possible mental issues. But we haven't talked about that either.

This is not a complaint. This is a compliment. At the individual level, the relevant point of analysis is that two public servants were brutally murdered on the street, and that's horrifying. At the individual level, this is not the time for apologias for the shooter or insinuations that the victims deserved their fates. The way we're talking about this case, on the individual level, is how it should be. It's how it should be for all persons who are killed without justification.

At the institutional level, things grow more complicated. A very proper moral asymmetry, at the individual level, can't work when we try to situate this shooting as part of a broader social problem. The police union's hypothesis -- that these killings are attributable to efforts by the Mayor and other agitators to rile up community sentiment against the police -- is a hypothesis; specifically, it is a hypothesis about what caused the degradation in the relationship between the community and the police. It is not the only hypothesis on that score. At the institutional level, it is just valid (and far more likely) that it is police behavior that is the source of this mistrust and rage. The people aren't being whipped up by demagogues to feel thoughts not their own. This is organic.

This hypothesis doesn't justify, in any way, the shooting. To be crystal clear: even if it is the case that unjustifiable police behavior caused the sense of rage that contributed to this shooting, it would not mean that the shooting was justified. Normative and structural explanations are not the same thing; the move from individuals to institutions alters, among other things, what counts as victim-blaming. One can leverage our rightful aversion to victim-blaming to ends both good and ill; using it to close off important angles of inquiry falls into the latter camp. Realistically, the individual wrongdoer isn't necessarily going to have much bearing on how institutions should alter their behavior.

In any event, obviously there is a disjuncture here, between a populace that views itself as being preyed on by those paid to protect them, and a police force that thinks the community doesn't understand the realities of being a police officer. It's been said before, but it should be said again: Being a police officer is hard. It's hard for the very obvious reason that it requires the officers to put themselves in peril and to commit (in the words of a police chief I worked with back when I was practicing) "to run towards the danger." But that undersells the difficulty considerably, because part of a police officer's job is to do all that while still being trusted by their community. Being a cop would no doubt be easier -- albeit not easy -- if one could make arrests and conduct patrols without having to care about how one was perceived by the neighborhood. But that's not the way it works. If the people don't view the police as being on their side, then the police are doing a bad job no matter how many arrests they make or what the crime stats say. A community that feels constantly terrorized by their local police department is not being effectively policed even if the murder rate has flatlined.

Are people sometimes unfair in their appraisals? Sure they are. But "solely engaging with fair, high-minded people" isn't really part of a cop's job description either. The population is what it is; the burden is on the police to act in accordance with how the community wants the police to act.

Fixing this problem isn't about finding bad apples or folks with malign motives. When people say the problem isn't with a few bad cops, they're not (or at least shouldn't be) saying "because its about a lot of bad cops." They're saying that the search for bad cops -- in the sense of persons who deliberately and consciously abuse their authority -- is a misguided one. Those people exist, but they don't exhaust the problem, because the problem goes beyond finding some stereotypical Bull Connor types. Good people, who think they're doing good, can still be bad cops to the extent that the system of policing doesn't view its perception within the community as one of its metrics for success. That a person fails at their job doesn't make them a bad person, but neither does them not being a bad person mean they're a success. Being trusted by their community shouldn't be some bonus goal attained by the very best police departments. It is their job, as much of their job as putting away bad guys. If the community doesn't trust the police, then the police are failing at their most fundamental duty. It's as simple as that.

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