The thin blue line
Most of us have seen the chilling video of the white police officer in Charleston, South Carolina who drew his gun, assumed a shooter's stance, and fired eight shots at a black man who was fleeing due to an outstanding warrant on him for failure to pay child support. Four of the shots hit the man in the back and one or more of the shots killed him.
This was just another example in what seems to be a long line of examples over the past few years of white police officers using deadly force on black suspects when no one's life or personal safety was in danger and the suspect was not suspected of committing a felony. This week's issue of Time magazine profiles 14 such cases that have occurred since 2012 that fall into this category.
The situation itself is complicated even further by the officers recounting the situation in such a way that strongly indicates they felt personal danger from the suspect and that's why they responded the way they did. This was the same defense used by the Charleston, South Carolina police officer. He said in his statement that the suspect wrestled his Taser away from him and he was fearful that the suspect was going to use it on him. If no one had been videotaping the event, his word would have been taken and the shooting would have been ruled justified, as it almost always is. But there WAS a videotape and the tape clearly showed the suspect running, the officer shooting, the officer approaching the downed suspect and then dropping his Taser next to him. Another sidelight to this story is that a black police officer came to assist the white police officer, didn't mention the white police officer dropping his Taser next to the fallen suspect in his statement and neither of them did anything to aid the suspect as he laid on the ground.
As much outrage as this event and the videotape of it fostered across the country, there's another part of the story that isn't being told by the media that begs for attention. That story looks at the total number of law enforcement officers working in the United States today. When full-time college, university, city, county, state and federal law enforcement officers are counted up, there's almost 800,000 of them. And almost none of them are killers. They go to work every day, try and do their job to the best of their ability, go home to their family when their shift is over and repeat the process the next day. So in terms of bad cops compared to good cops, the percentage is extremely low.
This in no way excuses the behavior of these rogue cops. And because they're the ones that get the headlines, people ask me why the system is so broken that guys like this can become police officers to begin with. The major problem is in how we check a person's history before they become police officers, usually through background checks that include personal interviews with family, friends, co-workers, employers, teachers and anyone else who has had a relationship with the applicant.
I can assure you that police departments don't want bad cops. All police chiefs know that for a police department to do its job effectively, they must have the support of the community because that's how a lion's share of crimes are solved. Sherlock Holmes existed only in the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Detectives can't solve crimes unless they have evidence or testimony and if members of the community decide not to help, their job is made much more difficult.
Obviously the background checks aren't foolproof and I don't know any way they could be because no one knows what it's like to put on the badge, the gun and the uniform until you do. WHEN you do, most officers take their new-found authority to heart and use it to the best of their ability but some don't. Some really get off on the knowledge that they now control EVERYBDOY'S life if they choose to and, unfortunately, some do. Research tells us it's practically impossible to weed out all of these misfits during the application process. Some are discovered but others aren't and the ones that aren't often become the kind of police officers we read about in the newspaper and see on television.
This is exacerbated by the code of silence that exists among police officers that says you never snitch on a fellow officer and you remain true to him or her to the end, regardless of what they've done. This code exists because of the personal nature of police work and the knowledge that anybody on the force might one day be in a situation to save your life or you theirs and you don't want to do anything that might cause you or the other officer to hesitate. The thin blue line represents the camaraderie and obligation police officers feel to each other.
So when you use a background investigation that doesn't reveal a person's hidden character and they know that once they put the uniform on, they'll be protected and shielded by fellow officers, a perfect storm is created for a few of them that makes situations like the ones described in this column possible.
We all know that just a few bad apples can spoil the whole barrel and that's what's happening in law enforcement today.