But like Henson, I have to think that conscientious cops would be offended by the notion. I too work in a profession that is highly scrutinized. In fact, journalists are quite a bit more despised than police officers. Public confidence in the police is at about 56 percent; for newspapers, it’s at 20 percent. The media has taken a particular beating over the last year or so with respect to coverage of the election, some of it deserved. Yet if someone suggested that I start phoning in my job because people frown on my profession, I’d be insulted. I’d imagine that doctors, soldiers, lawyers and members of just about every other profession would feel the same way. Yet it’s defenders of cops who advance this argument. And with policing, it’s quite a bit worse: The argument here is that out of fear of criticism (or even in retribution for it), they’re allowing people to die.
One caveat here. There’s some murkiness surrounding what “de-policing” actually means. If it means fewer suspicionless stops, mass arrests or harassment for petty offenses, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. By this definition, NYPD was forced to engage in mass de-policing when a court ordered an end to the city’s stop-and-frisk policy. Crime continued to fall. If de-policing means less unconstitutional harassment, then let’s have more de-policing. But if de-policing means cops don’t respond to calls, or disengage from the community entirely, that of course is a lot more problematic.
Most of the people advancing the de-policing argument also seem to encourage the practice, or at least to excuse it. In doing so, they validate the fiction that police are highly scrutinized, or that every action a police officer takes risks public ridicule, internal discipline or even criminal charges.
So some perspective is in order: The odds that a given cop’s actions on a given day are going to suffer any serious scrutiny or blowback are slim to none. Take fatal shootings. My colleagues at The Post found 963 fatal police shootings in the United States last year. How many can you name? I can only come up with a handful, and this is my beat. At most, the vast, vast majority of these shootings get a deferential write-up in the local paper.
As for criminal charges, according to Bowling Green researcher Philip Stinson, between 2005 and 2011, 41 police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter. According to data compiled by media and activist groups, there have been about 1,000 deaths in police custody per year in the last two years. If we assume that figure is fairly consistent, of about 7,000 deaths in police custody between 2005 and 2011, 41 resulted in felony charges for police officers, or a little more than half of 1 percent. Last September, CNN reported that since 2005, 77 police officers have been charged for deaths determined to be homicides. Of those, 26 were convicted. Again, assuming about 1,000 such deaths per year, that shakes out to an indictment rate of about 1 for every 150 deaths, and a conviction rate of one in every 300. (At the time of the report, 23 cases were still pending.)
What about internal discipline? According to a 2002 study of large police departments across the country, just 8 percent of citizen complaints about use of force were sustained. Even with most of those complaints, the accused officer could appeal any disciplinary action. Other research has also found that when complaints are sustained, they’re far more likely to involve corruption (stealing from informants, protection rackets, etc.) than use-of-force incidents. Data from Chicago PD released in 2015 found that about 4 percent of citizen complaints in that city were sustained, and that even among those, “nearly three-fourths of the officers found to have committed some kind of wrongdoing weren’t docked any time off or received suspensions of five days or less.” (Predictably, complaints against black officers were more likely to be sustained, and black officers were more likely to be both punished and punished more severely. Meanwhile, complaints filed by white people were seven times more likely to be sustained than complaints filed by black people.) In 2008, a federal judge excoriated the St. Louis Police Department after finding that over a five-year period, just one of more than 300 complaints had been sustained. By 2010, the sustained rate was at 3 percent. Studies have shown similarly low sustain rates in Newark (5 percent), New Orleans (5.5 percent) and Cleveland (3 percent). A study of complaints against police in central New Jersey put the sustain rate at 1 percent.
Recent Justice Department reviews of the police departments in Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore and Ferguson have also found that complaints are often exceedingly difficult to file, and that complainants often face harassment. Which means that a lot of legitimate abuses are never recorded in a complaint. Earlier this month, a report found that in Cleveland, 80 percent of the complaints filed last year haven’t even been processed.
For this discussion, whether or not these sustain rates are reflective of the merits of the complaints themselves is beside the point. The point is that even cops with long histories of abuse are rarely disciplined. So the idea that some cops may retract from their duties or hesitate to use legitimate force out of fear of internal discipline just isn’t rational. That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. But if it is, the responsible thing to do is disabuse them of the notion, not to encourage it.
What about lawsuits? Police are protected from civil liability by qualified immunity, which makes them extremely difficult to sue. Even when a plaintiff is able to clear that hurdle, juries are notoriously deferential to cops. The worst cases are usually settled before trial, usually with the municipality conceding no wrongdoing on the part of the police officer. And even on the exceedingly rare occasion when police officers lose in court, they’re almost always indemnified — meaning any damages are paid by the city, county or state that employs them, not by the officers themselves. It’s far from certain that even that always hampers an officer’s career. There are plenty of stories about cops who continue to win promotions, raises and other career advancement even after multiple lawsuits.
The DOJ reports on police departments in places such as Chicago have become the latest scapegoat for low police morale and subsequent de-policing. But those reports don’t mention officers by name, and every report that I’ve read puts the blame for the abuses it documents squarely on bad police and institutional failures. Every report I’ve read also goes out of its way to emphasize the fact that the vast majority of cops are conscientious and respect the rights of the people they serve. (Indeed, some critics think the reports emphasize this point to a fault.)
It’s true that at times the shootings that have attracted public attention haven’t always been the most egregious examples of police abuse. Some appear to have been justified, or at least lacked evidence of criminal culpability. But even in those cases, the incidents themselves were merely the instigating factor that exposed long-running systemic problems. Ferguson comes to mind here. People don’t take to the streets after a single questionable police shooting. They take to the streets when a single, questionable police shooting ignites years of frustration over other abusive practices.
But these are still a tiny percentage of overall police shootings. And as readers of this blog are aware, even particularly egregious shootings often escape any public scrutiny at all, much less official sanction.
Police groups and their supporters advance the de-policing argument to keep the public scared. If we don’t keep police officers happy, they’ll stop protecting us — and “keeping police officers happy” means refraining from criticizing cops and removing all outside oversight, even in clear cases of abuse. It’s a cynical, dangerous argument that not only aims to shame critics into silence, it besmirches the integrity of conscientious police officers. It suggests that good cops would rather let people die than allow the worst and most abusive of their colleagues to even be criticized, much less held accountable.
I want people to criticize the media. Journalists who abuse the public trust should be called out. I have no interest in being defined by the worst of my profession. Even unfair or overblown criticism of the media lets us know that we’re being scrutinized. It makes me strive to do my job better, not worse. I’d like to think most law enforcement officers feel the same way. But the fact that this is an argument advanced not by police critics but by police unions and supporters is awfully unsettling. If they’re right, then the problems in American policing run much deeper than a “few bad apples.”