This is part of a continuing theme of expressing concern and occasionally contempt for policing methods, attitudes, and actions that seem to be consistent across the board in instances of possible misconduct, even criminal misconduct, on the part of law enforcement agencies across the United States. There are many examples easily recalled such as the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner but also derived from tales of SWAT raids, traffic stops, and other varieties of police/civilian interactions.

The focus here is not on whether there is a racial element at the heart of many of these cases but rather reflects upon the role that police leadership plays where such misconduct occurs.

It has become trite to state that police officers on nearly every level and in most departments often face danger to themselves or share that danger with civilians who may be under an attack of some nature. I knew and was friends with a W.Va. State Trooper who was killed in the line of duty and I have sadly witnessed the aftermath of murdered officers in my adopted hometown of Morgantown, my original hometown of Washington, Pa., and my favorite big city (where I have family) of Pittsburgh when three city cops were victims of a cold-blooded killer who lured them with the very specific intent of committing lethal mayhem.

But, in Pittsburgh and all across the country, I have learned of actions that are offensive to my sense of justice where citizens have been needlessly and wantonly killed, or innocent people have been convicted of crimes as serious as murder, or ordinary citizens are constantly harassed for even the most minor violation…or perhaps none at all…in the name of “safe streets” or other ultimately meaningless slogans.

It is also trite to say that within any law enforcement agency there may be some bad eggs…the inevitable result of our very human nature.

Yet I have a theory  that out of control policing is a direct result of leadership at the top that lets officers know, directly or tacitly, that all but the most egregious conduct will be tolerated, all in the name of law and order.

On the other hand, I don’t believe most cops set out deliberately to be the most vicious examples of serving and protecting.

This article from Slate provides some evidence of the validity of my theory. It concerns William Bratton the former and current head of the New York Police Department (NYPD) and in the intervening years of his dual New York tenures the chief of the Los Angeles Police.

In “They Couldn’t Breathe, Either” Jason Peters highlights the consistencies of Bratton’s service wherever. The good—reductions in crime; the bad—-high levels of misconduct complaints; the ugly—death by choking of suspected offenders.

Each time Bratton has been selected to lead these big city departments he has expressed to the officers under his command that he has their backs and carries that pledge through many incidents.

One way to garner the support of your underlings is to shield them from external criticism. And Bratton has a record of resisting transparency in his police departments. Overzealous civilian oversight or the threat of being held accountable for their actions causes cops to be tentative, which makes them less effective at maintaining order. Throughout his managerial career, Bratton has consistently advocated for policies that give police officers latitude to enforce the law free from outside scrutiny and discipline.

Now Peters is not an unrelenting critic of Bratton. He offers high praise in some areas.

… the one thing that Bratton’s supporters and detractors agree on is that he is a fantastic manager and communicator, someone who cuts through bureaucracy and inspires loyalty in his officers.

I would question that shielding police officers from outside scrutiny and discipline is necessarily a good thing. Remember that all police departments are subject to civilian control and they exist to serve the public, not as a vehicle for individual or a collective of officers to enforce the law according to their personal whims.

Surely there are police departments in this land in which it is made clear that enforcing the law is the utmost priority but, under our Constitutional form of government and the precepts of human decency there is a right way and a wrong way to proceed with that enforcement. And…with proper training…cops will be as prepared as possible to deal with the nebulous situations where the right way is not crystal clear but exigencies require split second decisions.

The better training is (and part of that is the selection of the highest possibly quality of candidates for training) the greater likelihood that the correct decision will be made in these split second situations.

Part of the training also need be that officers inclined to and committing misconduct are in violation of the ideals of law enforcement and that misconduct will not be tolerated.

Too often cops stand together even when blatant misconduct or outright corrupt criminality is present because they are “brothers in uniform”.

It may be painful to call out a brother for his  misbehavior but in a good family the parents have demonstrated that doing so is the ideal.

In a police department the chief is, in effect, in loco parentis.


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