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December 01, 2009
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Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. Passion for the Job
with Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Are America's officers at war?

Before we write off the most recent mass killings of police officers as the individual work of one violent miscreant (or even a few violent miscreants, counting those who aided and abetted after the fact) or the failure of “cracks in the justice system,” we need to take the kind of connect-the-dots examination of patterns of violence that we have learned to do with terrorism. No one expects to find a conspiracy, but a perfect storm of social factors might be identifiable. We cannot afford to miss the patterns if they exist.

• A transit police officer is caught on video sending a bullet into a man in police custody. A storm of protest begins. There are two chilling aspects to video captured at the scene of this terrible event: one is the sound of gunfire; the other is the frightful sound of mocking and hate-filled voices of the crowd toward the police officers before the shooting as police respond to a fight call. We can’t do or say anything about the shot fired but do we understand the significance of the crowd’s anger?

• Twenty bystanders taunted police after Oakland officers were murdered by Lovelle Mixon after a traffic stop. Blogs and Internet comments on posted news articles about the killings will revel in ranting and hatred of the police. They will say the officers “got what they deserved” and that the public has lost confidence, that police are a violent racist occupying force. One blog said, “As the police and media work to defame and slander Lovelle Mixon, we express our total solidarity.”

• Instead of the headline “Officers justified in arrest of suspected shooters”, the reports from Philadelphia proclaimed “Grand jury clears officers in taped beating case” (Associated Press, August 6, 2009). The grand jury report said “the design of the force applied by the police was helpful rather than hurtful…The kicks and blows were aimed not to inflict injury, but to facilitate quick and safe arrests. We found that the kind of force administered was completely consistent with police training and guidelines and the laws of the commonwealth.” In other words, despite the fact that the officers involved were summarily fired, there was no beating. And yet the press could not resist continuing to call this arrest a beating.

• NYPD officer Timoshenko is shot in the face on a traffic stop. The newspaper article allows reader comments. Among them: “What happened...does not make him a hero...he did what he was paid to do...tragic, but not heroic.”

• A Louisiana newspaper reports an armed man fleeing an attempted drug bust dragged an Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy with his vehicle for more than a block and fought several officers attempting to subdue him. The arrest enraged scores of onlookers and residents who clamored and cried foul at what many of them said appeared to bear the trappings of excessive force. “They beat him,” shouted one elderly lady, one of at least 40 people to take to the streets following the arrest. “I’ll be a witness.” Young men waved cell phones in the air and boasted of footage they had captured of what they described as excessive force. Women walked parallel to the cruisers as police slowly began leaving the scene, hollering and pointing at the police officers. (The Daily Iberian, Jan 09).

Anywhere on the Internet where malcontents can anonymously unload salvos of bile, you’ll find police officers almost universally disrespected, disregarded, and dehumanized. More disturbing are the commentators who enrich themselves (or their reputation) by proudly displaying their anti-police tirades. Despite the emotional pronouncements during times of mourning or days for recognizing heroes, politicians and police administrators often hedge on support for the police, at times even assuming without knowing that facts that the police “acted stupidly.”

Because a dramatic police event “caught on tape” (the suggestion is that our secret activities have been discovered!) is media front-loaded, the public police response is always either in the defensive mode or a “no comment” response. This kind of professional objectivity and patience does little to counter the rabid media coverage and the resulting “expert” commentators that guess at circumstances and get the sound bites they crave.

Who is “hating the cops” and why? Based on analysis of news reports and blogs the primary instigators are clustered among five groups: anarchists, activists, attorneys, academicians, and arrested persons’ relatives in subcultures of crime and conflict.

Anarchists are comprised of extremists associated with the environmental movement, those who oppose drug prohibition, and may include other anti-government groups who are discontented and advocate revolution. While there are certainly moderate thinkers who share some philosophical roots, the anti-government ideologues believe that current governance violates principles of individual liberty or are so corruptly influenced by big corporations and institutionalized racism that its police power is illegitimate and should be resisted and even preemptively attacked.

Activists are opportunistic individuals or groups who parasitically attach themselves to sensational news reporting of alleged police misconduct. The typical response is an extended tirade that generalizes the allegations to all police officers. They leverage the reported event against all previously reported events and tend to cite the 20-year-old Rodney King arrest as illustrative of all police activity.

Attorneys have a profit interest in fostering claims of police misconduct because doing so attracts plaintiffs, indoctrinates potential jurors, and creates settlement revenue in cases where litigation would likely exonerate the officer but would be too exhausting for a defendant to endure. Many attorneys have blogs or websites disguised as expert commentary but designed to advertise their services. The commentary is typically over-generalized, biased, predicated on broad presumptions and unsupported by facts.

Academicians with leftist leanings are inclined to cite theoretical suppositions about police culture, state sanctioned violence, and historical use of law enforcement to break strikes, capture escaped slaves, harass civil rights workers, and violently attack protesters. They extend those historical abuses to an assumption that today’s police officers are part of an inherently brutal system. They are often sought out as media commentators and cite unreliable research, such as the contention that police officers are grossly over-represented as domestic violence perpetrators.

Arrested persons’ relatives are another group of commonly-seen faces on television. The emotional appeal of the crying mother, girlfriend, or brother wondering “why they had to shoot him” can often diminish the impact of the actual facts. The general public does not understand the disordered subculture often represented by these people who are all too happy to grieve on camera and on cue. The impact of the pathos generated by upset advocates of the “victim” are multiplied if the violent person had a mental health problem, was young or old, or was celebrating his or her birthday or wedding; or if the person had a sympathetic background story as an animal lover or loving big brother, etc.

These groups are leveraged in media, unfiltered by rational analysis. With nearly twenty thousand police agencies across the country it will be a challenge to develop a unified strategy to deal with what appears to be an increasing backlash against law enforcement.

Who will take an effective stand in the face of these constant attacks that ultimately foment murder? How many of us will die in the mean time?


About the author

Joel Shults operates Shults Consulting LLC, featuring the Street Smart Force training curriculum. He is retired as Chief of Police for Adams State University in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults





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