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Ask Auntie Pinko!
Posted by AuntiePinko in Editorials & Other Articles
Wed Mar 22nd 2006, 04:37 PM
Dear Auntie Pinko,

I just read an article about a doctor in Virginia who was being observed by police on suspicion of Internet gambling. When he came out of his house to confront them, he was killed ("accidentally," of course) by a police sniper from the Special Weapons and Tactics force that had been deployed on this important surveillance mission.

Apparently, police forces are using military and paramilitary operational tactics more and more, even in ordinary crime situations. Are America's police turning into brownshirts? I've always thought well of the police! In my neighborhood, anyway, they are underfunded and overworked, but they seem to be making a real effort to work with the community, especially in areas where racial tensions run high.

Is there something wrong with the way police are being trained? Is it a problem with the command structure? Are local politicians demanding unrealistic results? What's going on? It seems to me that the backlash from incidents like this could have exactly the opposite result: worse, not better, law enforcement. What is at the root of this problem?

Len C.
New York, NY



Dear Len,

Since Auntie found the very idea of the incident you referred to so upsetting, I wanted it to be one of those "urban legends." But alas, it is all too true, apparently. Here is the link: Washington Post, 2/5/06

After I pasted my eyebrows back on, I did some research on both sides of the fence - that is, civil libertarians and police officers. It was interesting that I heard some very similar things in each case. Law enforcement professionals call it a "bad playbook." Civil libertarians call it "bad leadership policy." They also agree, substantially, on where it comes from: a demand, perceived or real, that the police "get tough" and "show results" on certain types of crime, mostly crime (like gambling and drug trafficking,) that is linked to organized crime and gangs.

Law enforcement professionals generally agree that the most effective ways to curtail this kind of crime aren't usually dramatic, high-profile, splashy SWAT operations. But unfortunately, the tactics that are effective are often slow, expensive, and sometimes logistically impossible, since they require high levels of cooperation among agencies and jurisdictions. And they're often undramatic and low-profile, thus they receive little media attention. So the SWAT units come out to convince community leaders and the public that the police are "doing something."

Smart, well-trained, well-equipped law enforcement professionals who can count on their leadership can be highly effective in reducing crime and its impact. Unfortunately, there is a severe shortage of such professionals. Training budgets get cut, and sometimes officers find themselves with an assignment that isn't appropriate to their skills and experience. Recruitment and selection is often at the mercy of shrinking budgets and mushrooming bureaucratic requirements that discourage good candidates and let poor ones slide through.

Up to that point, both civil libertarians and law enforcement professionals were in substantial agreement. Beyond that, however, they not unnaturally see different sources and solutions for the problem. Civil libertarians focus on issues of training and judgment among individual officers, and stringent internal disciplinary practices, as well as establishing and maintaining clear legal standards for what levels of force can and should be deployed in various situations.

Law enforcement professionals, while freely admitting that not all officers show good judgment all the time, reject the idea that more rules, prescriptions, and restrictions will ensure better policing. They would prefer to see more resources "front ended" into recruitment, selection, and training high-quality professionals who are then given more latitude to apply their experience and judgment based on the situation as they see it when it is unfolding "on the street." This dichotomy is hardly surprising.

"Cops who want to be cowboys," one law enforcement professional told me, "should be screened out early and put on desk duty. They endanger themselves, their partners, and their units, and they make mistakes that make for bad collars and criminals put back on the streets. But too many rules make for policing that is just as bad. An experienced officer can often 'read' a situation better than 'the book,' and deal with it more effectively if he can be a little creative. There's rules that work, and rules that don't. And too much emphasis on collars keeps officers from doing other stuff that's just as important fighting crime."

And a lawyer friend points to "Personnel systems that insulate both leaders and officers from the consequences of bad decision making. There's too little incentive to do what's different - hell, it's actively discouraged."

But the two sides came together again in talking about the real solution: the public (that's us) has to have a reality-based understanding of the costs and benefits of good law enforcement, be willing to make the investments that will make such law enforcement possible, and hold law enforcement to high standards of professional conduct and realistic expectations of results. We need to demand more thoughtful and in-depth media coverage of crime and law enforcement issues, rather than "sweeps week" sensation. We need to elect local officials who will hold them to the highest possible standards of professionalism, while providing them the resources to maintain and implement those standards.

Frankly, Len, I didn't find this information very satisfying in light of how spectacularly awful the "militarization" of policing is, from a civil liberties standpoint. And I think a strong dose of media coverage and citizen outrage in Virginia and other places where SWAT teams are profligately deployed would be an excellent first step. But that alone won't do the trick. This isn't an issue that can be solved quickly or on the cheap, since too much is at stake on both ends of the equation: community safety AND civil liberties. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!
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