First admitting there is a problem


Nancy LeTourneau at Political Animal wrote yesterday about the crisis of confidence in the American system of justice, one that seems organized around denying and covering up its own corruption:

I’ve heard some comparisons lately to another recent movie – Spotlight – about the journalists who were responsible for uncovering Boston’s sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The parallel that has been drawn is about the lengths the journalists at the Boston Globe had to go to in order to get the Church (and community) to admit that it had a problem. Simple proof wasn’t enough. The evidence had to be overwhelmingly conclusive. In the process, the Church invited it’s own crisis of confidence.

LeTourneau was dead on with her comparison of the Catholic church’s denial of its sex abuse problem and the police failure “to correct mistakes and hold members of that system accountable.” The company line among police is, at best, that bad actors within the ranks represent just a few “bad apples.” Police departments should remember the last part of that proverb is something about spoiling the whole bunch.

The last couple of years have been particularly bad for American law enforcement’s image. The highly publicized deaths of unarmed black people in police custody gave rise to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and drew what has to be unwanted attention to police methods and culture. Not just from major news outlets, but from presidential candidates. A caller to Thom Hartmann’s national radio show observed recently that black people in this country are not worried in the least about being killed by ISIS terrorists; they are worried about being killed by the police. With justification.

After my Thursday morning post on just a few days’ worth of police violence, I had to talk myself back from the ledge. But not off it.

A scene from the film Jack Reacher (2012) came to mind. The former Military Police investigator talks about a suspect’s background:

Jack Reacher: There are four types of people who join the military. For some, it’s family trade. Others are patriots, eager to serve. Next you have those who just need a job. Then there’s the kind who want a legal means of killing other people.

That formulation might apply equally well to those who join the police. The problem is the code of silence prevents righteous officers from holding accountable fellow officers of the fourth kind, or even the simply incompetent. For excessive use of force. For torture. Or even murder.

The Cleveland police officer who shot Tamir Rice “could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal,” according to his previous department. Yet this did not prevent him from serving in another, larger police department. Catholic priests with a histories of sexual abuse simply got reassigned to different parishes.

NPR spoke with former LAPD deputy chief of police, Lou Reiter. The police trainer and consultant spoke about breaking down the culture of silence:

LOU REITER: The real issue here is you have to have officers who feel comfortable that they will come forth with testimony that might get another officer into trouble. If they step forward, if they do the right thing, they will inevitably end up being retaliated out by other officers. And we have to say that retaliation is real. It’s sinister. It normally hurts an officer so badly that he or she cannot stay with the agency anymore.

MONTAGNE: Recognizing it as a problem is a good start, and fixing it is, of course, an ideal. But specifically, how do you make that happen? Do you have an example of another police force that has done this?

REITER: You know, I really don’t. I wish I could say so, but I think there is a way that you could begin to break this. The mayor and all of the chief administrators have to stand up and say, we will protect you. And they need to go down and handpick a select group of officers who they know the field respects and have them come front and say, you know what? It’s time for us to stop this code of silence. It’s time for us to speak up and root these people who tarnish our star out of the agency.

That’s not terribly reassuring. First of all, because we don’t see any large moves nationally among police departments to admit there is even an accountability problem. Admitting a problem is a sign of weakness in a certain American subculture, and we can’t have that. Any more than Americans can admit to having a problem with guns.


(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Categories : Corruption, Justice

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