Selling the Police: Reflections on Heroism and Hype

Published as a ZNet Commentary, February 6, 2002

An e-mail arrives in my inbox, recommending a website that seeks to explain — one might say rationalize — the various killings of black men by Cincinnati police over the past few years. Its sender takes issue with some of my previous commentaries, wherein I cast a critical eye upon a number of these incidents. At least four of the sixteen shootings occurred under highly suspicious circumstances, where evidence of imminent danger to the officers appears to have been nonexistent. Yet to my detractor, since I “wasn’t there,” I couldn’t possibly know whether or not the killings were justified. That he too wasn’t there, and also has no first-hand knowledge of the incidents, naturally never enters his mind.

Yet another e-mail comes in, this time encouraging me to check out an article that “proves” the validity of racial profiling. Its sender insists police are heroes in the war on crime, and refers to the heroism of the NYPD in rescue efforts on 9/11.

A few nights before Christmas, my wife and I have some friends over. We exchange holiday gifts, and my best friend, a professor in Los Angeles, gives me (as a joke, mind you) the hot new Christmas gift for California consumers: a handsome, well-crafted doll, modeled after a member of the LAPD. Some white guy named “Officer West.” The muscular, chiseled man-toy is “fully poseable,” and comes with toy pepper spray, handcuffs, a flashlight, an automatic pistol, and a baton: the latter for beating up toy versions of Rodney King, I suppose. Officer West dolls are endorsed by the Los Angeles police union and made in China: another nation that places a premium on efficient law enforcement.

And finally, a few days after Christmas, I read about the opening of the Police Museum in New York City. A thoroughly uncritical celebration of the city’s officers, the museum ignores such embarrassments as the Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima incidents, as well as a litany of corruption scandals involving drug dealing, payoffs, and bribes. Nor is there an exhibit to memorialize Operation Pressure Point: a drug sting in which police arrested street dealers of color by the dozens, while merely telling white buyers from the suburbs to turn their cars around and go home. Nor do the docents discuss the NYPD’s sexist attempt to maintain their six foot height requirement for officers: a move that prompted women to sue, since such a requirement was clearly a way to keep the department all-male. Instead, visitors to the museum are led through a simulator, where they are challenged to “shoot or hold fire” on a make-believe criminal, displayed in a video. One where you sneak up on a guy who spins around and pulls his wallet out of his back pocket, and you shoot him, fearing he had a gun. Then you realize your mistake, and more to the point, you realize how gosh-darned tough it is to be a cop.

Come to think of it, maybe that is the Amadou Diallo portion of the tour. Of course, that police have been trained not to react in such a clumsy fashion, while average folks haven’t, and as such the failure of civilians to make the right call can hardly explain, let alone excuse similar screw-ups by police is never considered.

With so much pro-police sentiment flooding the nation, I guess that throwing cold water on the positive mood won’t be greeted favorably by most. But the fact is, there are any number of problems with the resurrection of the “heroic cop” image in the public imagination.

First, if we define heroism by the extent to which one puts their life on the line in the course of their work, then there is nothing all that heroic about policing. According to the Department of Labor, the on-the-job fatality rate for police is lower than that for gardeners, electricians, truck drivers, garbage collectors, construction workers, airline pilots, timber cutters, and commercial fishermen. In fact, fishermen have an occupational fatality rate that is fifteen times higher than that for cops, but rarely do we hear those who provide us with an endless supply of mahi-mahi described as heroes. An average of 66 police officers per year were killed feloniously during the nineties, with the number falling to only 42 in 1999: fewer than died from accidents, such as motor vehicle crashes and drowning.

Secondly, there is nothing inherently noble about police work. After all, would most Americans think highly of law enforcement officers in North Korea? Or Iraq? Of course not. What makes policing noble is only the validity of the system for which officers are working. And while I am hardly analogizing the U.S. justice system to that of any authoritarian nation, the point is still valid. If the system is rife with inequality and injustice, then those whose job it is to uphold that system are part of the problem, just as much as they may be part of the “solution” to something like crime.

By presenting police officers as inherently special and vital bulwarks against chaos, pro-cop ideologues paper over ongoing injustices in the system, making it more difficult to see and ultimately fix those problems. And these problems are more than a minor concern for millions of people. Despite what many on the right say about profiling — that somehow it’s justified because of the generally higher crime rates among African Americans, for example — such claims are merely rationalizations for racism. Racial profiling cannot be justified on the basis of general crime rate data showing that blacks commit a disproportionate amount of certain crimes, relative to their numbers in the population. I will explain why below, but first, let’s make sure we understand what racial profiling means.

Racial profiling means one of two things: first, the over-application of an incident-specific criminal description in a way that results in the stopping and harassment of people based on skin color. An example of this would be the decision by police in one upstate New York college town a few years ago to question every black male in the local University after an elderly white woman claimed to have been raped by a black man (turns out he was white). So while there is nothing wrong with stopping black men who are 6’2,” 200 pounds, driving Ford Escorts, if the perp in a particular local crime is known to be 6’2,” 200 pounds, and driving a Ford Escort, when that description is used to randomly stop black men, even who aren’t 6’2,” aren’t close to 200 pounds, and who are driving totally different cars, then that becomes a problem.

The second and more common form of racial profiling is the disproportionate stopping, searching, frisking and harassment of people of color in the hopes of uncovering a crime, even when there is no crime already in evidence for which a particular description might be available. In other words: stopping black folks or Latinos on highways, surface streets, or in airports, and searching for drugs. Not only is this racist, it’s also bad law enforcement, because whites are equally or more likely to use drugs than blacks and Latinos according to the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, the CDC, and private studies. Blacks are less than 14 percent of drug users (roughly the same as their share of the population) while non-Hispanic whites are 74 percent of all drug users (but only 71 percent of the population). So to stop blacks for drug suspicion is to be wrong most often, and to ignore those who are the most likely drug possessors.

According to the February 2001 Justice Department report Contacts Between Police and the Public, blacks are more likely than whites to be stopped by police, and much more likely to be searched, on suspicion of possessing illegal drugs, guns or other contraband. This, despite the fact that searches of white vehicles, conducted less than half as often, were more than twice as likely to turn up evidence of criminality than those conducted on vehicles driven by blacks! Likewise, a few years ago it was reported that black women were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched at airport customs checkpoints, but white women were twice as likely to be carrying illegal contraband.

This is why general crime rates, which due to economic factors are higher for blacks, are irrelevant to the profiling issue. Police generally don’t randomly stop and search people in the hopes of turning up last night’s convenience store hold-up man. They tend to have specific information to go on in those cases. As such, the fact that blacks commit a higher share of some crimes (robbery, murder, rape, assault) than their population numbers is of no consequence to the issue of whether profiling them is legitimate. The “crime” for which people of color are being profiled is drug possession. And in that case, the numbers suggest it is whites, not blacks, who are the problem.

Even for the other crimes, to profile blacks is absurd. After all, if cops stop blacks in the hopes of finding a violent criminal in the bunch, they will almost always be wrong, since less than three percent of the black population over 12 (the cutoff for collecting crime data) will commit a violent crime in a given year. If they’re looking for rapists, for example, 65 percent of the time the perp will be white. So since profiles are based on the “typical” offender in a category, the profile of a rapist should be of a white person. Same thing for assault: the most common violent crime. Evidence from New York City is instructive. From 1997-1998, even after controlling for the higher weapons possession and violent crime rates among African Americans, the NYPD was 2-3 times more likely to stop and search blacks on suspicion of weapons or violent crime violations. What’s more, this disproportion was evidenced despite the fact that searches of whites were more likely to turn up evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Despite the public’s enhanced veneration of police in the wake of 9/11, the evidence indicates that there is plenty reason to withhold effusive praise. Policing is still not carried out in a fair and equitable manner. There are still far too many innocent and/or unarmed people being killed in questionable circumstances by law enforcement officers, and the culture of policing is still one that lends itself to a militaristic, good guy/bad guy mentality: one that almost inherently perpetuates not only brutality and misconduct, but also the wall of silence that protects both.

Police don’t deserve hero treatment based on the risks they take, which aren’t nearly as severe as they might like us to think. Rather, they will be deserving of such support only when they root out profiling, testosterone-soaked machismo, and the God complexes which allow so many of them to conclude that they are the law, instead of public servants and employees, whose employers are, ultimately, the very citizens they seek to control.

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