Our Puzzled Guys In Blue: Maybe We Ought To Give Them Clear Instructions

I get a fair amount of email from cops around the country, and some of it is minorly (that may not be a word) disturbing. A half-dozen letters on a subject don’t constitute a tidal wave or a survey. Still, a few thoughts on the subject:

The police increasingly feel themselves to be under heavy pressure regarding race. The constant (and largely phony) stories about “racial profiling” are familiar to us all. So are the headlines saying, “White Cop Shoots Black Man.” Law suits are common in which black officers charge that they are denied promotions because of race, or that tests for advancement are rigged against them. In black neighborhoods, many assert that cops target blacks, don’t do their jobs or do them badly, exhibit prejudice, and so on.

I sense from cops, particularly white ones, a conviction that they can’t win. My mail begins to suggest that they may be giving up. Maybe it’s just grousing, but. . . maybe it’s not.

One officer tells me that his force is getting pressured on discretionary arrests. These are what they sound like: A cop in most jurisdictions, for example, can decide whether to arrest a loud drunk or, if possible. send him home with friends to sleep it off. This cop told me that some civil-rights group noticed that virtually all drunks arrested in a downtown region were black, and charged discrimination.

The cop: “Ninety-five percent of [that area] is black. That’s who the drunks are. In white areas, all the drunks we arrest are white, but nobody says anything about that. Maybe we ought to trade drunks between precincts.”

Recently I got a long and thoughtful email from a cop who said that he and his colleagues were choosing not to make arrests when doing so might be politically incorrect. It wasn’t worth it, he said. It was easier just to drive around and not see things. Why take the heat? The crime wasn’t in his neighborhood. I get paid by the hour, he said.

This is not a normal attitude for the police. Sure, there have always been slackers on police departments, more on some than others, who do little, take long chow breaks, and park in alleys on nightshift to sleep. They don’ t talk about it. This guy wanted to do his job, but was angry and discouraged. If this attitude in becoming common, we have a problem. He went on to say that if the police quietly stop policing, crime will increase sharply, and then civil-rights groups will charge that the police are, for racial reasons, abandoning blacks to crime.

These cops don’t know what to do. I’m not talking about corrupt, brutal, or incompetent cops, but good ones who want to do their jobs. If they make arrests, they are racists. If they don’t make arrests, they are racists. Another cop wrote me on similar subjects, and suggested that racially segregated neighborhoods should be policed only by cops of the local race. In Washington, for example, this would mean white cops for upper Northwest and black cops for Anacostia. He thought this would end the endless charges of racism.

Actually, it might not. As it is, most cops in many black neighborhoods are themselves black, and still the charges of discrimination fly. Black cops are said to be working for the white power structure (in Washington?) and so are as oppressive as white cops.

Separate policing would lead to further distancing of the races, would amount to a de facto disengagement of black and white into something resembling separate countries. The cop who suggested separate forces had no such portentous end in mind, but just wanted to get out from under the racial gun.

We need, sez me, to tell cops clearly what we expect of them, agree on a way of determining whether they are doing it, and leave them alone if they are. When an officer sees a drunk driver bouncing off the curbs, he should not have to go through an elaborate racial calculus to decide what to do. (“Let’s see, I’ve ticketed. . .I think it’s twelve drunks this month and, hmm, was it nine were black, and the neighborhood is fifty-three percent black, so. . .do I or don’t I?”)

It won’t happen. And if cops really are quietly deciding not to take the chance, then lawlessness will rise, chiefly in black neighborhoods since there is no racial danger in arresting whites, and things will get worse. For everybody, but mostly for minorities. Not good.

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