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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    Also, (5.00 / 0) (#1)
    by Dr Molly on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 06:19:10 AM EST
    the war mentality objectifies people so that one can more easily live oneself after killing or harming them.

    The article is interesting, and the war mentality explains a lot about police behavior I think.

    i think you're correct. (none / 0) (#8)
    by cpinva on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 12:52:24 PM EST
    and the war mentality explains a lot about police behavior I think.

    this too can be attributed to our wonderful, get-tough-on-crime politicians, who frequently referrence the never-ending "war on crime". it should come as no surpise then that the police believe they're in a war, politicians keep telling them they are.

    i wonder if that would be as effective with education? perhaps, what this country needs, to improve learning opportunities for all our children, is a declaration of "war on bad education"?

    nah, that would never work, no guns or jails involved.


    War on Ignorance? :) (none / 0) (#12)
    by Dr Molly on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 03:52:52 PM EST
    Not all police officers (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by NMvoiceofreason on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 06:29:31 AM EST
    face gang wars. If these were from North Dallas, they may have faced some cranky teens or hostile strippers, but that really is little more than an excuse. The behavior for which they are accused does not have an excuse. Use of Force has to be monitored, but truth remains paramount. Lying to IA needs to be prosecuted, as does the assault on an unarmed, unprovoking citizen.

    Again, the correct behavior starts at the top. The brass has to have sent out signals "this is OK, protect your own", instead of "We are the Police. We obey and enforce the law." So gut the command staff, and replace them with people who will do the job correctly - before people start getting killed.

    Great Post (5.00 / 0) (#3)
    by Claw on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 08:42:26 AM EST
    This won't stop until at least two things happen:
    1. We flush the WAR mentality down the toilet.
    2. We start paying police officers more.

    The most ridiculous Blue Wall of silence/perjury incidents I've encountered have involved poorly paid state officers.  Investigators tend (with some notable exceptions) to be vastly more honest and interested in the truth.  

    Again, thanks TChris.  

    How about (5.00 / 3) (#4)
    by Chuck0 on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 10:20:09 AM EST
    just a war against the rest of us? Cops aren't at war against crime, they are at war against anyone who isn't a cop.

    They abuse and assault the general public without consequence. Sometimes even kill. (Ref the elderly woman in Atlanta). The are rarely, if ever, prosecuted criminally. Oh, there might be someone suspended or fired once in awhile. But except for "bad corruption" no one goes to prison.

    If you or I tasered a 14 year old girl or 72 year old woman, we'd be locked up, post haste. Or say, forced a 12 girl into van and beat her while doing it (Galveston, TX, PD), you're looking at serious prison time. UNLESS, you do it while wearing a badge and gun.

    I'm sick and disgusted seeing police "mistakes" and "bad judgment" glossed over in this country. You'd think this was some third world backwater with some of the law enforcement behavior in this country. It's time to put some cops in prison.

    Coincidentally, just this morning my (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by Inspector Gadget on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 12:03:56 PM EST
    son posted this interesting event on his Facebook page:

    Woke up this morning to "LAPD! LAPD! COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP!" Opened my bedroom door and saw 8 police officers with guns pointed at me telling me to put my hands up and then got handcuffed. Turns out some gang members on parole have been using MY address as a cover.

    I want to know why the parole officers for these parolees hadn't verified the address information they were given, why his landlord let the police in, and why they cuffed him. It's hard for me to imagine a 6'6" white, middle class, adult with no tattoos and a business man's haircut being mistaken for a gang member long enough to get the cuffs on him. He said the officers were apologetic once he proved he was not who they were looking for. He's in a nice part of LA, too.


    Update - I'm in awe (none / 0) (#9)
    by Inspector Gadget on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 01:07:01 PM EST
    They cuffed me for like a minute. It was maybe only 3 or 4 minutes of questions before they realized I wasn't black. And that's not a racist comment. They were looking for two black twins and I don't think I fit the description.

    The thread that's grown on his facebook entry is both interesting and comical. I'm amazed at how many young men have similar experiences to talk about.

    Seems to me that the cops should be carrying the mug shots with them on cases like this.


    What's of note here (none / 0) (#17)
    by Lora on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 09:56:51 PM EST
    ...is that, if the young man had been black, it would have taken much longer for him to establish that he wasn't the guy they were looking for, and his experience might have been a whole lot worse.

    There's that, and, (none / 0) (#20)
    by Inspector Gadget on Fri Jul 10, 2009 at 06:02:37 PM EST
    my brother was telling me about a situation not long ago where a 19 year old man was detained as a suspect when the person they were looking for was actually a 50-something year old woman. Apparently, it wasn't as simple as one would expect for him to convince the police that they had the wrong person.

    Although these stories aren't usual, they also aren't unheard of.


    Welcome to my world! (5.00 / 0) (#11)
    by RedDragon62 on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 02:00:22 PM EST
    I've lived with this type of treatment from the police all my life! I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago and we ALL know that we can be shot, beaten, robbed, set-up, maced etc...at anytime.

    As I said in my intro.........."Welcome to my world!

    Cops lie all the time (none / 0) (#6)
    by MKS on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 12:25:14 PM EST
    The new, younger cops are the worst.  All about being tough, macho and being at war against the bad guys--which is anyone they don't like.  And, I'm talking well-paid cops, as in making in excess of 100k annually.

    It is a mentality of having power and exercising that power.

    Higher ups, such as Captains, are a different story.  They tend to be more intelligent and human.  The beat cop, not so much.

    And, younger cops sexually harass (none / 0) (#7)
    by MKS on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 12:29:33 PM EST
    women they detain.  Asking for dates, etc., of women they detain.  Groping as well.  

    Bad cops of all ages do that sh*t... (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by kdog on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 01:36:49 PM EST
    and worse...sexual favors for a get out of jail free card...especially a problem for prostitutes.

    Really? (none / 0) (#13)
    by Claw on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 06:46:47 PM EST
    You know cops who make more than the Chief of Police in most cities?  What planet are they from?  The top salary for an Atlanta Police Officer is just above $50,000.  The starting salary is just above $30,000.
    I agree that cops lie and, unlike your little fib up there, their lies can destroy lives.  

    The pay problem is very real, though.  As goes the $$, so, too often, goes the talent.  


    Yup, true (none / 0) (#14)
    by MKS on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 07:08:16 PM EST
    Sheriff Deputies in Southern California make a base pay of somewhere between 70-80k and with overtime can easily exceed 100k.

    In Orange County, half of the Orange County Sheriff's deputies made more than 100k in 2007.  And, guess what?  Still have corruption, and what the Orange County DA publicly called a code of silence protecting the deputies from their own crimes....



    It's about the power, not so much (none / 0) (#15)
    by MKS on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 07:13:12 PM EST
    the money.

    While (none / 0) (#16)
    by Claw on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 09:41:43 PM EST
    The link to the Orange County Sheriff's office is interesting. I still believe that pay attracts talent.  That's why working with the GBI is much different from working with people on the lower rungs of the APD.  
    I still think the "cops" you refer to probably weren't hot head rookies lying on the stand to protect the higher-ups...all the while bringing home $100,000/year.  
    Also (off topic), Sheriff's departments are famously corrupt.  Here in GA a Sheriff who'd just lost an election decided to have his rival gunned down in his front yard.  
    I'm with you on the "cops lie" issue.  But my experience has been that the higher someone is in the pay grade (again, with notable exceptions), the less likely they are to lie during deposition, destroy evidence, or threaten you.  

    The Orange County Sheriff (none / 0) (#19)
    by MKS on Fri Jul 10, 2009 at 12:40:08 AM EST
    has been hired to provide police services to most of south Orange County and the cities there--it is a very large organization.

    And, the San Diego County Sheriffs just pepper sprayed Francine Busby's fundraiser (the Democratic candidate for the Northern San Diego County House seat), throwing the host to the ground......

    Thugs on a power trip.

    I agree with you about the higher ups: a different breed--more intelligent among other things....



    Start at the top (none / 0) (#18)
    by Lora on Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 10:03:26 PM EST
    When so many of our leaders bend or break the law in the execution of their duties, is it any wonder that the cops do it, too?  As a country we are morally bankrupt.