Riots: A Police View

Regarding the riots in Seattle, a few thoughts:

I wasn’t there and don’t know anything with certainty. Friends of mine, two of them, watched the news footage and said they saw cops behaving with unreasonable force. That is, between them they saw two cops misbehaving.

This column’s position on genuine brutality by police is simple: Put the cops in jail. I can’t beat people with nightsticks whenever I feel like it. Cops shouldn’t be able to either. It’s much worse when the police do it (if indeed in this case they did do it, which I don’t know) because they are the state.

That having been said, let’s think about riots from a cop’s perspective.

Suppose the worst—that a huge racial riot breaks out in a hypothetical large city. This isn’t fairy-tale stuff: It has happened many times in the United States. You’re the chief of police. What do you do?

Remember that if you actually are the chief, you can’t dodge the question by talking about how things ought to be or what should have been done. You have to actually do something. What?

To begin with, you probably aren’t well prepared. The reason may be culpable complacency on your part. More likely, budgets were tight and you knew that any regular training of riot-suppression forces would lead to charges that you were a racist, fascist, thug, Bull Conner clone, and so on. Nobody in the legislature would take a chance on training. So you aren’t ready.

Reports come in that looting and burning are occurring on a large scale, followed by reports of gunfire. Your choices are:

First, do nothing. Large regions of the city will then be burned out and looted dry. You will be accused of racial insensitivity at best, outright racism at worst. “Chief You obviously didn’t care about the sufferings of blacks and Hispanics and simply let them destroy their neighborhoods. The latent racism is obvious, etc.”

And is it really the job of cops to let people burn cities?

Second, take a hard-nosed approach. Declare the equivalent of martial law. Move in with force, if you have it. Tell your men to shoot looters on sight. Tell them that, if shot at, they should return fire and shoot to kill.

This works. It’s also ugly. Inevitably, some people will be killed who weren’t doing anything, or not doing anything deserving death. The hatreds and resentments engendered will last a long time. Maybe by doing this you would in fact save many more lives and prevent the leveling of half the city, but you will never be able to prove that what you prevented would have happened.

Anyway, it’s not how we do things in this country.

Third, let your men slog it out, with tear gas and riot batons, ducking bricks and hiding from snipers, scared half to death with their own survival at stake. (Ever been in a bad section with one other cop and fifty obviously hostile men sort of, well, encircling you? You’re helpless if the authority of the uniform fails. Add a riot and it ain’t fun. Ain’t fun anyway.)

What it comes to is that there isn’t a good choice.

Look at it from the street cop’s point of view. You may think, watching television, that the cops have the advantage, that they’re the bullies. They have teargas and guns and all.

It’s not quite like that.

Ever been hit in the face with a brick? Thrown by a nineteen-year-old male with a good arm? Ever seen the next guy go down with fragments of teeth spraying onto the sidewalk? Riots are scary. The cops are in fact outnumbered, however blue their uniforms may be. It takes getting hit about once by a bottle with many hostiles around and your adrenaline sluices loose and your blood pressure goes way up. The fight-or-flight instinct, which is absolutely real, comes into play.

It gets real easy to smack people.

And it would for you, too, gentle reader. The problem is much more the situation than it is the cops.

The officer, trying to clear a chaotic and violent street, tells a guy, “Get out of here!” The guy stands on his rights. “You can’t tell me?.” The cops clobbers him. Is this right? No. At least it’s not desirable. If a man finds his wife in bed with another man, and puts fifteen rounds in him, is it right? Probably not. But don’t be surprised.

There are situations in which things happen. Riots are one of them.

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