The First Thing We Do, Let’s Fire All the Cops

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            In the latest shooting of an innocent civilian by a trigger-happy police officer, a white Fort Worth cop blew away a 28-year-old African-American woman through her bedroom window as she played a video game with her eight-year-old nephew. Atatiana Jefferson’s neighbor had called a nonemergency police number to request that they check on her because her doors were wide open.

            “The officer did not announce that he was a police officer prior to shooting,” a spokesman said. Instead, he shouted through the window before killing Jefferson: “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!”

            This atrocity followed the recent conviction of a white officer in Dallas who claimed that she had entered the wrong apartment in her building before mistakenly shooting an African-American man. Botham Jean, 26, was eating ice cream in his own home, clearly not hers, when he was killed.

            Police shot and killed 689 people so far this year in the U.S. Blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be shot to death by police officers than whites. Many victims were unarmed.

            Is it any surprise that only half of the public has confidence in Officer Not So Friendly? Public perception is worse among minorities and young people.

            It’s not a major political campaign issue but it ought to be: domestic policing in the United States needs to be reinvented from the ground up.

            “From their earliest days in the [police] academy, would-be officers are told that their prime objective, the proverbial ‘first rule of law enforcement,’ is to go home at the end of every shift,” Seth Stoughton noted in the Harvard Law Review. Policing experts call this me-first approach the Warrior mentality. “Officers learn to treat every individual they interact with as an armed threat and every situation as a deadly force encounter in the making.”

            In the real world, America’s streets are not a war zone. 95% of police officers go through their entire career without ever having to fire their weapon. But many cops are military veterans—and vets are 23% more likely than non-vets to draw and shoot.

            Increasingly concerned about police shootings and the eroding of trust between cops and the people, some leaders are trying to promote a Guardian mentality instead. “The Guardian mindset prioritizes service over crime-fighting, and it values the dynamics of short-term encounters as a way to create long-term relationships,” writes Stoughton. “As a result, it instructs officers that their interactions with community members must be more than legally justified, they must also be empowering, fair, respectful, and considerate. The Guardian mindset emphasizes communication over commands, cooperation over compliance, and legitimacy over authority.”

            The priority for cops shouldn’t be that they get to go home at the end of every shift. They should make sure that the people they interact with are safe.

            This is common sense. It’s also an uphill battle.

            The militarization of domestic civilian policing is no longer a concern about a phenomenon in development. It is here. Police departments throughout the United States have acquired tanks, armored personnel carriers, automatic weapons and other military hardware transferred from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. SWAT teams, which originated in the military-style LAPD, are everywhere. Even little towns like Mt. Orab, Ohio (pop. 2,701) and Middleburg, Pennsylvania (pop. 1,363) have a SWAT outfit ready to take on bands of heavily-armed goons in case a 1980s action movie inexplicably comes to life there.

            For Americans of a certain age, cops no longer dress or look like cops. The police carry stun grenades and semiautomatic pistols and rifles and wear Kevlar vests. They’re bulked up, obviously on steroids and certainly no stranger to the weight room. Their hair is cropped short, military style. They’re scary and they mean to be.

            There’s a reason they look like that. One out of five police officers is a military veteran. Police brass love vets. So even cops recruited from the civilian population learn to emulate that military look and swagger.

            Federal programs encourage and even mandate preferential treatment of vets by police departments when looking for recruits. But this is exactly the wrong direction. Trained to have an authoritarian approach to interactions with civilians and frequently the victims of PTSD, veterans who become policemen are more likely to resort to force, less interested in deescalation and more likely to mentally deteriorate and even to commit suicide while on duty.

            As of this writing this story is still developing, but I would not be surprised to learn that the 35-year-old officer involved in the Fort Worth shooting was a vet.

            Police officers have the power of life and death over us. They have discretion to harm us through less dramatic interactions like issuing us traffic infractions that can cost us thousands of dollars. The potential for abuse or poor judgment requires that police officers be selected from among those members of our society who are least interested in pushing around their fellow citizens. Aggressiveness should be considered a negative quality in police recruiting.

            As with any position in which the holder is vested with power, the paradox is that those who most want the job are those who should least be permitted to hold it. It should almost be a reverse draft: the less you want to be a cop, the better qualified you are for the job.

            I would fire every single police officer in the United States and suggest that if they want to come back they reapply for their positions under completely different guidelines. I would take away guns from most policemen – they simply don’t need them – and replace semiautomatic pistols with traditional revolvers as the standard sidearm. No more military gear, no more bulletproof vests. Return the tanks to the Pentagon. And I would put an end to recruiting from the military.

            Warrior cops don’t make us safer. They’re loose cannons who need psychiatric counseling, not guns.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

6 thoughts on “The First Thing We Do, Let’s Fire All the Cops

  1. Why not have first responders as a unified profession?

    Then the same person who might get called into upholding some ordinances on a Tuesday would be the one to treat injured people on a Thursday. (Even members of some anti-terror outfits etc. – much reduced in number – would still work administering first aid say 33% of the time.)

    The idea being that if they would know what it means to be hit they wouldn’t shoot at people so readily, especially when their friends and colleagues will be the ones to have to patch up their victims.

    Crucially, such a profession could be devolved, with local part-timers and volunteers being the first to be called up in case of an emergency. The locals would know the way around their own neighborhoods and be the first to arrive at a scene. They would serve to keep their more specialized colleagues in check who would essentially have to take their directions from them.

    This may sound utopian but I believe in most societies and smaller communities something like this has been the norm throughout human history: able-bodied people responding to local emergencies from thefts to fires as a matter of honor. Only then deciding whether to bother the captain of the Guard or whatever in case they feel overwhelmed…

  2. Way back in the 1970s I talked with a B-52 pilot who was about to leave the Air Force. He said some of his fellow former B-52 pilot friends were not having luck in transferring their pilot skills to the domestic civilian commercial airlines.

    The problem was that these former B-52 pilots were assessed as “not being risk averse enough” to be entrusted with the lives of hundreds of civilians after flying their huge war planes like stunt pilots in order to avoid surface-to-air missiles in their flights over Vietnam.

    It may not seem fair to veterans, but in fairness to US civilians, the practice of breaking into civilian homes in the middle of the night with an M-16 on automatic in Afghanistan should not be considered a skill transferable to domestic police forces.

    People with PTSD and a higher risk of suicide than the general population should be transferred out of the type of work that led to their condition in the first place, rather than expecting them to adjust on their own to the type of situation that may still cause them to wake up screaming in the night.

    • The whole “learn the skills that’ll last a lifetime” PR argument from the military is bullshit. How many tanks are you going to repair in civilian life? Ditto helicopters. The “skills” in the military are mostly ones that are acquired in civilian life or ones that are military-specific. Granted, in an office where the employees are aware that the middle manager knows how to waterboard them and who may or may not sodomize them depending on how bad a day he’s having (and who will be protected by the CEO as a patriot and a hero) will probably have no trouble meeting their Q3 sales figures.

  3. I don’t believe that All Cops Are Bastards.
    First, there’s the crooked cops doing shakedowns and running side hustles with the criminals.
    They’re bastards.
    Then there’s the cops who plant evidence and lie on the stand.
    They’re bastards.
    Then there’s the cops who fill ticket quotas and hassle people for “infractions” that cause no harm.
    They’re bastards.
    Then there’s the cops who cover for all of those aforementioned classes of cops.
    They’re bastards.
    Then there’s the cops who see cop transgressions and say nothing.
    They’re bastards.
    Then there’s the cops who show up in full uniform at every cop trial to intimidate the jury.
    They’re bastards.
    All the other cops are okay.

  4. @ Alex

    “All the other cops are okay.”

    But how can we really be sure that these last two new cops not included in the previous categories will not turn bad on their second day on the job?

  5. I agree with taking their guns. Their misuse is proven. That completely changes the field. Like the British. But take everybody’s guns.
    The militarization of policing threatens liberty.
    Reset prisons to making useful people out of the prisoners. They need to live when they come out.

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