Did anyone else love watching COPS growing up? It was one of my favorite shows and I’d often find myself binging on it before “binging” on television was a thing with the advent of Netflix. At the time — we’re talking my childhood in the 1990s — I was obsessed with Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman featuring the boulder-like physique of Dean Cain and the subtlety beautiful Teri Hatcher and professional wrestling, WWF, as it was known at the time, now WWE, for one reason: Superheroes. In Superman’s case, he was a superhero. In wrestling’s case, it was these larger-than-life characters that came through the screen and grabbed my attention.
And that’s what attracted me to COPS; they, too, were the superheroes in blue. Get this: They were real people at that! They were so cool and bad-ass and running to the danger. My favorite was when they got into a foot chase with the bad guy and had to tackle him (I still enjoy this trope on police procedurals today). Plus, with the camera right there, we got to see them as real people with real lives and real families and real friends. Still, they put themselves in dangerous situations. Another show would grab my attention once I was older on Netflix about rookie cops breaking into the system and learning the trade. It was called Rookies and it was another angle of policing I loved. Idealistic young girls and guys wanting to become cops, to protect and serve and do the right thing.
I still recall, one rookie answered a domestic violence call and without backup, which he was told not to do. But he’s a rookie, mistakes are going to happen. Unfortunately, this mistake cost him his life and it was a sad moment.
Because of COPS, I often thought about getting into policing. To use that word again, it just seemed so damn cool. I wanted to help people and being a kid, I had fantasies of being the hero. Sure, I never gave it serious consideration because guns terrify me and I’m not much of a people-to-people person, plus I’m lanky and puny. Okay, jeez.
Anyhow, my point is, I respect the fuck out of what cops do and grew up idealizing what they did.
The above linked video is an episode of cops that’s just riveting and pulled right out of a show like The Mentalist. A wife decides she wants to kill her husband. Her motive is never made clear in the episode, but she meets with what she believes is an assassin, but of course, it’s an undercover police officer. He gives her plenty of opportunities to back out, but nope, she’s adamant about having her husband killed. When she leaves for the gym in the morning, she will leave the door open and that’s when this “assassin” will slip in and do the deed.
That dumbass. The police instead decide to obviously inform the husband of what she wanted to do. They take him down to the police station for protection and because, and this is the brilliant part, they’re going to set up a fake crime scene to fool the wife into thinking it had actually happened. Once she learns of his “death,” she breaks out into some well-rehearsed tears and hysterics. Then they eventually pull the rug out from under her and it’s goddamn glorious.
Now it’s that episode that spawned my post here and reminded me of my infatuation with COPS. Officers formulating a plan with only the experience and foresight that they have, protecting people, and catching the bad guy.
However, I’ve spent much of my adult life with writing about political and social issues highlighting the abuses within police departments throughout the United States and particularly fucked up cases of police abuse. Whenever I do this, though, I am typically and not surprisingly, met with, “You must hate cops. Why do you hate cops so much? They’re risking their lives and it’s not right to judge all officers by a few bad apples. There’s bad apples in every profession.”
Well, goddammit, I got enough coffee going now to address this oft-played criticism against me. Because it’s terribly, terribly wrong. I do not, have never and will never “hate cops.” On the other hand, I do “hate” two things: 1.) The system and 2.) Those that de facto defend the system because they think they’re defending the integrity of cops and see cops as beyond reproach. I don’t hate them, but I view them as misguided. Well-intentioned, no doubt, but misguided. There should be no such thing as sacred cows in our society. Everything should be handled with healthy skepticism and transparency. And especially when we’re discussing authority figures — those that have power and gain that power because the public entrusts them with it. It’s not just cops; it’s politicians, teachers, members of the military, and so on. As citizens, it is our responsibility when we entrust someone with power to watch them and hold them accountable when they use that power that goes against our trust.
We’re doing nobody any favors when we scold those trying to minimize the damage down by errant power abuse. Do some people go over the top? Fuck yeah, they do. There are those in the libertarian circles and I’m sure other circles, that favor outright killing cops because they don’t like cops. Or otherwise antagonizing them. They would just as soon applaud Chris Dorner in California when he went on a cop-killing spree. That’s abhorrently wrong. I do not and will never condone violence against anyone (outside of self-defense), including police officers.
But those, like Radley Balko with The Washington Post or Connor Friedersdorf with The Atlantic, the serious journalists doing serious, incredible work on this, they do not deserve to have their professional work lumped in with violence-advocates and the empty, strawman “you just hate cops.”
There are clear, identifiable problems in police departments throughout the United States that make it a systematic problem and not a “bad apple” problem (and the criminal justice system at large, but let’s keep our focus sharp here):
1.) Since the 1980s, police departments have not only been gaining SWAT teams, not only increasing their frequency and violence (like with no-knock raids wherein they do not serve the search warrant, it’s literally the namesake), but utilizing them predominantly on low-level offenses that go against the initial reason for SWAT teams. Such a growth in SWAT teams and the use of them on low-level offenses has created a psychological “us vs. them” mentality among police officers that has eroded the protect and serve mantra and made “officer safety” the most predominant concern. Even though, as Balko points out, officers are safer today than they’ve been in decades. All of which leads to “shoot first” and tragic situations.
On top of that, especially since 9/11 and the wind-down of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Pentagon through a program called the 1033 program, funneled military-grade weaponry to local police departments. We’re talking armored vehicles, night-vision goggles, planes and helicopters, machine guns, and a shitload of ammunition. Again, all of which creates this “us vs. them” mentality, especially when the police start looking like military personnel instead of our “protect and serve” officers in blue.
And some of this occurs in the smallest of towns where a mine-busting tank seems ludicrous, especially when there hasn’t been a single homicide in years. “Just in case,” is not sufficient justification for this military-grade weaponry.
From the Times:
During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.
Fortunately, a great organization like the American Civil Liberties Union just issued a report on this matter. From Balko:
- 62 percent of the SWAT raids surveyed were to conduct searches for drugs.
- Just under 80 percent were to serve a search warrant, meaning eight in 10 SWAT raids were not initiated to apprehend a school shooter, hostage taker, or escaped felon (the common justification for these tactics), but to investigate someone still only suspected of committing a crime.
- In fact, just 7 percent of SWAT raids were “for hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.”
- In at least 36 percent of the SWAT raids studies, no contraband of any kind was found. The report notes that due to incomplete police reports on these raids this figure could be as high as 65 percent.
- SWAT tactics are disproportionately used on people of color.
- 65 percent of SWAT deployments resulted in some sort of forced entry into a private home, by way of a battering ram, boot, or some sort of explosive device. In over half those raids, the police failed to find any sort of weapon, the presence of which was cited as the reason for the violent tactics.
- Ironically (or perhaps not), searches to serve warrants on people suspected of drug crimes were more likely to result in forced entry than raids conducted for other purposes.
- Though often justified for rare incidents like school shootings or terrorist situations, the armored personnel vehicles police departments are getting from the Pentagon and through grants from the Department of Homeland Security are commonly used on drug raids.
2.) There is very, very little training in how to deal with mentally ill individuals and animals, particularly dogs. There are far too many cases where officers kill a mentally ill individual for not complying with orders or a dog, just because, for it to be a “bad apple” problem.
3.) There is no proper oversight of any of these situations, which makes it even worse and perpetuates it. Officers rarely ever get fired for misconduct and even more rare do they see the inside of a prison for wrongdoing. Mostly this is because cops have a code of silence to protect their own and because again, citizens defer to them the benefit of the doubt. Nobody should get the benefit of the doubt when they hold power.
Remember Kelly Thomas? This is what the police did to him:
He obviously died from his injuries. And nothing happened to the officers because jurors defer to authority. That’s injustice staring you in the face in its ugliest form. And this is not a one-off case, although the severity is pretty extraordinary.
4.) The racial element. As highlighted above, SWAT tactics are disproportionately used on people of color. The “stop and frisk” program in New York predominately targeted people of color. We cannot ignore those findings.
But still, if folks like Balko or Friedersdorf or myself (and please read carefully, I am not at all comparing myself to them), bring these issues up,we’re labeled as cop haters. Worse yet, we’re accused of being biased and not objective because we predominately talk about police abuse instead of, say, pointing out when good officers do good things. For one, let’s clarify: Balko has a feature where he points out when cops are doing the right thing and I will Tweet or share a story of an officer doing a good deed (for instance, I shared one recently out of Texas where they bought a family groceries, cool shit). So yes, it’s nice to remind people every now and then, that there are good cops doing good things.
However, when there are corrosive elements in the “system” creating problem after problem, again, I see it as our duty as citizens and journalists to focus on that and highlight it and talk about and of course, try to fix it. Not hide behind “you hate cops.” Because that’s not going to get us anywhere.
And certainly, I think it has come time for those that keep saying “it’s just some bad apples” to prove their Bad Apple Theory because it seems clear with the evidence from the ACLU to the Times to Balko’s work and so on, that it’s not “bad apples,” but a bad “tree.” It’s time for an honest, serious conversation about this, but it won’t happen if people can’t get beyond that viewpoint that they must defend cops against cop haters. It’s a strawman. Let’s deal with the real issue. Let’s talk about COPS.
Does this look like “protecting and serving” with the professionalism and sensitivity that was shown in the above episode of COPS? From the ACLU:
There’s quite a few parts, but that one gets the point across: That family was terrorized and traumatized. Would you want officers decked out in military-grade weaponry and uniforms storming your house in the middle of the night, screaming obscenities at you, pointing those machine guns at your children and shooting your pet dog? That shit happens. SWAT raids happen 100 times Every. Single. Day.