Sunday, February 08, 2015

Just wondering

Just wondering

I've just been wondering: Are cops nowadays taught to be scared? Are they trained to spend every moment of their working days in mortal fear for their lives?

No joke. No sarcasm. I'm serious. I genuinely wonder.

It seems that hardly a week can go by without hearing of some incident, some event where a cop shot someone or pulled a gun on someone or pointed a gun at the head of someone while screaming and threatening to shoot them under conditions that are let's just call them at least questionable. We have seen, we have heard about, we know about, the cases of unarmed people - usually young African-American men - shot and killed by police who "feared for their life" because the "suspect" gestured toward their waist (note well, did not show a gun, just "gestured" or "reached" toward their waist) or because they moved too fast or because they didn't move fast enough or because they moved toward the cop or because they ran away from the cop or because because because.

We all know the racial and racist aspects; the equation in the public mind of "black" (and even more "black male" and even more "young black male") with violence and criminality is not merely our assertion, it's been researched and demonstrated repeatedly over decades. And we know how much of a driving force that equation can be in how cops act and react, a fact known even to black cops reflecting on their experiences with white cops while out of uniform.

At the same time, the victims of mistreatment and police violence are not exclusively African-American (ask pretty much any white antiwar or anti-corporate protester), which only serves to re-raise the original question: Why does it seem that cops are so scared so much of the time?

It can't be that crime is up because it's not, it's going down. Most forms of crime peaked around the 1980s and have been declining for decades. How much of a decline? Try this, based on the FBI's Universal Crime Statistics Annual Crime Reports, which has been gathering these figures since 1960: In 2013,
the rate of violent crime was at its lowest level since 1970;
the rate of property crime was at its lowest level since 1966;
the rate of murder was the lowest that had been recorded across that time (i.e., since 1960);
the rate of forcible rape was at its lowest level since 1973;
the rate of robbery was at its lowest level since 1967;
the rate of aggravated assault was at its lowest level since 1974;
the rate of burglary was at its lowest level since 1963;
the rate of larceny-theft was at its lowest level since 1968;
the rate of vehicle theft was at its lowest level since 1964.
Put another way, it has been forty years or more since crime in any of those categories was lower than it was in 2013.

More importantly for our purposes here, it cannot be because police work has become more dangerous.
A total of 76 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty in 2013, the FBI reported. Of those, 49 died in accidents and 27 were killed as a result of felonious acts -- the lowest such figure in more than 50 years of FBI reporting, dating back to at least 1961.
Other compilations say the same. The Officer Down Memorial Page, which collects data on line-of-duty incidents, said the number of cops killed in 2013 was the fewest in more than 40 years. The National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund said 100 officers were killed in the line of duty that year, the fewest in nearly 70 years - and of those only 31 were killed by firearms, the lowest figure since 1887.

The figures vary somewhat because of different reporting techniques, but the trend is undeniable: police work, which doesn't even make the list of the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the US, is not getting more dangerous.

So why the hell do cops seem so damn scared? Because that's how they seem to me in so many of the recorded confrontations: genuinely frightened to the point of struggling to control themselves and stay calm or, sadly and often enough tragically, acting impulsively and irrationally - and violently. I ask again: Are they trained to be scared?

Yes, police work can be dangerous, no doubt, no question, but if you're not prepared to deal with danger, if you're going to take the attitude, one which seems to be the default stance of too many cops these days, that your personal safety outweighs any other considerations, then you shouldn't be a cop. Having certain powers and authorities, including the authority to use force, even deadly force, when the situation demands it, powers and authorities that are unavailable to the general public, are part of what it means to be a cop; they are necessary tools cops must have in order to do their jobs. But acceptance of genuine risk is another necessity without which the job is no longer that of a cop but that of an occupying military force, something too many police forces increasingly resemble and as which they are increasingly and not inaccurately perceived by the communities in which they operate.

Others look at the flak jackets, the riot helmets, the assault rifles, the armored vehicles, and the rest and they see menacing thugs. I look at the same things and I see people running on the adrenalin of fear and operating far more out of that fear than logic, data, or reality would direct. And that worries me as much as and maybe more than the image of thugs does - because thugs are at least usually in control of themselves and frightened people with guns too often are not.

Sources cited in links:

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