by Chuck Canterbury
Recently I sat down with Lydia DePillis, a reporter with The Washington Post and answered some of her questions about the protests after the two grand jury rulings on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths.
I told her I did not think complaints have increased in law enforcement. You have two high-profile cases right now in the media, but police in this country make millions of contacts a year. There are going to be situations where officers are accused of wrongdoing, but I think overall a tremendous professionalism has developed. The thing about a grand jury process is they hear more evidence than people hear at a trial. So grand jury proceedings, contrary to popular belief, are a stalwart in our judicial system and very successful.
There are police officers in jail right now all over the country who have been convicted of excessive force. Each complaint has to be judged on its own merits. The Justice Department alone has prosecuted over 300 police officers nationwide for using excessive force. Sustained complaints most often result with the officer being terminated and a lot of police officers are discharged every year.
Concerning Lydia’s questions about race and profiling, I told her that law enforcement has probably had this conversation long before the country has had it. The FOP’s been on record over the last 15 years denouncing racial profiling. It’s not a legitimate police practice; it’s not taught in any police academy in the country. That doesn’t mean there aren’t officers who have racial bias. But any cop who demonstrates any form of racial bias should be removed from the job, and we support that.
The bottom line is that we don’t believe these situations arise because race. We believe it’s an issue of poverty. Communities who distrust of law enforcement — it’s because law enforcement is the only part of government they ever see. They’re poor; infant mortality rates are higher; single-family homes are higher; unemployment is higher; people don’t live as long as the average American.
Race is an issue that should have open discussion, but the bottom line is, when you have depressed communities, it leads to higher crime which leads to more police, which leads to the only part of government they ever see. Law enforcement’s is even called in on child custody cases. In most states, social workers can’t take a child away – police are required to do that. Even when it’s not a criminal matter, police are usually the people who have to enforce it.
There is a criminal element that distrusts law enforcement and rightfully so – after all it’s our guys’ jobs to try to catch them. And in economically depressed areas, there’s lot of crime, and there’s a lot of call for law enforcement. And politicians and police management, going all the way back to the first broken windows community-oriented policing scenario, have sent police in to saturate high crime areas in their attempt to reduce crime rates.
Look at the city of Washington D.C. They reduced their poor communities by displacing them into Prince George’s County and they reduced their crime rate significantly. Consequently, the Prince George’s murder rate went up. The only thing that moved were poor people.
The reality is this – you’ve got a young male that’s unemployed, can’t find a job, has no transportation to a job. He hangs around his neighborhood and watches the kid on the corner making $5000 a week selling dope and he feels hopeless. I don’t think law enforcement is the answer to those situations.
There’s thousands and thousands of stories every year of police officers going out on their own and doing things for people in those poor neighborhoods. So I don’t agree that there’s a systemic racial bias in law enforcement. There’s hardly a police officer on the street now that was alive in the civil rights movement. It’s 20-somethings and 30-somethings out there doing police work and they weren’t raised in segregated communities, so I think the racial bias we saw in the ’60s that was there in law enforcement is long gone.
Concerning the Cleveland shooting of a 12-year-old with an Airsoft gun, I told Lydia, obviously it’s not a real weapon, but our officers can’t tell that. Those Airsoft pistols look just as real as anything else if you take the orange off the tip. And there’s no real way to tell until you have a chance to examine it. This kind of incident is a terribel tragedy for the officers who felt forced to take that kind of action and they have to live with that decision for the rest of their lives. But when the weapon looks real, they’re trained to react, and rightfully so. There’s nothing in American jurisprudence that says police officers are supposed to get assaulted or killed.
Concerning Eric Garner the lesson here is even if you’re confronted by a law enforcement officer and you believe the officer’s wrong, resisting arrest is not the right answer. The right answer is to comply and use the system to file a complaint later. But resisting arrest can only lead to the officer using force to subdue you. You don’t use equal force — you use more force, because equal force doesn’t get you anywhere. If there’s an issue, there’s a lot of things in place to address that after the fact. Resisting arrest seems to be the case when people get hurt. If Eric Garner had complied, we wouldn’t even be talking about it. Nobody would’ve cared that he was arrested for selling illegally untaxed cigarettes.
A few years ago, in Charlotte, North Carolina, officers busted a ring that was sending money to al Qaeda, and they were doing it through illegal cigarette sales. So there is a nexus. Street-level selling loosies probably doesn’t lead to that, but it still was a crime that he was going to be arrested for. And he knew that. He’d been arrested before.
Chuck Canterbury is the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.