Death and dishonor
by Tom Sullivan
No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
– General George S. Patton
The Patton quote above gained new notoriety after it opened the movie Patton in 1970. For several years, an autograph my father-in-law got from Patton during the war has been in a large envelope on the shelf here. I never looked at it until just now. It's on a program from the Folies Bergère. I looked at it this morning because I'm still processing the week's events in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray homicide in Baltimore. I looked at it because it seems some of our police believe they're fighting a war, a war to be won by ensuring the other poor dumb bastard dies first.
Six Baltimore police officers now face "a litany of charges that include second-degree depraved-heart murder, involuntary manslaughter, false imprisonment and misconduct in office." Recent killings by police in Ferguson, in New York, and in North Charleston brought to mind another well-known quote, not from war, but policing:
Malone: You just fulfilled the first rule of law enforcement: make sure when your shift is over you go home alive. Here endeth the lesson.
– The Untouchables (1987)
Protests turned to riot and looting after Freddie Gray's funeral last week. Whenever that occurs in a black neighborhood, pundits rush to explain it as a symptom of a dysfunctional culture in the black community. Maybe it's time to examine whether "the first rule" hasn't bred a dysfunctional police culture in some departments. Because it's not just a dramatic device from the movies.
Steve Blow of the Dallas Morning News has heard that trope too: “The No. 1 duty of a police officer is to go home to his or her family at the end of the shift.” Really? he asked back in March:
If self-preservation is the first and foremost priority of a police officer, then you get what we have seen in recent months and years — a series of unsettling police shootings.
You get what we saw on that video released last week showing Dallas police shooting a mentally ill man nonchalantly holding a screwdriver in his hands.
You get the questions swirling around the shooting death last month of an unarmed man said to be approaching a Grapevine officer with his hands raised.
It would explain other such shootings in situations that seemed to pose no immediate threat to officers.
Maybe it’s time to quit nodding along and question the maxim that going home at the end of the day trumps all other considerations.
Is that how we train firefighters? Not to save people trapped in burning buildings because they might not go home to fight fires another day?
From childhood we are taught that policemen and firefighters (and soldiers) who risk their lives to save their fellow citizens deserve honor and respect. Putting others' lives before their own is how that respect is earned. Yet "the first rule of law enforcement" is in direct conflict with that. Perhaps it is “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.” But where is the honor in being paid to put your own safety first?
The "officer survival movement" has made it a key part of the training that officer safety is paramount. And that's fine to a point. But combined with the military surplus gear being handed out like candy by the federal government, the "first rule" has bred an officer survival culture. It trains for a "warrior mentality [that] makes policing less safe for both officers and civilians," writes Seth Stoughton, a former officer and professor of law at the University of South Carolina. Furthermore:
Police training needs to go beyond emphasizing the severity of the risks that officers face by taking into account the likelihood of those risks materializing. Policing has risks—serious ones—that we cannot casually dismiss. Over the last ten years, an annual average of 51 officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty according to data collected by the FBI. In the same time period, an average of 57,000 officers were assaulted every year (though only about 25 percent of those assaults result in any physical injuries). But for all of its risks, policing is safer now than it has ever been. Violent attacks on officers, particularly those that involve a serious physical threat, are few and far between when you take into account the fact that police officers interact with civilians about 63 million times every year. In percentage terms, officers were assaulted in about 0.09 percent of all interactions, were injured in some way in 0.02 percent of interactions, and were feloniously killed in 0.00008 percent of interactions. Adapting officer training to these statistics doesn’t minimize the very real risks that officers face, but it does help put those risks in perspective. Officers should be trained to keep that perspective in mind as they go about their jobs.
Here endeth the lesson.