Tag Archives: violence

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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Pre Crime: Why are we so confident that we can prevent acts of terrible violence?

(Jonathan Simon) As politicians and officials in Washington (state) and Arkansas battle over who should have stopped Maurice Clemmons before he apparently shot to death four Washington state police officers outside a strip mall coffee shop near Tacoma last weekend before being shot dead by Seattle police, we can observe a very enduring if not endearing American obsession– our conviction that we might have stopped the tragedy (read William Yardley’s summary of the blame game in the NYTimes).  Clemmons, sent to prison with a hundred year plus term for violent crimes as a teenager, received clemency and parole from then Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (who made no secret of his religious belief in the possibility of redemption and change).  Both Washington State and Arkansas officials appear to have missed opportunities (in retrospect) to turn up the control pressure on Clemmons.  More should be learned over the next news cycle or two.  

As an overall trait, this American confidence that better technique and method could stop violence is largely admirable, small “d” democratic, and great for the criminal law and policy reform business (which includes fairly or not, academics).  Overall it may make us prone to waves of generally temporary civil liberties destruction in the name of personal security (as we have seen).  My objection, however, is limited to two points.

First, our obsession with the “recidivist”.  Once we have sent someone to prison it seems maddening to Americans that we cannot guarantee they will remain tame forever after.  This leads us to keep too many people in prison, for too long (something that this and other recent crimes will only stroke); blind to the fact that the odds of any particular ex-prisoner committing a violent crime are scarcely, if at all, measurably different from other non ex-prisoners with similar demographic circumstances.  Ironically, the one trait that really may help us track future violence–evidence of major mental illness combined with acts of violence–seems to be largely ignored by our criminal justice system (which accords it little measure of mercy or forewarning).

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