The War Against Crime: Explaining Police Misconduct
Tanya Eiserer has an interesting post in the Dallas Morning News crime blog. The post relates to a story she wrote about a Dallas police officer who pepper sprayed a man and a second officer who lied about it to internal affairs investigators. The two officers cooked up a story to explain the use of the pepper spray. A rookie officer who was also present failed to report the incident immediately because he feared retaliation. He eventually told investigators that he saw an officer pepper spray the man without provocation.
The officer who wielded the pepper spray explained why the rookie's account matched the victim's:
"Rookie officers interpret and see things differently than more mature veteran officers."
In other words, rookies in the Dallas Police Department haven't learned to lie to protect other officers. [more ...]
In many police departments, officers maintain a "blue wall of silence" as a matter of honor. Eiserer writes:
Many cops view peers who report misconduct as "squirrels" and will ostracize them.
According to Eiserer, officers are more likely to report misconduct that is committed for the officer's personal gain, while keeping silent about misconduct that's viewed as a component of effective police work.
Many police officers differentiate between "noble cause corruption" and "bad corruption."
"Bad corruption" would be something like taking a bribe or robbing a drug dealer, and they would not hesitate to report such criminal behavior.The line gets blurry when dealing with so-called "noble cause corruption" -- the idea that police are at war and the ends justifies the means, i.e. raiding a drug house without having probable cause to do so or roughing up a gang member.
While there's probably some truth to that distinction, it's relatively rare for an officer to rat out another officer when money goes missing during a drug investigation. The subtle distinction between "bad corruption" and "noble cause corruption" can be elusive. Once officers are willing to justify corruption, it's easy to rationalize misconduct. If officers think a suspected drug dealer's money is ill-gotten profit, for instance, why should they let the dealer keep it?
Eiserer nonetheless makes an excellent point when she points to "the idea that police are at war." The war mentality -- the war against drugs, the war against crime -- creates the belief that anything officers do to harm the bad guys is justifiable. After all, it's war, and war isn't pretty. Wars are fought against enemies. Wars produce casualties. Defeating the enemy is the primary goal of a war, and if the enemy is harmed, or the enemy's property is destroyed or taken, that's an acceptable consequence of war.
Richard Nixon declared a "war against crime" as an alternative to the "bleeding heart liberal" approach that conservatives regard as insufficiently punitive. Nixon promoted "fear of crime" in the way conservatives have more recently instilled "fear of terrorism." A fearful public doesn't much care about misconduct that harms the "enemy," whether the misconduct is committed by police officers against alleged criminals or by interrogators against alleged terrorists.
The war analogy is damaging to civil liberties. The presumption of innocence and the right to a jury trial are meaningless if officers believe any harm they inflict on individuals they suspect of criminal behavior is justified as an act of war. If all members of society, not just "bleeding heart liberals," expected police officers to obey the law, a culture that accepts the blue wall of silence would be eventually be replaced by a culture that demands accountability. That change will not come easily, but it should start by ending the war upon people who are suspected of criminal behavior.
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