Is making a mistake by public safety officers not possible?
Published on January 21, 2015
At the Dec. 27 funeral of two New York police officers, fellow officers turned their backs in protest to a projected screen image of City Mayor Bill de Blasio, angered at what they maintained was the lack of support the mayor had shown them.
De Blasio, who has an African American wife and a teenage son, had advised the son how to act if questioned by police officers. He had also used the word "alleged" in public remarks talking about protestors, some of whom clashed with police.
The protests took place after the earlier killing of two unarmed black men by officers.
Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Lu were apparently killed as an act of revenge for those killings.
Critics of de Blasio said there was nothing "alleged" about it, that protestors assaulted the police and that's that. Nevertheless, technically, until a case is settled, and the guilty sentenced or exonerated, we usually have in this country (at least on face value) existed on the principle you're innocent until proven guilty.
So why should use of the word "alleged" provoke such anger? Is it a Freudian slip that indicates much more disloyalty by the mayor toward police officers lurking under the surface? Or given the highly charged and emotional circumstances, are police officers, at least some of them in New York---too sensitive?
Do police officers who risk their lives protecting us feel somehow that even if they make a mistake, it should be swept under the rug? Or beyond that, because of the heroic nature of their sacrifice, they shouldn't be held accountable for a mistake?
Or even farther beyond that, making a mistake is not possible?
This is a specter I've seen before, the brittle nature of criticism and perhaps what might be (among some) the inability to accept it, but who instead see criticism as an attack, treachery, a condemnation of the organization as a whole, instead of the actions and judgment of one individual under harrowing circumstances.
One thing is certain, whether you're a combat veteran of the military, a CIA operative, or a police officer. If I'm none of those things, you can gain traction over me in a disagreement because you have the moral high ground. You protected me at risk to yourself and I did not protect you.
Let's go back in time.
In 2009 Henry Louis Gates, an African American Harvard scholar and a friend of Obama, was arrested by police officers after he was seen trying to force open the door to his own home. He was locked out. After an angry exchange of words, Gates was taken down to police headquarters where he was charged with disorderly conduct. Four days later the charges were dropped.
Obama said the arrest showed poor judgment by the officer and also mentioned the inequities of racial profiling, targeting someone because of their skin color. The remarks brought a storm of angry protests from police departments around the country. Stung by the criticism, Obama backtracked and said he regretted the comments.
Bill de Blasio
Bill de Blasio, born May 8, 1961 and Mayor of New York City in 2015, with his wife, Chirlane, (left) and children Chiara and Dante at a rally in New York City in 2013 | Bill De Blasio, Mayor, New York City, Chirlane, Police, Protest, Controversy,
Bangladeshi child beaten
A Bangladeshi policeman hits a child with a baton during clashes with a garment workers in Dhaka. | Photo: Munir Uz Zaman | Link |
A later hearing determined the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, and Gates both missed opportunities to cool the incident and that each had adopted a disrespectful, belligerent demeanor towards the other. Nevertheless, Crowley later made justifying comments about the danger and highly charged emotion of responding to a crime scene, a defensive position Gates couldn't match.
Crowley was feted as a hero by fellow officers and embarked on a nationwide tour of police departments around the country. It was difficult to ascertain by those of us not in the know whether the emphasis for the congratulatory junket was to defend law enforcement, or as a protest against Obama or both.
It seems pretty clear, again no proof, innocent until proven guilty, that the officer felt Gates had smarted off to him, and thus the trip down to the police station.
At the time this happened I wrote a column saying how the officer should have handled it after determining Gates was trying to enter his own home, by saying something like, "I'm sorry you're upset. We're just doing our job. You understand?"
And then leave Gates to enter his own home.
An angry police officer who read my opinion and who disagreed responded to my suggestion by sending me a letter which began with, "I have 24 years' experience on the force...."
Police turn their backs
Following the December 20, 2014 deaths of two NYPD officers in an "execution" style "revenge" attack for Eric Garner, numerous police unions issued statements blaming Mayor Bill de Blasio for their deaths and police officers turned their backs to the mayor when he visited the hospital where the two officers' bodies were taken. | Photo: Archives |
The letter offered no specific details in this Gates case, just a flat justification, "I have all this service."
So, according to him, Crowley handed the affair correctly. The letter writing officer, who never met Crowley, and who had served in a different police force in a different state--- he had the badge. I didn't. He could buttress his opinion by citing patriotic dedication, a holier-than-thou mantra that like with Gates, I couldn't personally match.
It still didn't answer the question. Who was wrong and why?
Most likely as the investigation report said, both Crowley and Gates were wrong. I have a suspicion the angry letter writer believed it wasn't possible for Crowley to be wrong because he had the perceived authority to never be wrong.
Is it possible for any agency to never be wrong?
It isn't just police who sometimes seem a little bit case sensitive.
Military officers are famous for adopting a smug grin when as a civilian you disagree with a war they are waging and where they have personal experience and you have none. You've never been to the country where the war is being fought. The generals can act patronizing, even though they're often proven wrong about a given situation as much as they are right.
Recently, members of the CIA were infuriated by a Congressional Report that said they improperly tortured terrorist prisoners to gain information. Once again, the explanations seemed to go beyond justification in an individual case. They seemed to hint that the agency, which has hundreds of operatives acting in our behalf in classified secret in dozens of countries, an agency which it's never been doubted does good on our behalf, has never been wrong about anything--ever----is incapable of being wrong.
You want to know how to get a police officer angry?
Tell him your taxes pay his salary. It's true. They do. But he'll take it as an affront, a challenge to his authority. You're hinting that you're his boss, not the other way around, even though it's true. Like Gates, you might find yourself on the way down to headquarters.
Your taxes do in fact pay his salary.
In fact, some police do it because they enjoy the work, and some even like the danger and the adrenalin rush of police work. That's doesn't lessen their sacrifice.
But it shouldn't inflate it to make it infallibility either.