It’s OK to condemn police misconduct and also to appreciate the dedicated cops and agents who arrest murderers, rapists, child abusers and terrorists.
Last week I got an email from a Drug Enforcement Administration agent I used to work with when I was a federal prosecutor at the Justice Department. He’s a former cop, former military man, and a current Republican with whom innocent discussions have turned into political battles. Through the years of investigations, indictments, arrests, and trials, I found him to be a hardworking and honest agent.
He’s been reading my columns and watching news coverage that appears to be perpetually critical of law enforcement. He ended his email with this: “If you were still a prosecutor, you would defend us.”
He’s right. But I don’t need to be a prosecutor to stand up to the police pile-on from many members of my own party, pundits, and the public.
First, let’s get this out of the way: Police misconduct exists. It’s not just a few “bad apples,” and wrongdoing needs to be investigated and prosecuted with the full support of police departments and prosecutors. I have personally prosecuted a police officer for misconduct and the only regret I have is that the judge sent him to prison for less time than I sought.
Human beings behind the riot gear
That said, the indiscriminate trashing of law enforcement is wrong and it needs to stop. If all I knew of cops was the blue knee that spent nine minutes squeezing the life out of George Floyd, or the video images of gratuitous force against those who protested that injustice, I’d hate all cops too. But I know more than that.
For 28 years, as both a state and federal prosecutor, I worked with law enforcement officers day in and day out. Local cops, FBI, DEA, Secret Service and many others. We shared lunches, birthdays, personal losses . . . and a daily effort to make people’s lives better by making them safer.
And so I know the Oakland County Sheriff deputy who never complained as I commandeered his weekends and evenings for more than a year while we prepared a murder trial against a man who hit a woman on the head with a baseball bat and then strangled her to death.
I know the Los Angeles Police Department detective who, despite threats to his family, worked tirelessly to indict an organized crime leader who was terrorizing people who could not meet his extortion demands.
And I know the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who watched 600 vile child pornography videos, and selected the 20 worst ones, so I only had to run to the restroom and vomit once while we prepared for trial against a pedophile.
Police at City Hall in Rochester, New York, on Sept. 16, 2020. (Photo: Shawn Dowd/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle via USA TODAY Network)
On Saturday, two Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies were sitting in their patrol car when someone shot them multiple times. One of them, a 31-year-old mother who was bleeding from her face, tied a tourniquet around her 24-year-old partner. As the deputies were in surgery, fighting for their lives, a small group of “protesters” blocked the entry to the hospital and laughed as they chanted for the deputies to die.
Behind the badge, uniform, and riot gear, there are human beings with the same complexities racists seek to erase when they look at a Black man and think “thug.” The problem is that we’ve seen enough viral videos of Black men dying at the hands of police, that our knee jerk reaction to every use of force is a presumption of impropriety.
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The swinging batons, punches, Tasers, grappling on the ground, and sometimes gunfire makes people recoil. It’s tough to watch. But violent gang members who climb the chain of command by killing a cop, bullets that pierce bulletproof vests, and criminals with added strength from PCP, methamphetamine, and other stimulants are all 2020 realities faced by police.
Cops take the risks so we don’t have to. The danger they face every day is a heavy weight that makes them squeeze their children a little tighter before heading to work. It calibrates how they interact with the public.
See the police as I see them
So many of the tragedies that injure or kill civilians happen when an officer attempts to make an arrest. In the middle of a struggle with someone who is resisting arrest, it can be very difficult for an officer to calculate exactly enough force, but not an ounce more. And if we use TV Sheriff Andy Griffith’s 1960 Mayberry as the standard of acceptable force, in 2020 South Side Chicago, we guarantee the outrage that inevitably follows expectations that ignore reality.
As stomach-churning as it is to watch a forceful police arrest, the public needs to commit to looking at all the facts and listening to the experts before assuming misconduct and rioting in the streets.
And we need to stop saying “he only stole a can of beer from 7-11 so the cops should not have used force when he resisted arrest.” That only works if we, as a society, come to a consensus that anyone can walk into a store and take what he wants, and then avoid arrest by resisting.
The divide between law enforcement and the public has been deepened by President Donald Trump. Despite his “law and order” campaign theme, between indictments of his administration and 2016 campaign staff, Trump has regularly undercut the value and credibility of law enforcement agencies.
It’s ironic then that part of the rage directed at police is because they have become a proxy for Trump and an administration that seeks to govern by brute force rather than rule of law. When Trump sent unwanted federal agents to squelch local rioting, he saw to that. And while most contact people have with law enforcement is with local rather than federal officers, the stench Trump left on all law enforcement has permeated beyond jurisdictional borders.
Black ex-cop: I understand the anger but don’t defund police. It could make things worse.
My hope is that in seven weeks new leadership at the top will bring the infrastructure opportunities that were promised four years ago but were never delivered — starting with a bridge between law enforcement and the public.
People need the chance to see the police as I have seen them. It’s cops who investigate and arrest murderers, rapists, and child abusers. And it’s law enforcement agents who go undercover to foil terrorist plots against Americans so variations of 9/11 are not a monthly occurrence. It’s OK to condemn police misconduct when it occurs but still voice appreciation for the sacrifices made by dedicated law enforcement officers.
In the financial crisis of 2008, as companies were poised to crash and take the U.S. economy down with them, a government bailout was premised on the acknowledgement that some institutions of American life are “too big to fail.” Respect between law enforcement and the public they serve is the tenuous thread that stops us from devolving into anarchy and vigilante justice. There is a lot of room for improvement by law enforcement, but rebuilding respect will take an effort from both sides. It has to happen. The relationship is too important to fail.
Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1
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