Police interest groups have managed to frame a relentlessly one-sided debate. Any accountability proposals risk making cops hesitate before killing bad guys, they say, thus jeopardizing both cops and the public. Any criticism of excessive force articulated by an elected official is taken as criticism of allpolice officers. Should some lunatic kill a police officer after that criticism is uttered, that official now “has blood on his hands.” When crime and killings of police officers are down, it means increased militarization, marginal accountability, and non-transparency are all working, therefore we need more of those policies. When crime and killings of police officers are up, it means the criminals are taking over, therefore we also need increased militarization, marginal accountability, and non-transparency, so cops can do their job of getting the bad guys.
It’s hard to think of a profession more sensitive, psychologically isolated, and protective of its own than law enforcement. Imagine if all the doctors in a city refused to treat patients because one doctor was unfairly accused of malpractice. It’s unthinkable. Police advocates say this sort of camaraderie is because cops are bonded by the threats they face. Perhaps. But the profession seems to have gotten more isolated and more protective even as the job of police officer has gotten safer. Combat soldiers also face threats, yet it isn’t at all difficult to find former soldiers who, for example, have been willing to criticize, say, Abu Ghraib or other war atrocities. You just don’t see the same tendency to defend that you see in cops.
I suspect part of the problem lies in the fact that policing has been so immune from criticism and oversight from elected officials for so long. When you’re accustomed to only genuflection from political leaders, even a mild rebuke will sting. When you’ve been entrusted to investigate your own with little oversight, or when you’ve been able to negotiate contracts that make it nearly impossible to hold bad cops accountable, it must seem like dire times people with the power to do something about it start to question whether such policies and protections are healthy.
In the end this is a political problem, which means it will require a political solution. Political leaders have long deferred to police interests because that’s what the political climate dictated. When crime was up, people voted for law and order. When crime was down, they voted on other issues. That created a ratchet effect on these issues — when voters fear crime, we escalate the powers we give to cops and prosecutors and erode accountability and transparency. But when we no longer fear crime, we don’t vote any of those policies away. No one angrily votes against a politician for being “too tough on crime.”
This has been engrained in politicians for a decade. Public opinion is turning on many of these issues, but police unions are still powerful, and crime is still easily exploitable. Most politicians believe that there are only votes to be gained by deferring to the police and only votes to be lost by suggesting that police could be more accountable.
And they’re probably right. As the de Blasio example shows, even politicians who have demonstrated that there’s voter support for reform can later conclude that the political costs of standing up to police abuse are just too high. It may take voters actively punishing politicians for refusing reforms (as opposed to rewarding politician who support them) to get real reform to happen. It may take people voting on crime with the same passion that we voted on crime in the 1980s and 1990s, only in reverse. But that would also require a strong interest in and passion for these issues by a group of voters much larger than the groups usually victimized by police brutality. To put it more bluntly: For police reform to happen, white people have to start caring.
Until that happens — until there’s an incentive for politicians to hold police as accountable as any other public service group — law enforcement as a profession will only grow more isolated.