Monthly Archives: October 2014

Sins of Omission and Commission in Police Work

(Rick Hills) In a recent post, Adam Kolber quotes a letter to a newspaper complaining about the verdict in the Sean Bell case in which the writer demands that “police officers … hold our interests and our lives above their own” and “accept the threat of harm as part of their jobs and their oaths. And they must demonstrate restraint even at the expense of their lives.”

Adam quite reasonably asks whether “it is fair to ask a police officer to value the life of someone else more than his or her own.” But there is perhaps a deeper incoherence in the letter writer’s demand: The difficulty is that police officers can endanger lives through inaction – “restraint” — just as much as through action.

Police officers who do not swiftly intervene with violence in risky situations endanger lives by allowing communities to unravel in crime. The crime wave that hit New York City between 1968 and 1992 was arguably influenced by such sins of omission. Some such omissions are specific and deliberate – for instance, the police union’s “slowdown/sickout” of the Fall of ’68. But some observers – among them the historian Vincent Cannato – believe that slack police response during the 1970s and 1980s was the result of the NYPD’s new culture of refusing to take actions that could result in an accusation that they used unjustifiable force. Turning a blind eye to open-air drug markets, gang warfare, violent spouses, or rowdy nightclubs is a great way to insure that one will never be accused of encroaching on anyone’s civil liberties, especially if one believes that only “state action” and not private action can deprive people of their civil rights.

If Feminist legal scholarship has one central lesson to teach all of us, it is that private violence is just as much a deprivation of civil liberty as state violence. Police inaction threatens the most vulnerable – women, the elderly, the poor, and racial minorities – because these groups are most likely to be targets of private crime. Therefore, a cop who routinely gave plausibly violent people the benefit of the doubt (and the first shot) even when the risks of the cop’s inaction seemed to outweigh the risks of action would not merely sacrifice his own life. He’d also eliminate the fear of official violence that is a primary deterrent to criminal activity. Such a police force would be the domestic equivalent of the UN’s Blue Helmets in Bosnia or Rwanda – utterly useless for suppressing the private threat to civil liberties.

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