Attorney General William Barr departed from his prepared statement honoring a group of police officers for their service with what he no doubt thought was a dire and reasonable warning: Communities should be nicer to their cops or risk losing police protection.
“They have to start showing more than they do—the respect and support that law enforcement deserves,” Barr said Tuesday during while presenting his annual Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing. “And if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection that they need.”
The assumption that Barr wanted to leave us with is that the same police the Justice Department honored yesterday (officers who had done things like help break up gangs and rescue a kidnapped baby) were exactly the same police officers who invite outrage and abuse by aggressively intruding on the private lives of citizens, violating their rights, and beating them up at the slightest provocation.
He’s trying to flip the “one bad apple spoils the bunch” metaphor by claiming that our right to be served good apples requires us to eat the rotten ones as well. If we attempt to pick and choose, Barr says we’ll get none.
Unfortunately for the communities most critical of police, it is extremely hard to get the police to go away, particularly when they’ve engaged in misconduct worthy of criticizing. Police unions are quick to excuse their worst officers and help them get their jobs back in the rare instances when that misconduct leads to their firing. “Be nice to all cops or you’ll get no cops” sounds like a threat, but it can also be read as a pipe dream. More likely, bad cops will stick around and continue to do bad things, while fewer good people will choose to become police officers.
Communities that are critical of police are reacting to NYPD Officer Leo Pantaleo putting Eric Garner in the chokehold that ultimately killed him, all because he was selling untaxed loose cigarettes. Their anger grew when a grand jury and the Department of Justice declined to prosecute Pantaleo; they will be angrier still if he gets his job back after being fired, a pursuit that has the public backing of the police unions in the city. From their perspective, Garner was killed for selling loose cigarettes, while the police officer who killed him was only fired and now stands to be rehired (and possibly receive back pay). Can Barr not see why that dissonance would make people angry? Does he really expect “communities” to “respect” and “support” Pantaleo? What about the members of the police union members that are supporting his attempt to get his job back?
Now that California has passed a law opening up some police misconduct records, a collaborative investigation by newspapers across the state has found that dozens of police officers are still on the job even after being convicted of crimes, including a deputy who was convicted of manslaughter after running over two people while responding recklessly to a call. Does Barr want “communities” to “respect” and “support” officers who can kill them without consequence?
The threat of “de-policing,” which is when rank and file officers respond to criticism or departmental sanction by not doing their jobs, is real. But it doesn’t always lead to mayhem. The NYPD has, in fact, responded to community outrage by making fewer arrests. Crime continued to drop.
Barr has the whole thing backwards. It’s the police who need to respect and support their communities. They can start by ridding their own ranks of bad cops.