Email From The Cops: Where I Think We’re Going, We Ain’t Gonna Like

My email from cops around the country is interesting. How good its statistical validity is, I don’t know, but it gives a fair picture of what’s on people’s minds.

I’m looking at the fifth forward I’ve gotten of a recent AP story on the demoralization of the LAPD. The core of the piece is that eighty percent of cops in LA say that they are afraid of having their careers destroyed by making an honest mistake. You know the kind of thing: The call says that two bank robbers are fleeing along some avenue in a blue van. Such a van appears, moving at high speed. The cops stop it, put the driver on the ground, and cuff him.

Instead of the robber, it turns out to be a black minister’s son who was going for pizza and didn’t believe in stopping for cops. He hollers racial profiling. Al Sharpton arrives, charging racism. The ACLU files suit. End of cop’s career.

It doesn’t have to be so splashy. Most complaints don’t go beyond a local review board and don’t make the papers. They can still damage careers. The standard is always the same: guilty until proven innocent, and then usually regarded as having gotten away with it. The lynch-mob attitude isn’t helping either the cops or the society.

Last week I heard from a cop in Pittsburgh who says he and his friends on the force have largely stopped active police work. “We answer calls, but if I see suspicious things I just let it slide now. I never stop blacks for traffic violations. That’s just asking for a profiling beef.”

I get a lot of mail about “profiling.” If one reporter in thirty so much as knows what the word means, I haven’t seen evidence of it. In police use the word means the recognition that certain kinds of people who behave in certain ways are like to be engaged in certain kinds of criminal behavior. For example, people in baggy clothes who brush up against counters in department stores often are shoplifters.

Then the media started talking about “racial profiling,” after which all profiling became racial, and now the word is being applied to arresting blacks for anything. If you arrest a guy for something you saw him doing, it isn’t profiling of any kind at all. But cop after cop writes of having to look mentally at his recent stops whenever pulling over a black.

“In white areas, everybody you stop is white, but nobody calls that discrimination. In black areas, like where I work, there aren’t any whites, so everybody you stop is black. That’s discrimination. I just don’t care any more.”

There’s a lot of bitterness about what cops see as bias against them by the press. They tend to see things as a bit more simple than they really are. The police seldom know people in the media, don’t know how the trade works, and almost universally see reporters as liberals propagandists. It’s a sore point.

There’s more to it. Reporters for conservative papers write the same things. Part of the problem is that reporters seldom ride and really don’t know much about cops or the conditions in which they work. A big reason for the apparent bias, it seems to me, is that reporters have in their minds a number of preconceived stories and try to fit everything into these patterns. It’s a fill-in-the-blanks mentality. If a white cop shoots a black, that fits a racial-discrimination pattern. Whether race actually had anything to do with it doesn’t matter. If a black kid shoots a black kid downtown, that’s not a story at all. It’s not bias so much as habit.

One guy who forwarded me the LAPD piece, presumably a cop himself, said, “Pretty soon people are going to get the police they want. Guys will just ride around, wave at the citizens, and take reports.” And wait to retire.

This is what seems to be happening, though to what extent I don’t know. Maybe it’s more talk than actual inaction at this point. But certainly some cops are backing off, and it’s insidious because it isn’t obvious. If cops just stop seeing things, the level of police protection drops, but not in a way you easily put your finger on. There isn’t a lot of visible difference between cops who are trying hard to enforce the law, and cops who don’t care any longer.

One thing is for sure: when I came on the police beat, nobody talked this way. Now they do.

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