It's Getting Better All The Time

My apologies to the Beatles for using a line from their song, but I just read the latest statistics from Dr. Neal Trautman's research into police attitudes about misconduct and there is much to be excited about. Only seven years ago research showed that 60% of the cops interviewed would not be inclined to turn in another cop for serious misconduct. As of 2007, the latest research shows that number has dropped to 46%. Even if we factor in statistical error and the fact that the questions were not exactly the same, it still looks to me like cops are demanding more of their fellow officers, and that's good news for all of us.

I just finished doing four days of "ethics training" about the code of silence for the cops of Gulfport, Mississippi. They impressed me with their questions, with their comments, and their honesty about what's right and what's wrong with policing. I was always under the impression, being a white liberal Yankee, that racism played a big part in the day to day lives of cops in the south. My conversations with black and white officers alike left me with the feeling that there may be more racism in the north than there is down on the Gulf Coast. I also walked away from that department thinking "What a great bunch of cops!" I know they aren't all perfect, but Chief Weatherford has a good department and I wonder if the citizens of Gulfport really know how good their department is? Unfortunately, they may be under the mistaken impression that all cops in Mississippi are brutal. There is a reason for that.

If you've been halfway awake for the last couple years, you are aware that a number of Harrison County, Mississippi, deputies are going to federal prison following the beating death of a prisoner that was brought in by the Gulfport Police. The incident brought to light the fact that the use of excessive force had been a common occurrence in the jail for some time. I brought up the Harrison County case to the Gulfport P.D. this week. I told them that I don't for one minute believe that all those deputies were bad people. I also told them that I don't believe that they got into police work just to beat up people; so what went wrong there? Why didn't someone stop it before it was too late?

I don't know why men and women cross the moral line and start believing that it's okay to hurt people just because they can. In the book Ordinary Men, the author talks about German businessmen and shopkeepers that were drafted into Hitler's police corps and then assigned to kill Jews. Some of them could not and would not do it, but many did kill, willingly. These were not men who volunteered because they wanted to go out and kill people. There was nothing in their background that would have identified them as killers; yet, when they believed that it was within the law and they were ordered to murder innocent men, women, and children, they did. I think we have to assume, based on the history of the "final solution" in Germany and the admitted years of brutality in the Harrison County case that there is the potential for murder, or at least brutality, in a lot of us, if not all of us. We have the law to stop us, but the law isn't riding next to us in the squad or helping us fight off a maniacal meth addict on a traffic stop. But very often there is someone there, your backup or your partner.

You put our lives on the line every day for other cops without question, and I know that the Gulf Coast law enforcement community worked to save lives, putting themselves at great risk in unimaginable conditions. I heard a great comparison made between 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina: after 9/11 you could go home at night to your home and family. There was no such "safe harbor" for the officers responding to Katrina. Many of them lost everything they had, and some are just now getting back into their own homes. One of the most impressive things I've ever heard about cops was Chief Weatherford's analysis of his department's response to the disaster: He told me, to paraphrase, that they all stayed and did their jobs until they was done, in conditions resembling a third world country in the middle of a war zone.

I told them in Gulfport, and I'll say it again here: you made us all proud to be cops and first responders. And yet, in the case of Harrison County, they couldn't, or wouldn't step up and say, "That's a bad idea," or "Don't do that" when it was clear that it was wrong. Why is that so hard? It doesn't seem like it should be, yet it is. I talked to a former Iraq war veteran who is also a veteran police officer, and even he thinks it's hard to tell another cop to stop something that is easily recognizable as unethical or even criminal conduct.

46% of cops still might not report serious misconduct by other police officers. Almost 10,000 officers have been decertified by the 26 agencies that report those officers. With a little bit of extrapolation, that's about 2.5% of the total number of sworn law enforcement in the U.S. That's good, but it could be better. You want to make sure your partner goes home at night? When you see them crossing the line, you owe it to them and their families to step in and say: "Not here, not now, not in front of me."