American policing is heading for a crisis.
Cops are going to keep showing up for work. They’re not going to go on strike and parade in front of local police stations with picket signs. But they are going to stop performing the kind of proactive police work that every good cop knows is what really prevents crimes. No doubt many already have.
Picture this scenario: A cop on patrol spots several young males loitering on a corner in a high-crime neighborhood. (Race doesn’t matter — they are whatever color is most common in the area.) One or two might even be known to the officer from past arrests. He stops and questions them, pats them down, maybe runs their names through the computer to check for outstanding warrants. Chances are high that he will find a weapon on at least one of them, maybe some drugs as well. His intervention may also have defused plans for a burglary or even an armed robbery or a drive-by shooting later that night.
The chances are also high that this intervention could have resulted in a charge of resisting an officer or assault on an officer. One or more of the suspects could have been tased or taken to the ground and restrained. There was a lower, but still real, chance of that encounter’s leading to gunfire, by or against the officer. Those really are mean streets out there.
As turmoil mounts around Black Lives Matter agitation in American cities, more and more law-enforcement officers realize that in just about any encounter with black suspects, they risk being thrown to the wolves by craven local prosecutors, mayors, or police administrators, no matter how right or blameless they may be in the actions they take under pressure.
And the next time they see that cluster of surly young males hanging out on the corner, they may decide to just drive on by. After all, they can’t get suspended, fired, or indicted if they wait to take the report on whatever mayhem those suspects might commit.
The crisis cops are facing today is that, by simply doing their jobs, they are increasingly at risk of unjust outcomes — or having their own lives endangered. Two recent incidents illustrate that risk.
Last March, in Rochester, New York, a black man died after an encounter with police. This occurred during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Police had received a report of a naked man running amok; as any veteran cop knows, that kind of situation often suggests a person on PCP, an especially dangerous drug that tends to make its users strip and behave irrationally. It can also result in sudden death from frantic excitation of the cardiopulmonary system.
When confronted, the suspect fought, kicked, and spit — hence the use of a spit hood, placed on the suspect to protect the officers from exposure to the virus. At some point the suspect lost consciousness and suffered cardiac arrest; paramedics called to the scene performed CPR. He was taken to a hospital, where he died a few days later. The Rochester medical examiner eventually ruled the death a homicide, apparently caused by asphyxiation during physical restraint. In early September, the seven officers involved were suspended. It remains to be seen what, if any, charges will be levied against them. Veteran cops know that drugs, alcohol, and unhealthy living occasionally produce life-threatening medical crises in suspects in custody. And they fail to see how they are to blame.
In the second case, in Tulsa, an officer shot and wounded a fleeing suspect who was dragging the officer with his car as the officer reached inside and tried to restrain him. The cop has been charged with a misdemeanor of “recklessly discharging a firearm.” This is mystifying: The officer (who is on leave) was in danger of being dragged to his death.
In the high-profile case of the shooting of Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wis., officers everywhere are watching to see if the police will be charged. Most cops have at some point dealt with the type of situation that played out in Kenosha: They receive a report of a disturbance, find that a participant is wanted on a felony warrant, as Blake was, and attempt to make an arrest only to have the suspect resist, flee, or assault them. Following their training, they may tase the suspect, which in most cases will subdue him.
Blake was tased twice but still wasn’t subdued. Police reported later the presence of a knife on the driver’s side of the vehicle Blake was leaning into. The great majority of American cops, in such a situation, would do what they thought they had to do — including firing at the suspect — because they want to go home at night.
We are living in a climate of animus against the police. The result is already apparent in soaring crime rates, most notably in those cities where local police are most heavily under attack with demands to “defund” their departments. It will only get worse. A growing number of cops are going to drive on by to preserve their jobs and their lives.
I know cops. I got to know them during a decade as a crime reporter for a daily newspaper. I know that they are not bloodthirsty racists looking for the next chance to shoot a black man. The ones I knew would have deplored the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I spent time with a number of police officers who had used deadly force — in every case, including two I witnessed, with full justification — and every one of them regretted the necessity of taking a human life and were never quite the same again.
But I, and they, also knew that their job was to protect the innocent citizens who might have become victims had the officers not intervened. Like the 32 children already killed by armed criminals this year in Chicago alone.
Everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocence in America — except, it seems, for our law-enforcement officers. In the rare cases of actual brutality, the cops involved can and should be held accountable, and cops themselves are the first to agree. But they also hear the “lynch the cops” outcry that seems to follow virtually every use of force, no matter how justified.
So they’ll be at work tonight, but we shouldn’t be surprised if they continue to pull back from the kind of police work that really keeps us all safe. And that is the tragedy unfolding in America these days.