by Bruce Dunlavy       (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

When it comes to our view of police forces and their response to crime, there is a divide in America.  For some, they are the “thin blue line” that separates the innocent and otherwise unprotected from the “criminal element.”  For others, they are the enforcement wing of The Establishment, for whom crime is defined as “any activity of the oppressed class that is displeasing to the ruling class.”

Our viewpoint is largely determined by our expectations.  What do we expect from police?  And what do we want?

I think many would agree that most folks’ expectations of police actions do not often exceed their desires, even when they get a bit over-zealous.  It is part of the bargain made with the forces of the law by a citizenry who want to see criminals controlled and are reassured by emphatic enforcement.  The bargain goes like this: “You protect us from the bad guys, and we won’t ask too many questions about how you do it.”  Many if not most Americans like to see accused criminals put in their place.  We like to see people handcuffed when they don’t really need to be.  We like to see arrestees roughed up a little (or at least treated roughly) when it isn’t necessary.  We like to see the televised “perp walk” in which the accused is paraded before the public on his way to the halls of justice.

Image credit: El Cajon, California, Police Department

An authoritarian streak in our police is something that has been around for a long time and is generally both expected and accepted.  Years ago I was sitting in on an undergraduate history discussion being moderated by one of my fellow graduate students.  My colleague asked the class what might be concluded from the fact that in the Nineteenth Century a decline in the incidence of violent crime coincided with the rise in the number of police forces.  One of the students replied, “Maybe all the violent people became policemen.”

It has been noted many times that there seem to be quite a few people who enter upon a career in law enforcement to ensure that they stay on the right side of the prison walls.  I asked a friend who is a forensic psychologist (he works for prosecutors determining the mental state of criminal defendants) if it was true that the psychological profiles of police officers and criminals are virtually indistinguishable.  He replied that it is so, and added that clergy are in the same grouping.  The inference is that all three tend to be people who like to press others to behave as they want them to.

Attempts to demonstrate this have been around since at least 1972, when Robert W. Balch published “The Police Personality: Fact or Fiction,” to suggest that authoritarian types abound in police work, but it is not clear that that such people enter the field in numbers greater than any other people.  It may be that they simply find themselves more successful at it and thus stay in the profession while others move to different occupations.

Most people’s view of the life of a law enforcement officer is gleaned from popular culture – primarily movies and television.  For a long time, the popular image of the best kind of officer was an upstanding justice-seeker who considered maintaining his own honor as important as taking down bad guys – always with as little violence as possible.

That all changed with the 1971 film Dirty Harry. The title police detective, played by Clint Eastwood in that production and several sequels, did not follow the rules.  He cut corners, violated procedure, and subjected suspects to abusive treatment.  He didn’t worry about being “politically correct” (a term unknown at the time); he simply got the job done as expediently as possible.  His superiors chafed at his behavior, but respected his results.

I watched that 45-year-old movie recently, and I was amazed.  By the standards of just about any television cop (Danny Reagan on Blue Bloods, or Hank Voight on Chicago P.D., for example), Dirty Harry is a veritable Boy Scout.  He is far more discreet and respectful – and far less violent and contemptuous – than the most rule-abiding of modern fictional officers.  Our expectations have declined in popular culture, and apparently in real life as well.

In recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to the shooting deaths of suspects  – particularly young black men – by police officers.  The immediate aftermath brings a chorus of charges of racism. In return, the defenders of police involved in shootings rise to point out that the victim was a “thug,” had a criminal record, ran away when confronted, resisted arrest, tried to grab the officer’s gun, or refused to comply with police orders.

I examined this issue in a post over a year ago, and things are no different now.  Freddie Gray, the Baltimore resident whose neck was broken during a ride in the back of a police van, had been chased down and arrested because he made eye contact with a policeman and then ran away.  Is that a crime?  On September 22, 2016, the unarmed Terence Crutcher was shot to death by a Tulsa officer who said he was reaching into his car through a window and she feared he was getting a weapon.  Although pictures indicated that the window was rolled up and the officer was arrested and charged, the outcome of the case is uncertain. [Update: Shelby was charged with manslaughter and acquitted by a jury.] Additionally disturbing is the recorded comment from an occupant of a police helicopter high above the scene that Crutcher “looks like a bad dude.” The Tamir Rice case in Cleveland in 2015 was similar, involving an officer who had been terminated or refused hire by other law enforcement agencies because of his instability in firearms situations.  That officer was exonerated.

Body cameras and dashboard cameras have not led to a measurable decline in questionable police shootings.  Sometimes they have been turned off; sometimes they have been “inoperative,” and they do not start audio recording for nearly half a minute after video recording has begun.  The Danville, Virginia, police department was accused of raising the hoods of their vehicles to block the dash cams (their response was that the reason was to prevent heat-related damage to electronic components).

Police officers have also learned to use the cameras in their own defense.  When they are on camera (e.g., the TV show Cops) or dash/body cam they can loudly yell, “Drop the gun!” or “Stop resisting!” in order to establish prima facie evidence that subject had a gun or was resisting, whether true or not.

Do we want to change the way law enforcement officers behave?  If not, nothing need be done.  If so, three things could help – better psychological evaluation of applicants for the job, more effective training and accountability for officers, and a demilitarization of police forces so that they seem more like benefactors sent “to protect and serve” and less like an army of occupation.