As a—for the most part—law abiding citizen, I am every bit a supporter of having a competent, professional police department protecting and serving us. It’s an often difficult, often thankless as well as dangerous profession that I myself would not want to perform. However as a minority male, seemingly always the target of questionable police actions, I must confess that my feelings are somewhat conflicted. Quite often, when I hear about instances of police misconduct such as the several high-profile examples in the news in recent times, I am torn between applauding their protection, and being appalled by the prospect of needing protection from them. Sadly, given the examples of unprofessional behavior exhibited by various police departments around the country, it’s not as if anyone’s hesitation to support all law enforcement activity isn’t without reason.
- This past Wednesday, a federal judge ordered the arrest of Morgan County Alabama Sheriff Greg Bartlett after skinny and underfed inmates testified that their ill-health and emaciated appearance was due to being fed illegally small food portions, ordered by Bartlett. Still more unbelievable was the fact that the Bartlett was acting totally within the limits of Alabama law, which permits letting sheriffs pocket money left over from feeding (or in this case, underfeeding) inmates, which he did to the tune of $212,000 over 3 years (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/01/07/national/main4706215.shtml?source=RSSattr=HOME_4706215)
- On New Years Day in Oakland, California, unarmed Oscar Grant III was shot and killed by one of the city’s transit officers. What makes this tragedy stand out is that at least four transit riders who were witness to the shooting caught the incident on their cell phone cameras, which showed grant lying down on the pavement, handcuffed and apparently not resisting. This shooting led to civil unrest this week in downtown Oakland.
- In recent weeks in Berrien County, Michigan, county prosecutors were forced to petition the court to dismiss some 15 drug-related cases because of federal charges pending against a former police officer for, among other allegations, embezzling money and drugs from the Benton Harbor, Michigan police department. The officer in question, Andrew Collins, is alleged to have given false information in arrest reports as well as perjured testimony, which led to the dismissals.
Admittedly I’m no police officer, and as a consequence, am in no position to second guess the professional judgment of one, especially in crisis situations. However, I am aware of ethical human behavior and know that withholding meals from individuals to the point of ill-health, shooting unarmed men in already in custody, and stealing money & drugs do not require rocket-science-level thinking. As a society, we hold police officers to such a high level of esteem that we are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, in most cases, where their actions give pause for scrutiny. But one has to wonder that if tangible proof in the aforementioned (as well as other) cases were not available, would our predisposition to give these public servants the benefit of the doubt when it comes to acting within the law and the bounds of their duty blind us to official misconduct and dereliction of their duties? Even beyond wonder, a level of cynical scrutiny should be applied to this observation. Considering that police officers are fully aware that in this modern era of information and technological proliferation, dashboard-mounted video recorders, cell phone cameras, and internet-based websites that afford worldwide distribution of any newsworthy incident they are involved in, some bad apples still act with reckless and unprofessional abandon. It’s almost as if such a mindset reflects a level of arrogance that their more questionable actions will be not only understood by a public that is fear-ridden of being crime victims, but that such actions will be dismissed as being within the scope of their duty to “serve and protect.” It doesn’t help that police officers under such scrutiny will always fall back on the customary defense of, “You don’t understand what it’s like to be a police office (in a neighborhood where you’re not respected/liked).” Honestly I don’t, and I’ll wager that neither do most people who put their lives on the line on a daily basis. However, I do understand that anyone given discretion to act in defense of the law, who are armed with guns, tasers, nightsticks, body armor, backup, and other assorted implements capable of inflicting major injury or death are expected to act with a higher level of professional judgment and due care. Although no amount of training or screening can prevent every potential instance of police misconduct, such cases should signify a need to increase the standards and levels of training when it comes to recruiting police officers, especially in high crime areas. At the very least, a minimal of an Associates Degree should be required for those entrusted with protecting both their own lives as well as those of the public they serve, with perhaps an emphasis on sociology. Supplementing the education requirement should be ethics training, where failure would immediately disqualify a candidate. Probationary periods, where rookies are teamed up with veterans, should be extended. And (I know this one will elicit catcalls of disapproval) there should be a requirement that at least 50% of the street level police officers in any given area should be comprised of residents from that area. The logic of this last suggestion is that people from a particular area often have a particular view or insight of their neighborhood that outsiders would not. Finally, to prevent bad officers from hopping from one jurisdiction (where he/she is terminated for misconduct) only to find employment in another, there should be a national database listing such officers and their records, including reprimands, awards, and other performance distinctions. As a minority male, I am sad to say that I will never have the same admiration and respect for the police as I did when as a child. However, with a higher standard of qualifications for the police officers out there protecting my interests, I can at least gain a small level comfort knowing that the man or woman behind the badge won’t be as quick to mistake my reaching for my wallet as threat to his or her life…or my own.
What has your experience with the police been like? Post Comments.