Police Brass Say “Better Training,” We Say Hallelujah
Oct. 31, 2016 (Fault Lines) – When a police misconduct story hits the news, America’s very official cop spokesmen swing into action. They promise us the system works, remind us not to condemn the accused officers out of hand and ask for patience as the department conducts its investigation.
Now, on one level, we know it’s all spin. For instance, we know the cop talking heads are flagrant hypocrites: when they hold press conferences to talk about catching some poor sap and trumpet his alleged crimes to the world, they don’t bother to give him the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, when an officer who was accused of misconduct leaves an identifiable victim behind, police PR types do their best to smear him. They dig up the victim’s criminal record, make insinuations, do whatever it takes to change the narrative in their favor. They don’t need to wait for any investigation.
But on another level, we continue to believe. No matter how good we get at spotting what they do, we’re still reluctant to accept that the people who represent the institutions we were brought up to trust are lying to our faces.
Unfortunately, this means we’re especially vulnerable to flim-flam when they promise us something that relies on an institutional process. Consider “better training,” the standard law enforcement response to the problems identified by police reformers.
The premise is that while there may be problems in a given PD, the rot is limited to a few “bad apple” cops in the rank-and-file and doesn’t reach the department as a whole. As a result, we can trust the people who run it to fix things: all they have to do is make a change to the curriculum that, we’re assured, will keep bad cops from doing immoral things. It’s neat, tidy, plays to our existing biases and we don’t have to actually do anything. What’s not to love?
Well, if you think about it, “better training” doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Basic morality – the kind that might lead a cop not to lose his head and brutalize someone over a triviality, or throw black kids against walls to meet quota – probably can’t be taught. And in that light, the fact that the police higher-ups who end up in charge of misconduct investigations seem to constantly recommend “better training” could be seen as a sign of bad faith.
To be sure, thanks to unions and LEOBORs, police administrators’ hands are often tied when it comes to taking disciplinary action. Even those who do decide to fire people may find their decisions overturned, the bad cops reinstated. But with a handful of notable exceptions, none are willing to admit it. Sadly, the normal course of action is for official people on official bodies to release official reports full of windy nothings. And “better training,” in lieu of honesty, is invariably front and center.
It’s also disheartening that we don’t rethink in the most extreme cases, the ones where we look at a police department like Chicago’s and are forced to conclude that whatever ails it is endemic. Instead of rejecting bad-apple theory, all we do is take it to the next level: instead of applying it to individual PDs, we use it on the greater law enforcement community.
It’s the favorite approach of the New York Times: when it thinks a local or state law enforcement institution is in need of fixin’, it appeals to the feds to save us. It, and altogether too many others, think of a visit from DoJ as a great way to correct a department gone rogue. Never mind that the feds themselves have more than their share of scandals, or that when they release a report, “better training” (and other platitudes, like hiring a more diverse police force) never fails to make an appearance. It seems we insist on casting the PDs in the role of bad rank-and-file cops and DoJ in the role of trustworthy administrator, and as a result, the pattern in our thinking repeats itself.
If the managers whose job is to oversee cops and keep them from violating people’s rights are failing to do so, that makes them part of the problem – no matter how desperately they want to be seen as contributing to the solution. That, in turn, argues for a larger problem with police culture: if police brass can’t or won’t crack down when their underlings run riot, the rot goes a lot further than just the rank-and-file.
But we seem singularly unwilling to accept that. It’s the only explanation for why the “better training” trope persists. And until we stop reposing blind faith in authority and believing they can clean up their own messes, they’re going to keep fobbing us off with empty promises.