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Wolves, Sheepdogs and the Cops I Know

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.

Also, we have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

Before we started writing this series, I thought about the cops that I knew. For me--probably not Michael C--writing about cops felt a lot more personal than writing about soldiers. Our family knows a lot of police officers. Yes, obviously Michael and I know a lot of soldiers, but usually with the military, you can blame policy, politicians or officers for most problems. Writing about police shootings--or more accurately, blaming the police for excessive force, unaccountable killings and unjust practices that encourage and promote racial disparity--feels more personal. It feels like we’re blaming them personally.

So I got to thinking about the cops I knew. They’re good people, right? I believe they are. But as the police shootings kept mounting--or for me personally, seeing the video of the Walter Scott shooting--I couldn’t escape the conclusion: some cops are bad cops.

And then it hit me. I was getting close to reusing Grossman’s analogy about “wolves, sheep and sheepdogs” that we spent a lot of time on last year. (Click here and here for some background on this misleading analogy.) Basically, this simplistic analysis is used by some police officers and soldiers to divide the world into three groups: bad people like terrorists and criminals (“wolves”), the good people  who use violence to stop the wolves (glowingly described as “sheepdogs”), and those good people who disdain violence (insultingly dubbed “sheep”).

Unlike last year, I don’t want to keep bashing Grossman’s illogical analogy. In fact, I think it is actually instructive (in a few limited ways) in understanding and stopping police shootings.

Obviously there are some bad cops. (Unlike Grossman, we don’t believe joining the military or police automatically makes you a good person or a “sheepdog”.) So, if you assume that some police officers are sheepdogs (good cops) and some are wolves (bad cops), how do you tell them apart? Easy. Look at their behavior. In far too many police shootings, the shooters had dismal records of over-using force:

- Look at the Laquan McDonald shooting. Officer Van Dyke--the officer who shot McDonald and now faces murder charges--had 18 complaints filed against him.

- Or the shooting of John Crawford III at a WalMart. According to CNN and a federal lawsuit by Crawford’s family, “...Officer Sean C. Williams, who is also ‘involved in the only other fatal police shooting in the history of the Beavercreek Police Department,’ according to the lawsuit.” So one police officer accounts for both shootings in one police department’s history? Unlikely.

- Or Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death using an illegal police tactic, had been sued three times for misconduct.

- Michael Slager, who shot and then lied about shooting Walter Scott, had three complaints for use of excessive force.

- The city of Cleveland had to settle an excessive force lawsuit brought by citizens against Frank Garmback, one of the police officers who shot Tamir Rice.

Not all cops are bad, but some are. We can look at their records and dismiss the bad cops (wolves) preemptively. Even Grossman agrees with this, as he wrote, “the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.”

Alas, this is not what happens.

How do too many good cops (sheepdogs) deal with bad cops? By doing nothing. Police officers are almost never convicted of killing civilians. We pointed out five different examples in a post last year of DAs and police departments ignoring allegations of abuse.

Of the police officers above, the officers who killed Tamir Rice, John Crawford III and Eric Garner received no punishment, as grand juries declined to indict the officers. The police officer who shot Tamir Rice wasn’t questioned until over six months after the shooting, and only had charges filed after video of the shooting became public. If Michael Slager is convicted, he’d be the first officer in five years in South Carolina.

Even worse than all of this looking the other way--for both excessive force complaints and questionable shootings--is when sheepdogs also cover up the crimes of the wolves in their midst.

In the case of Laquan McDonald, the Chicago Police Department intimidated witnesses into silence, according to reports from the family. And police officers lied, “...In reports to internal investigators, the other officers either corroborated his story or said that they hadn’t seen what happened. One said that she had been looking down and missed the whole thing.” And then the police department refused to release the tape of the shooting to the public to conceal what had happened.

The good sheepdogs of Chicago tried to specifically protect a wolf in their midst. So much for sheepdogs being “punished and removed” for the sake of our democracy.

I don’t believe all cops are evil. I don’t believe they should be vilified. But I do believe they need to be criticized for working in and protecting a system that shields all cops from punishment, without differentiating the good cops from the bad, or at least trying to. It’s the police officers in New York who, feeling like they’re under attack, protest after their fellow officers choke a man to death for selling loose cigarettes.

The problem, hate to paraphrase a quote-behaving-badly, is sheepdogs doing nothing about the wolves in their midst, who let a broken system remain broken. I would hope that the police officers I know can at least agree on that.