Yesterday, the Fox News show Fox & Friends devoted a segment to discussing the shooting of New York Police Dept. officer Brian Moore. The discussion was framed in a particularly absurd way. Why, the hosts asked, aren’t there protests and riots when police officers are killed, as there are when police kill suspects? It’s the sort of question where the mere asking indicates that the asker has little interest in hearing answers from anyone with whom he doesn’t already agree.
The premise is also flawed. The memorials for fallen police officers are usually city-wide events, attended by mayors and politicians. They often involve closing down streets. The memorials for NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos basically were a protest — against Mayor Bill de Blasio and the racial justice activists protesting the recent killings of Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and others.
What about riots? Perhaps that part is true. I can’t recall any riots in response to the shooting of a police officer, although it may have happened. But if we tweak the question a bit and ask about lawlessness — as many (correctly) described the rioting in Baltimore — examples abound. Recall that after the deaths of Liu and Ramos, NYPD officers engaged in a union-directed slowdown of policing across the city. If your job is to enforce the law and protect the city, refusing to do so is a direct affront to the rule of law. It is lawlessness. This means that NYPD officers resorted to lawlessness because they felt were being targeted with violence, unappreciated, and treated unfairly by city government. Does that sound familiar?
Of course you could argue that refusing to enforce “quality of life” crimes isn’t in the same league with, say, burning down a CVS or throwing cement blocks at a police car. That’s true, but there are plenty of examples of cops unleashing misdirected violence after an officer goes down, too. In fact, if you follow the news or even just watch many television police procedurals, you know it’s almost a given that when a cop goes down, all bets are off. You can dispense with the niceties, the restraint, and the Constitution. You can close down streets, beat information out of people, and detain without cause. In many parts of the country, when a cop goes down, lawlessness and misdirected violence are nearly official policy.
Think back to the manhunt for the cop-killer and former cop Christopher Dorner. On two separate occasions, police officers in the Los Angeles area opened fire on vehicles occupied by innocent people. In the first incident, LAPD officers shot up a truck driven by a woman delivering newspapers with her mother. They also shot up just about everything around in the neighborhood around the truck. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck defended the officers, explaining that they were dealing with “incredible tension” due to the fact that a cop killer was on the loose. Beck did at least later find that they had violated department policy, but he refused to punish them. Minutes later, Torrance police officer Brian McGee rammed a truck driven by David Perdue, then opened fire on that truck, too. L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey later declined to press charges against McGee, mostly for the same reason. (Her report additionally noted that McGee may have been especially nervous after he heard “shots fired” reports about the incident with the newspaper deliverers.)
Perdue later said of the decision not to press charges, “Being anxious and afraid does not justify attempting to execute a man on his way to go surfing.” It’s hard to argue with him. But Lacey’s decision says the county thinks otherwise.
There’s actually another incident that hits closer to Baltimore. Back in 1995, police in Prince George’s County, Maryland were on the prowl for the killer of Cpl. John Novabilski. The police badgered two witnesses into identifying Jeffrey C. Gilbert for the crime. The cops sent to arrest Gilbert were then showed photos of Novabilski’s bullet-strewn body to get them good and angry. They broke into Gilbert’s home and beat him nearly to death. They also raided, questioned, and detained — without warrants — five of Gilbert’s friends and relatives. Some were held overnight, without food, water, or access to a bathroom. Gilbert was innocent. The county later settled with him for more than $1 million. Three of the officers who beat him were promoted.
In fact, stories of police officers administering severe beatings to people suspected of shooting cops are pretty common. It’s a variety of street justice we seem to find acceptable. That’s probably because most find it difficult to sympathize with these suspects. But these beatings are clearly illegal. They’re lawless. And yet they’re so accepted that they’re depicted sympathetically in pop culture portrayals of policing.
Here’s one more example: Several years ago, the hip-hop community came under fire for the “Stop Snitchin'” campaign, which discouraged people in communities of color from cooperating with police in criminal investigations, sometimes with threats and intimidation. The movement began in Baltimore, and was a reaction to the widespread abuse of informants in drug investigations. But it came into play in murder investigations too.
Police, politicians, and law-and-order pundits condemned the movement as lawless. They were right, particularly with respect to violent crime investigations. But the critics were also missing an important point: There are entire communities in America where people fear the police more than they fear criminals. But more to the point of this post, the critics were also overlooking the fact that the police have long had their own “Stop Snitchin'” campaign. It’s called the Blue Code of Silence, and in some cities, it’s been far more effective than that hip-hop campaign ever was.
Take Baltimore Det. Joseph Crystal, who turned in a fellow officers who had beaten a handcuffed drug suspect. Crylstal’s testimony helped get those officers convicted. He was then chased out of Baltimore by his fellow cops. From the NY Daily News:
Days after his meeting with prosecutors, Crystal said, a sergeant called him “a snitch” and left a hand-drawn picture of a rat and cheese on his desk.
“I’m not a sensitive guy,” Crystal said. “It didn’t necessarily bother me right away. I said to myself, ‘If this is the worst that happens, I can live with it.’ But from there, it snowballed.”
The guys in his unit refused to ride with him. To his face and behind his back, officers called him a rat and a snitch.
“People don’t like you, and you need to watch your back,” one officer told Crystal, according to his lawsuit. . .
Out of the blue, a sergeant called him and said: “You better pray to God that you’re not the star witness,” Crystal recalled.
Now officers were no longer backing him up on the streets. On two separate occasions, Crystal said, he called for backup while pursuing drug suspects but nobody showed up.
Crystal later found a dead rat on the windshield of his car.
When Baltimore residents discourage cooperation with police in criminal investigations after years of abuse, it’s called lawlessness. When cops discourage cops from cooperating with criminal investigations of other cops, it’s just professional courtesy. And of course, the Blue Wall of Silence isn’t limited to Baltimore.
Contrary to what you might have recently seen on cable news or read in the newspapers, politicians, law-and-order types, and much of the public actually are okay with letting some people engage in violence and lawlessness when they feel aggrieved. It just needs to be the right subset of people. And perversely, the group that usually gets a pass is also the group that has all the power.