Commentary

02.16.15

Why Cops Can’t Get Respect

By

SWAT Vehicle
Photo by Raymond Wambsgans through Flickr Creative Commons.

Memo to the police nationwide: You say you want respect, but you don’t seem to have even a hint of a clue on how to earn it. Here are some suggestions:

Show Respect and It Will Be Reciprocated

This starts with the mayor of your city. Don’t ever turn your back on him in anger when you’re in uniform. It’s insolent and uncomfortably close to mutiny. When you disrespect our elected representative, you also disrespect us. We elected him, not you. Arrogant, contemptuous behavior toward our chosen leader will not make us respect you.

Embrace Accountability

You spend your days helping to hold other people accountable, but remember, accountability, like respect, is a two-way street. You know when you have bad behavior by officers on your force. Stop protecting them. Admit when they make mistakes. Report all police shootings to the FBI. Start keeping accurate records of all those SWAT team raids—especially the botched ones. Stop opposing meaningful oversight by independent civilian review boards. We can’t respect you if you continue to scorn accountability.

Visit our Police Practices issue page for up-to-date news and resources.

Honor the Bill of Rights

Among other things, this means laying off the peaceful protesters, dialing down the stop-and-frisks and putting the brakes on no-knock search raids. Smashing through people’s front doors in the middle of the night without warning to execute routine search warrants for non-violent crimes does not make us respect you, especially when you get the wrong address, which happens more often than most people know. (See accountability above.) Our founding fathers started a revolution over less egregious law enforcement abuses than this; King George’s men at least had the decency to knock and announce themselves before entering colonists’ homes to search for contraband. And they didn’t use flash-bang grenades.

Avoid Conflicts of Interest

Civil asset forfeiture is one example. When you use assets seized from suspected wrongdoers to pay your own salaries and expenses, you make us doubt your motives. We would respect you much more, if you had the integrity not to appropriate seized assets for yourselves and relied solely on public funding.

Ditch the Military Hardware

Dressing like soldiers and riding around in armored vehicles is a great way to say, “Look at my big, swinging baton,” but it will earn you only fear and contempt, never respect. And when you point automatic weapons at unarmed peaceful protesters, as you did in Ferguson, you just make real soldiers roll their eyes in disgust.

Tell the Truth

We shouldn’t have to talk about this, but let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: there isn’t a lot of trust between you and the people you serve. A University of Minnesota confidential survey of judges and prosecutors revealed widespread perceptions that the police frequently lie and fabricate evidence. A shocking 92 percent of the judges surveyed said that the police even lie under oath in court at least some of the time. We want you to get the bad guys, but we also care how you do it. Do we really need to tell you what your any-means-justifies-the-end attitude does to your reputation?

Stow the Anger

We know your job is dangerous and we grieve for the families of officers killed in the line of duty. But when you rashly blame an elected official for the acts of a deranged killer, as you did in New York, you look like you are shamelessly exploiting these deaths to advance your own political agenda. And when you bluster and threaten to stop enforcing laws to protest reform measures you don’t like, well, you just look like you’re running a protection racket.

An angry cop has no place in a free country. Never forget that you are an armed agent of the state. You’re supposed to protect us from angry, armed bullies, not act like them. Once you’vebeen entrusted with that uniform, that badge and that gun, you don’t get to show anger—ever.

If you can wield the power given to you by the people with restraint and humility, if you can accept the dangers of your job with grace, if you can put the rights and lives of citizens before your own personal safety, then, and only then, will you deserve our respect.

Michael Uth is a member of the ACLU of Ohio Board of Directors.

This post was first published on the Ohio Daily Blog.

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