Don’t Prosecute Killer Cops Or They Might Kill Themselves
May 27, 2016 (Mimesis Law) – On May 22nd, Newsday reporter Anthony DeStefano published a remarkable article, “Probes of police can trigger cop suicides, experts say.” His argument amounted to this:
It’s impermissible to scrutinize the actions of police officers – for example, by reviewing video of their (mis)deeds or attempting to prosecute them – because doing so puts them at risk of killing themselves.
Let’s begin with a look at DeStefano’s “experts.” First, there’s John Violanti, an “internationally known expert on police stress” at the University of Buffalo and a former New York state trooper.
Then there’s Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD cop and prosecutor turned professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His blurb at John Jay describes him as a “nationally recognized expert on policing issues” who “has been quoted in hundreds of media stories.” This appears to be true – for instance, our mean-ass editor once quoted him blaming a mythical spike in anti-cop violence on mean social media posts.
DeStefano’s article contains a number of anecdotes, all of cops who committed suicide after getting into trouble with the law. For instance, there’s the tale of Sayville Police Lieutenant Michael Pigott.
Pigott committed suicide in 2008, eight days after he ordered his cops to Tase an unarmed, mentally ill man standing on a second-story ledge. After the victim, Iman Morales, plummeted to his death, Pigott allegedly told his men he anticipated the fall, but expected Morales to, at worst, “break a leg.” Not that anecdotes make for persuasive arguments at the best of times, but if DeStefano wanted to make an appeal to emotion on behalf of cops under investigation, he scarcely could’ve chosen more poorly.
The article does make one claim to empiricism: it purports to cite, but doesn’t link to or otherwise identify, a study of Violanti’s. DeStefano paraphrases this mysterious study as follows:
[…] about 15 percent of police suicides nationwide are related to investigations or legal problems. Relationship issues are believed to have accounted for 32 percent of the police suicides, with psychological problems at 12 percent and stress at 11 percent […]
Violanti has co-authored a number of studies on police suicide, and this doesn’t appear to square with any of them. On the contrary: in a 2013 paper, Violanti argued there’s no 100% reliable way of arriving at a nationwide police suicide count, then attempted to estimate one using Internet reporting (blog posts on cop suicide, etc.) as a proxy. He arrives at a total of around 100 recorded police suicides yearly, then adds an extra ~20% to account for “unreported” suicides (something he justifies with the vague phrase “a priori methodological assumptions”).
Notwithstanding this strangeness, Violanti’s data show a 12% decrease in police suicide from 2009 to 2012. And DeStefano’s precise causal breakdown is nowhere to be found. Of the suicides on record, Violanti attributes a mere 13% to “legal problems,” while a stunning 83% are classified as “personal/unknown.” In older publications on the subject, Violanti cites studies attributing up to 60% of police suicide to alcoholism, as well as up to one-third to psychosis.
So DeStefano’s article has some methodological issues. What about his claim that cops must be allowed to do whatever they want, for fear of them hurting themselves?
This is nothing more than the most recent form of a popular argument, roughly: Second-Guessing Cops In Any Way Endangers People. It shows up a lot: for example, as O’Donnell’s claim that criticizing cops on social media makes lunatics hunt them down in the streets. Then there’s FBI director James Comey’s “Viral Video Effect,” the idea that recording cops as they do their jobs will make them reluctant to do their jobs, for fear of being persecuted for something that merely looks like abuse of power.
So in addition to “Scrutinizing Cops Makes Other People Harm Cops” and “Scrutinizing Cops Makes Cops Not Do Their Jobs, Letting Other People Harm Other People,” courtesy of DeStefano et al., we now have “Scrutinizing Cops Makes Cops Harm Cops.”
In particular, DeStefano and his experts object to prosecuting cops for misconduct. According to O’Donnell:
Cops perceive three threats: loss of job, loss of reputation and loss of freedom if convicted.
Wow! In other words, cops accused of crimes fear the exact same things as any other defendant. Unless O’Donnell, the former cop and prosecutor, had a belated epiphany about introducing all those people to the criminal justice system and then convicting them, it’s kind of hard to understand why a cop’s feelings militate against prosecuting him, but those of the people he arrests count for nothing.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If we’re willing to indulge the argument that a criminal deserves to go unpunished because he wouldn’t like the punishment, we must be willing to indulge it in all cases. Not just if the criminal has a blue suit and a shiny tin badge.