Tuesday, December 9, 2008

cultures of police misconduct

I have no way to prove this, but something like this brings up a little theory of mine: a sort of Broken Windows theory of police misconduct.

A lot of people can't get upset about police misconduct if that misconduct is undertaken in the pursuit of "taking out the bad guys". That is, if the police bend or break the rules in the commission of making arrest or prosecution easier, there's little harm done. Well, to begin with, one of the most important reasons for due process and rights of the accused is because the police often get the idea of who exactly the bad guys are wrong, and misconduct makes it both easier to accuse the wrong people and harder to get to the actual truth. What's more, on a first-principles democracy basis, due process and rights are ends themselves, not means to the ends of stability or lawfulness. Justice involves both the punishment of the guilty and the vigorous enforcement of legal and ethical standards that ensure that punishment is meted out equitably and fairly.

But I suspect that there's another problem with "white" police misconduct: my intuition is that breaking the rules in the commission of legitimate police work helps create an atmosphere of licentiousness and criminality that dissolves that emboldens police to break the rules in was most people find worse: corruption, graft, theft, etc. When you are constantly bending the rules, even for what you view as noble ends, you can't help but view all rules with less respect and importance. I think most people imagine that there's good cops and bad cops, and good cops sometimes buck the system to put the bad guys away, and bad cops break the law for selfish gain. As I've argued, while there are indeed cops who are saints and cops who are just corrupt, the vast majority of police officers are people, sometimes good and sometimes bad.

I think the Wire ably demonstrated that police officers who bend the rules aren't either frustrated heroes straining against an impotent system or rapacious crooks out to steal from society, but normal men and women pushed by extreme circumstances. And, as that show also showed, there are cops who both push the boundaries in prosecuting criminals and also take a little something for themselves. It's my opinion that the former enables the latter. Again, once the rules are bent, they tend to stay bent, and it becomes harder and harder for fundamentally decent men to take them seriously. That's a big reason why we have to stop the kind of rampant, casual rule-breaking that Balko talks about in that post. Personally, I'm moved just by the libertarian case for rights preservation. But even if you aren't, I think it makes sense to believe that ignoring rules of conduct when hunting for drug dealers ultimately makes it easier to ignore rules preventing behavior most people find more corrosive or destructive.

Update: The post I actually originally intended to link to is here.

This has not be a kind two-day stretch for L'hote.


Anonymous said...

Link is bad. -K.

Anonymous said...


I think this is what you're talking about. -K.

Freddie said...

Ugh. Fixed.

Gypsy Cat said...

Balko jumps from describing Tarika Wilson's baby's hand getting blown off while he's in her dying arms, to 3 paragraphs of statistics. Nice segway.

You'd think the investigators would know small children lived in the home. Misconduct or blatant incompetance?

ryan said...

I have to agree with you here, Freddie. Forcing someone through the legal system for an offense so petty that it would have been solved a few decades ago by "You all move along now, hear?" is clearly not optimal, but I don't think we trust our police officers to bring that discretion to bear anymore. I think the police should have more of this type of power and discretion, but I'm completely against them exercising power and discretion outside the bounds of the law. The last few decades produced a crisis of confidence in our police forces, a crisis not helped at all by the drug war, but not caused by it either, and I'm not sure there's a good solution right now.

BP said...

The chocolatey texture of gain.