More on Ferguson, and on police attitudes

We’ve spoken about the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, and about police attitudes towards the public.  Both situations are intertwined in many ways.  Since writing those articles, I’ve come across other essays (and a book) that add different and worthwhile perspectives.

First, an English doctor who writes under the pseudonym of Theodore Dalrymple published a book some years ago titled ‘Life at the Bottom‘.  It’s a series of essays about the ‘entitlement class’ in England.  I recommend it to you, because it analyzes that group of people very well;  and that ‘class’ in the USA is very similar to its counterpart in the UK about which Dalrymple writes.  (For an excellent survey of both major parties and their contributions to the rise of the ‘entitlement class’, see this two part essay.)  The traits of the ‘entitlement class’ have a great deal to do with the actions of the looters in Ferguson.

Second, Herschel Smith wrote a great essay titled ‘Assessment Of Ferguson: Misrepresenting The Liberty Movement‘.  He sums it up as follows:

Ferguson is the hive’s chickens coming home to roost.  It is the collectivist’s nightmare.  A class of people who have had the family destroyed for generations, been taught that we owe them something for generations, and think they can break the law with impunity, are at odds with the police and other authorities, while the police and other authorities are under criticism for using the very tactics on this entitled class that the collectivists set them to to use, because they want to fill in the gap and prevent the effects of consequences … We should all stand back and say to the collectivists, “Look upon what thou hast created.  Are you proud?”

Nightmare.  And it’s just beginning.  Ferguson is a microcosm of Chicago, LA, Houston, New York, and Atlanta.  It’s all unraveling for them.

There’s more at the link.  It makes very thought-provoking reading, whether or not you agree with his perspective.

Finally, Fred Reed (whom we’ve already noted in connection with the situation in Ferguson) has just put up a column concerning the difficulties faced by police, and how it changes them.  Before I respond to what he says, I’d be grateful if you’ll please click over there and read it in full.  It’s important, and you won’t understand what I have to say next unless you’ve read it.

Back already?  All right, then.

The problem with what Fred says is that cops come to assume that everyone is as nasty, as felonious, as the trash with whom they deal every day.  Such a reaction is understandable from a psychological perspective, but it’s simply not true.  It’s the source of a great deal of unhappiness among many law enforcement and emergency personnel.  In my memoir of prison chaplaincy, I wrote about how it affects corrections staff.  I’m going to quote from that chapter at some length, to add to what Fred said about police in general.  (Much of what I say here can, of course, also be applied to cops.)

Working in such an environment has an inevitable effect on the staff — not just the Correctional Officers, but all of us. It’s very hard to maintain a cool, professional approach when you know that many of the inmates are out to get you in any way they can. After a while, the constant lies, evasions, attempts at manipulation, lack of co-operation, and just plain nastiness start to wear you down. Stress levels among prison staff are understandably very high, with inevitable negative consequences for their domestic life. The incidence of divorce and suicide amongst all peace officers is considerably above average, and corrections staff aren’t exempt. It’s very hard to leave your work behind at the gates of the prison …

This is very troubling from three perspectives. The first is that of inmates who genuinely want to change, to reform, and seek help in doing so. Their approach will be automatically regarded with suspicion by prison staff. We’ve all been ‘conned’ so many times that it’s all too easy to regard any such approach as more of the same. The inmates, hurt and frustrated, then blame the staff for being unfeeling and inhuman. In a sense, of course, they’re right — but they refuse to acknowledge the inevitability of such a reaction, given the staff’s constant exposure to less-well-motivated inmates …

The second perspective is that of the staff themselves. They can very easily become hardened to anything any inmate says, and discount even reasonable excuses or explanations. I’ve known cases where a minor infraction by an inmate new to the system (probably committed through ignorance of regulations), has resulted in extremely heavy punishment, most likely because the officer or manager concerned was tired and frustrated from dealing with far too many similar cases, and wasn’t in the mood to make allowances or cut a new inmate some slack. It’s all too easy to say to oneself, “If they’re going to treat me like dirt, then I’m going to dish out dirt to them. Let’s see how they like it!” When I trained at FLETC, an instructor commented to me in private conversation, “During his first year in the BOP, a new officer can’t do enough for the inmate. During his second year, he can’t do enough to the inmate. The third and subsequent years, he just doesn’t give a damn any more.” Sadly, I’ve seen this cynical observation borne out in practice many times — although there are honorable exceptions, thank heaven.
The third perspective is that of the families of prison staff. It’s hard to maintain a normal home environment when one’s spouse is bringing home so much stress and tension. Children feel it too. A disproportionately large percentage of ‘corrections marriages’ fail, and the effects on spouse and children are long-lasting. Second and subsequent marriages often go the same way. It’s extremely difficult for those who haven’t personally experienced the stress of the corrections environment to understand its effect on those who live in it every day. It’s even harder for those who come home from it to share it with their spouses, who consequently feel ‘shut out’ of their partner’s work life. After all, what can a Correctional Officer tell his wife about the reality of his job? If he says, “Honey, today I charged down a man with a knife, while armed only with my bare hands,” her instant (and understandable) reaction will probably be to scream at him for being a fool by exposing himself to such danger. She might understand intellectually that he did something heroic and praiseworthy, but all she can see in her mind’s eye is herself and her children at his funeral.

The prison environment has another unfortunate effect on staff and their families. The staff member is surrounded, all day, every day, by those he cannot and dare not trust. Every time they approach him, he has to wonder about their ulterior motives and hidden purposes, suspecting a trap or an attempt to deceive. When he gets home, it’s sometimes very hard not to let this perspective affect his attitudes towards his loved ones. What might be normal behavior in a child (lies, evasions, excuses, etc.) may attract a much stronger reaction than normal parental disapproval and correction, because he’s too used to exercising discipline (sometimes very physically) over real evildoers who do the same things. This leads to a great deal of stress and tension in families.

There’s more in my book, for those of you who are interested.  I’ve had to counsel many individuals caught up in such problems, so I speak from a foundation of considerable experience.

Police (and corrections staff, and other law enforcement personnel), in theory at least, should not allow such ‘conditioning’ to dominate their reactions to honest people.  Unfortunately, this is often honored more in the breach than in the observance.  It’s easier (from their perspective) to treat everyone as a potential malefactor, a potential threat.  That may work from their point of view, but it doesn’t work from ours.  We (and by ‘we’ I mean honest citizens) are simply not prepared to accept such treatment, or allow those who try to treat us that way to get away with it.

Police need to understand that if they try to treat everyone like criminals, we’re all going to start responding to them as criminals do – in other words, all of us, whether honest citizens or not, will regard police as ‘the enemy’, and treat them with suspicion and distrust, and resent (not to mention resist) their authority.  I suppose it’s a psychological application of Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which can be summed up in the phrase, ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’.  As I said in my earlier article on the subject:

I’ve seen far too many police officers try to intimidate citizens rather than treat them with respect.  I know I’m law-abiding – since coming to this country almost two decades ago, I haven’t had so much as a traffic ticket.  I’ve also served as a duly sworn member of the law enforcement profession.  I will not permit, and I will not tolerate, the kind of attitudes I’m increasingly seeing on the part of jackbooted thugs masquerading as police officers.  Treat me with respect and politeness, and you’ll receive a similar response.  Treat me like dirt and I’ll respond in kind.  I do not and will not respect your authority if you prove yourself unworthy of it.  Your badge doesn’t impress me in and of itself – not when so many of those wearing it think nothing of shooting dogs at the drop of a hat, or injuring babies during drug raids (and then refusing to cover their medical expenses), or conducting illegal searches, or threatening to kill a journalist, or whatever.

Again, more at the link.  I know I’m far from alone in feeling that way.

So, whilst admitting the truth of what Fred Reed says about the realities police face every day – realities that, to some extent, I’ve faced myself in the corrections environment – I also assert that there are equal and opposing realities that they are refusing to face every day.  Unless and until law enforcement as a whole – not to mention individual agencies and officers – finds a balance in this matter, we’re going to have ongoing difficulties;  and unless they put in the necessary effort to find that balance, they’re going to find themselves ostracized by the very society they’re sworn to protect and serve.  In many sections of that society, they already are – and their own attitudes are making that estrangement worse, every single day.  The latest example happened just today in Beverley Hills.  How long until the next?



  1. Fred's column has too many truths and I'll not sleep well tonight thinking back on things I'd like best to forget. I'm glad to have retired from LE and will keep my on council.

  2. I suspect perhaps that I can't get in to enough things with this post. Perhaps I would do so on my own blog and dust off it's retirement's dust. However I say as someone that served a couple times in Iraq, its a far different thing in principal to be in a war zone than in the US. However some parts of the cities resemble war zones. This starts I Think at training levels. Case in point for me at least. This past weekend I was in Milwaukee for a trip, myself and friends went out to do a couple of bars. In the past and even very recent experience police will post outside of bars to help read ID's when its a college age bar often times to discern or discourage fake ID's. I just provided my ID to an officer who then took deep offense to it. Mind you if he was over 21 or 22 I'll eat a whole turkey. He then snarled at me and started to curse me out. I look a bit rough and tumble these days with a full component of facial hair but even after I said My bad and I'm sorry after he screamed at me to give my ID to the security folks.. (Yeah I can understand the whole possibility of comparing a police officer to a bar security hire..) Even after I walked away to just go in he allegedly started to scream "I am not afraid of you." After I was out of earshot. (Well I'm half deaf from the Army so whatever..) This was from a friend that I deployed to Iraq with no less. I have immediate family members that are police or training to be so. I understand a lot of the stresses. I understand the instantaneous stresses that people have to deal with in the heat of the moment. What seems to be missed is the fact of, gee, lets verify an address before we send a SWAT team though a door. Hey, how about when you might be parked two deep out side very bar in a strip being decent to someone who is obviously just providing an ID. (Hey I'm under 35 so I get carded everywhere.)

    And If this was an isolated incident I would not have even mentioned it. I've had some -Great- interactions with police. I as well am law abiding. (Though one of the two tickets I got in my life I feel was entrapment..) But I would estimate that in all my police interactions over many municipalities that its ranging from 30/70 to 40/60 for negative to positive things. This is from car crashes, reporting crimes, passing by, random interactions and the like.

    Where this to me is pertinent? I don't know where it is but it seems that either police are put out there before there is enough training. Or they are required to know all the laws in every situation. Or perhaps they just are given too much power where if they make a critical mistake they are not held accountable. Or anything and everything else it encompasses. I think there is a lot of grey lines that are ignored even if the grey lines are clearly outside of a good judgement call. This is not a matter of a draw/no draw situation as it is a police officer that makes many bad decisions that is kept on the force. Or one that is not corrected soon enough. And yeah I know this is not helped by the media that is upset with the cops when they don't do enough to save/deter crime yet is the first to jump on the flaming band wagon when a cop does something they think is negative.

    I think this is indeed a lot of police forces fighting one form of an entitlement culture or another as well as cops fighting those that would help them. Cops are expected do deal excursively with societal rot, yet when they do so in a questionable situation they get the rack.

    However, when the police come off as either an invading force or dressed not for dealing with the people as it is for dealing for a war or riot what the hell is expected?

    Sadly I think that until the police find a way to better take care of their own problems and get rid of bad officers quicker this will never go away. This goes for the command structure as well.

  3. Thanks Peter, thoughtful, insightful and dead on as far as I can tell. The destruction of the core family IS a product of government dependency, where no responsibility is assumed for the children who are nothing more than earning potential…

  4. I found, in my own time with a local P.D. in the Midwest, that I eventually came to feel that I was surrounded by the criminal element at all times. It got to the point that my skin crawled whenever I was out in public, wondering who was about to come at me. I couldn't take it, and finally walked away.

    That's the truth of Fred's writing – and yours. When you carry a badge, you interact only with criminals and victims; it colors your perception at all times. And yes, that's the problem, and yes, your conclusion is correct: good & honest people won't put up with it, nor should they.

  5. I recently took my wife to one of the NSSF's "First Shots" sessions at a local shooting range. The course was taught by a deputy sheriff from a neighboring county. Young guy, mid-30's, maybe. He told us that he enjoys teaching those classes, and other firearms training classes at that range, because it helps remind him that not everyone in the general public is a criminal, that there are good guys out there. He also added that he likes knowing that there are law-abiding citizens with guns out there.

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