Congress and the White House are trying to overhaul police practices. By tradition in such efforts the obvious will likely be overlooked, so here is the obvious:
Violent crime is rising in almost every major American city, after decades of falling. Police departments are in crisis, battered by charges of abuse, targeted for cuts, many struggling under recent bail-reform laws. Officers are demoralized. From the New York Post one month ago: “More than 5,300 NYPD uniformed officers retired or put in their papers to leave in 2020—a 75 percent spike from the year before.” In Philadelphia they’re struggling with a shortage of recruits and a similar surge in retirements. “People don’t want to be police anymore,” a local chief told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
All this happened after America watched the cellphone video of the extinguishing of the life of
one year ago, by an officer,
who posed through much of the tape with his hand on his thigh, the picture of brute nonchalance.
An incident so horrifying can and will stop America in its tracks, causing nationwide convulsion—protests, riots, burning of businesses.
One bad cop can stop a great nation in its tracks. A plumber, an accountant, a movie star can’t kick America off its axis. A bad cop can.
Which means police officers are more important than ever in our history. And we are not fully seeing this.
We train them almost as an afterthought. You’d think men and women so crucial to domestic tranquility would be trained deeply and carefully, spending years in the police academy, but no, we train them for four to six months.
There are thousands of departments in the U.S., each with its own standards and policies. The Los Angeles Police Department provides six months of training for those who qualify. So does Miami. Smaller forces train less. The state of California mandates 664 hours of training, but the San Jose Mercury News last year quoted a criminal-justice reform advocate noting the state requires more training for cosmetologists than for police. On some forces, a high-school diploma or GED is enough to qualify. Some cities require two years of college or military service.
But almost all forces offer four to six months to learn everything: how to use gear, from the radio and body cam to firearms; how to control crowds, de-escalate situations, deal with the violent mentally ill, talk to citizens in a traffic stop. First aid, the law, the use of force, tactics—four to six months to absorb all that and more.
Doesn’t it strike you as mad? We ask our cops to be diplomats, to resolve domestic disputes peacefully. We ask them to have the law at their fingertips, and to treat everyone, including drunk 23-year-olds spoiling for a fight, with respect. At the same time we want them steely-eyed and sure if someone pulls a gun. We ask them to act proportionately. We ask them to control stray dogs. And all this while year by year society’s problems escalate, including a mental-health crisis and a drug crisis.
We are asking them to be a combination of
All after four to six months of training.
If they get it innocently wrong—if they misjudge a situation in real time, or panic—it’s all there on cellphone video, and if they are judged guilty they lose their jobs, their benefits, their pensions; and their families will be left vulnerable. So now instead of doing something when bad things are happening, they feel the temptation to do nothing—to stay in the car or turn away from trouble. Street criminals know that. Not all criminals are stupid—that’s a myth. They are calculating, constantly judging who has the upper hand. They know we are entering a golden age of street crime, with local laws relaxed, systems changed, judges deactivated, streets full of guns, and cops on the defensive.
No one says “defund the police” anymore; it doesn’t poll well. Instead they play verbal games and say “redirect resources.” Which means funnel money away from the police and toward whatever programs they dream up to be part of solving the crime problem. The head of New York’s Police Benevolent Association told the Post he saw in this a strategy: “Abolition through attrition.” Get rid of the police by denying them what they need.
Considering their importance, we are underfunding the police. They need to increase recruitment, train new cops longer and deeper, and retrain veterans regularly to keep up with changes in the law and equipment. This will be expensive. But Washington is in a spending mood, and it’s less expensive than riots.
It’s not only that good policing is more important than ever. It’s that we think in categories and our minds tend to leap to clichés. In some part of our minds we think “cop” and imagine a big Irish Catholic family circa 1970, or
in “Blue Bloods.” Or the black longtime chief whose father and son were on the force. But this is 2021, today’s recruits were born in 2000, or the 1990s, and they came from our modern society, which means chances are good they came from a considerable amount of brokenness. Many were not raised closely, tidily, didn’t have generations of a family’s values guiding them. They come from all-broken-up America. They came from us—a jangly culture that put its emphasis on screens and how things look, as opposed to thoughts and how things are.
We are putting it all on the frail shoulders of the guy who was born in 2000 and spent visitation with his father playing “Call of Duty” and “World of Warcraft.” And the girl without a father who came from a chaotic home. They are the academy’s new recruits.
We are lucky to have them. But our culture hasn’t given the young enough clues, enough guidance, about how to be in the world. For instance—this is hilariously small, but not really small—we haven’t done a good job teaching what used to be called manners. It hardly matters if a kid at Harvard who’s going to a hedge fund is loutish and lacking in sympathy, it’s almost expected. But cops need kindness and dignity to do their tense and sensitive work, to defuse situations. To live in the world of criminals is to live in a world of male pride. That is a sensitive place.
My bet: We can give the police the training and resources they need. Or we can endure a rising tide of crime for five or 10 years or longer, and then give them what they need. Why don’t we do it now?
I close with the words of
former police commissioner of New York, Los Angeles and Boston, in an interview a few weeks ago. I asked him what cops are, what their role is, why we should care. “They are the glue that literally holds society together,” he said. “They are an essential element of a successful democracy.”
They are. And God bless them as they make their way through Memorial Day weekend 2021.
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