The Forgotten Side of Police Violence

Posted in: Law Enforcement

In my last column, I tried to take a clear-eyed look at lethal violence by the police. Two days after my column appeared, fate exposed the complementary risk: lethal violence against the police. In the predawn hours of July 5, Alexander Bonds shot Officer Miosotis Familia in the head as she sat in her RV-style command post in the Bronx. Bonds, who may have been mentally ill, apparently harbored an intense hatred of the police, though he did not know Officer Familia. By accounts, Officer Familia was an exceptional cop and wonderful person. But even if it were otherwise, her death was a horrible tragedy that exposed important lessons about policing in the United States.

Sadly, however, those lessons played almost no part in the vanishingly brief public discussion of officer safety that took place after Officer Familia’s murder. And even that discussion—as inadequate as it had been—was quickly set aside after a Minneapolis officer shot and killed Justine Diamond, whereupon the public conversation returned to its more customary focus on violence by rather than against the police. In honor of Officer Familia, who deserved much better, it is time to discuss violence against the police.

As the legal scholar Frank Zimring has recently described, while the number of assaults against police officers is fairly high—averaging about 55,000 per year for a police labor force estimated at a little over half a million in 2013—the number of fatalities is exceedingly low. For 2012 and 2013, the total number of officer deaths was 76. Between 2008 and 2013, the total number of officer fatalities was 292. Given that officers interact with the public tens of millions of times per year, the odds that an officer will be killed by a member of the public are vanishingly low. It is also worth pointing out that the annual number of police fatalities is down about 75% from the high in 1976, a decline attributed to improvements in police armor and training.

Still, it is certainly no consolation to those who knew and loved Officer Familia to know that her death is an exception to the rule. What is the larger lesson to be learned from the phenomenon of lethal violence directed at law enforcement? To me, the lesson is clear: For too long, we have put the police in an untenable position. We ask them to solve problems they cannot solve, and direct them to engage in behavior that makes a bad situation much worse. Until we change direction, it is inevitable that they will be subject to a certain degree of animosity and violence. If we want less violence against the police, we must change what we ask them to do.

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All should agree that the police—especially in a major metropolitan area—have a tough job. To say this is not to excuse any wrong an officer might do. It is simply an observation—cops have a godawful hard job. And how could it be otherwise? Consider just one part of an officer’s job: dealing with the criminal justice fallout of addiction. Ours is a post-industrial economy, with a staggering fraction of the population chronically under-employed and teetering precariously at the brink of financial ruin. In an environment where so many are so often so close to disaster, the likelihood of drug and alcohol use is exceedingly high.

Once again, why would we expect otherwise? At the risk of stating the obvious, intoxicants are popular for a reason. They relieve psychic pain—if only for a time—and we live in a world where a lot of people are in a lot of pain. And of course, with use comes abuse; with abuse, addiction. Not for everyone. Not even for most. But certainly for some, and that is enough. And with addiction comes a predictable risk of greater contact with the criminal justice system, either as victim or perpetrator.

When this contact occurs, we look first to the police to make the problem disappear. In fact, because we are so reluctant to look beyond the individual, we look first and last to the police. The problem, we suppose, is simply that this person succumbed, and for that must be held accountable. As a rule in this country, we resist explanations that distribute blame in favor of those that concentrate them. And in the bright glare of personal condemnation, we become blind to the conditions that might help explain (rather than excuse) their behavior. So we call the cops.

But what tools can an officer bring to this problem? Think about the homeless men panhandling outside Dunkin Donuts. Their condition is almost always associated with, if not causally related to, drug and alcohol addiction. If they are violating any of the increasingly ubiquitous ordinances and laws that allow the state to regulate the behavior of the poor, the police can take any number of steps. They can order the men to move along. They can issue a citation, whether civil or criminal. They can arrest the men and take them to the local jail, where they will be stamped, processed, sorted, and released, perhaps after serving some relatively brief period in custody. Upon release, they might be ordered not to return to the scene of their “crime.” Perhaps they will ignore this command, which will subject them to further arrest, even if their behavior is impeccable. But even if they comply, other men are likely to take their place. These rituals, repeated thousands of times a day all over the country, obviously do nothing to provide a lasting remedy. They are the very definition of a stopgap solution. But these are the only tools an officer has.

By asking the police to solve problems for which they are spectacularly ill-equipped, the communities they serve inevitably feel they are incompetent, or at best ineffective.

Maybe the solution is to ask them instead to prevent crime. Unfortunately, however, the most commonly employed police techniques (and the longtime staple of the modern police department), like routine preventive patrol and rapid response to calls for service, have never been shown to have much effect on crime, and certainly not much lasting effect. Even the most intuitive policing strategy—adding more police—does not seem to make much difference. As one scholar put it over forty years ago, enlarging the blue footprint in a neighborhood provides politicians with a “symbolically satisfying solution,” but it has always been more symbol than solution; the people who live there “are just as vulnerable with these extra police as without them.” A few years before the start of the 21st century, a prominent police historian summed up the evidence on conventional police strategies and crime prevention. “The police do not prevent crime,” he wrote. “Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime. … This is a myth.”

In fact, it was in response to this impotence that law enforcement began to turn in the 80s and 90s to Broken Windows and Zero Tolerance policing. But as I have written many times, most recently in my last column, these strategies systematically misallocate police resources by failing to distinguish between the innocuous many and the troublesome few. In the end, they risk sweeping entire communities into the clutches of the carceral state, which inflames tensions between the police and the communities they are trying to serve.

So here is the state of play: We have roughly half a million officers in this country, yet we demand that they fix a problem that—at least if they employ conventional techniques—is not within their power to solve. Then, because we cannot accept this failure, we encourage the police to adopt strategies that exacerbate the problem by making entire communities feel the sting of the carceral state. Because of how they are misused, the police do not fix the problems we ask them to fix, and they create problems that are just as bad. In the end, the misuse of the police drives a deep wedge between the police and the communities they would hope to serve, creating a simmering animosity and, at least in some, a barely controlled rage.

Yet our account of this tense situation is incomplete unless we include one additional factor: the ready availability of guns. For present purposes, it is not necessary to enter into the fraught debates about gun control. In this discussion of lethal violence against the police, it is enough to point out two things: First, police are killed by gunfire. As Frank Zimring has shown, nearly every officer killed in the line of duty has been gunned down by a person using a handgun, as was the case with Officer Familia. Second, in today’s political climate, there is no remote chance that the first observation will prompt the enactment of meaningful regulations that make it more difficult for unstable people to acquire handguns. Whether this is a good or bad thing I leave for others to decide. Regardless of what we might think about gun control in the abstract, the simple fact is that police are killed by gunfire, and the law will do nothing to make guns less available to people who might use them against the police.

So what lesson might we draw from Officer Familia’s death? To me, it is simply this: If you want to reduce the fury against the police—a fury that leads in some small but predictable number of cases to an attempt at lethal violence—change what is asked of the police. Change how they are used. Change their role in society. Change our very vision of policing. I have described the right way to deploy the police many times. We must shrink rather than enlarge the blue footprint. We must focus creatively and holistically on the small number of people and places that account for an inordinate fraction of the crime. I will not belabor that prescription here. But make no mistake: as we sow, so shall we reap.

3 responses to “The Forgotten Side of Police Violence”

  1. Uncle Kush says:

    Excellent analysis and a simple, rational solution. There is no law enforcement solution for mental illness, homelessness, drug addiction or alcoholism. These are mental health and social issues that require mental health and social solutions.

    The link to “the right way to deploy the police” is a compelling statement of what should be the best practice guidelines for every Police department in America.

  2. jcjasik says:

    An example of contemplative skills we miss in our daily life.

  3. Pinto Grande says:

    I appreciate the author’s sympathy with the impossible demands on the police. But I disagree with a few points. A good police officer does prevent crime. Cops know many, if not most, burglars/thieves/robbers are supporting a bad drug habit. But catching the person who breaks into your house, steals your car, uses your identity to destroy your credit, or robs you at the ATM is difficult. Extremely difficult. Cops know this. Yet catching the guy who has a little bit of drugs in his pocket is actually quite easy for an experienced beat cop. Arresting that individual on a drug charge and placing him/her in jail, prevents them from victimizing the community to support their habit. They can’t break into your house and steal your family heirlooms if they are sitting in prison. It’s sad the current trend is to sympathize more with the perpetrator than the victimized.
    Maybe it’s time we rethink our “correctional” facilities and see them for what they really are: A place to hold those who chose to victimize the community in a place where they cannot do what they chose to do when free.