Otis From Jacksonville Nailed It
As cops shout about the “war on cops,” and activists try to debunk that any such war exists, we are missing the real point, which is that we are at the low-point of a cycle that repeats itself every ten to 15 years or so.
That problem is cynicism.
Right now, the media and activists are asking hard questions of law enforcement about the ways in which our communities are policed. These are unpleasant questions, about very tough issues, and sometimes they are over the top. Some of the questions are not phrased fairly, but that questions are being asked is not just fair, it’s a civic responsibility. The people have the responsibility to question their government.
At the same time, with media and activist pressure, cops feel both misunderstood and unappreciated by the communities they serve. When that happens, cops tend to get cynical. “Left unchecked, a brooding cynicism and its accompanying loss of faith in police work contributes to alienation, job dissatisfaction and corruption,” wrote law enforcement researcher Arthur Niederhoffer.
This is not a new problem. Niederhoffer wrote the words I quoted above in 1967Niederhoffer, A. 1967. Behind the shield: the police in urban society. New York: Doubleday. Lawrence Mulvey, the former commissioner of the Nassau County, New York, Police Department (and my co-author in In Context), wrote his master’s thesis on the topic of police cynicism - around 1980.
I think we’re back in the same place. And this week, while I was sitting in the studio in WJCT, taking part in a call-in show to discuss police killings, a man named Otis called in from Jacksonville. His comment floored me. Not because of the first part. And not because of the second part. And not even because of the third part. But because of all three parts, taken together, describe almost perfectly the whole problem:
(You can listen to Otis’ comment here)
“...I think a lot of times the shooting comes from a code of silence, where the policemen always never tell on each other, and they allow criminal acts to take place amongst themselves. Also, I think that the data is only good ... the input that you put in is only as good as the individual doing the typing. Because, they sit together and they get together and they’ll get their story together, and now you put in an incident and, ‘This is what occurred.’ But a lot of times, you look and cops are looking at each other and saying, ‘I got your back.’ And innocent people get killed. But I do think 90%, most of the policemen, are great guys.”
That, whether Otis knew it, describes America’s relationship with their police.
America believes the police only look out for one another, and will cover for one another and never act against each other. They believe this because it has happened, but I think mainly they believe this because it is a stock feature of every television program and film that has ever been made about police (to listen to my response to Otis, click here).
But the factual validity of this is irrelevant; it is a fact that people believe that this is true.
Otis also believed that the data was cooked - or more precisely, that my partners and I cooked the data. Because we are cops. Note that Otis doesn’t sound that upset about it, either - I urge you to listen to him - it was as if he was just stating a fact, like, if you swim too far out into the ocean, you may drown. Again, this isn’t something that he is particularly mad about, and I think that this is really because, despite all this, I think Otis generally supports police.
That brings me to the mesmerizing third thing that he said: that he believes that, “ninety percent, most of the policemen, are great guys.” And that is a fascinating finding, because in fact the data do support that conclusion. In The Washington Post, Peter Moskos and I discussed this last January:
Of the fatal shootings counted by The Post, the majority involved a suspect who had already fired shots, brandished a gun or attacked someone. Several occurred after other potentially dangerous threats. In other words, most shootings involved police acting correctly. Headlines tout the total number of those killed by police as if each is worrisome, but they could very well read, “Police thwart hundreds of potentially deadly attacks in 2015.”
The number the Washington Post came up with? Ninety percent.
In our book, Ed, Ben and I independently came up, out of 153 incidents, with ten (6.5%) that we believed were unjustified. After we went to press, new data in another case came in, and we all agreed that that case then looked unjustified as well - bringing our count to 11, or 7.18%. Ninety-three percent.
Ninety percent, nine-in-ten, is a pretty successful rate. Watch as former data-journalist Nate Silver, in a multi-thousand word apologia that he put forth as an apology for screwing up each and every prediction he made about Donald Trump’s chances in the primaries, justifies what he used to do for a living (data journalism) before he became a hack:
We could emphasize that track record; the methods of data journalism have been highly successful at forecasting elections. That includes quite a bit of success this year. The FiveThirtyEight “polls-only” model has correctly predicted the winner in 52 of 57 (91 percent) primaries and caucuses so far in 2016, and our related “polls-plus” model has gone 51-for-57 (89 percent). Furthermore, the forecasts have been well-calibrated, meaning that upsets have occurred about as often as they’re supposed to but not more often.
To Silver, his success (and frankly, it was incredibly successful, to the point that I could not believe he abandoned it for pure political hackery) was demonstrated by that magic average of ... wait for it ... ninety percent.
So look how unfair it was of me to use Nate Silver’s mistake with Donald Trump against him. I did it to demonstrate the point. In fact, I think Nate Silver is a good guy, dedicated to helping people better understand the world they live in, who in this case, made a mistake.
And it would be incredibly unfair to hold Mr. Silver to that, or to suggest that his flaws - and not his contributions - define his career. Cops put their lives on the line for their community in unseen ways each and every day. Ways that almost never make the paper or the nightly news. For example, consider this passage from our book in which we describe the case of Roberto Ornelas, an 18 year-old Hispanic Male who died in Key Largo, FL, on January 1, 2015.
At about 4:00 am, Roberto’s father, Guadalupe Ornelas, called 911 because Roberto was exhibiting “wild, bizarre, behavior” and throwing things around their home. Two Monroe County Sheriff’s deputies found Roberto was in his bedroom with the door locked. Deputies reported he was breaking objects and screaming incoherently.
The deputies forced their way into the bedroom and found Roberto “sweating profusely” on the floor and punching the wall. When the deputies got his attention, he stood up. Deputy Bryan Cross reported that Roberto was “staring right through them” with a wide-eyed blank expression, and was foaming from his nose and mouth. The deputies saw blood on the floor and walls.
Deputy Garcia grabbed Roberto by the arm, but Roberto broke free. Roberto spit in Deputy Cross’s face, and lunged at him. Deputy Cross fired his TASER, hitting Roberto in the torso. Roberto stood up and began spitting at officers again. Roberto was TASERED a second time, handcuffed, and hobbled.
Roberto was transported to Homestead Hospital where his condition continued to worsen. Roberto was taken off of breathing machines on January.
Roberto’s sister told investigators that her brother may have taken LSD for the first time on the night the police were called to his home. Roberto had previously been arrested by Monroe Sheriff’s narcotics deputies on a felony charge for intent-to-sell. Toxicology showed no drugs in Roberto’s system, but the Medical Examiner ruled his death a result of “delayed complications of acute drug toxicity.”
Here’s Ben Singleton’s analysis of this incident:
The deputies were confronted with a young man exhibiting erratic, destructive, and violent behavior, who was foaming at the mouth and covered with blood. Once the door to Roberto’s bedroom was slightly opened, Roberto was seen on the floor punching the wall repeatedly. There are so many new and synthetic illicit drugs on the market, that traditional tests often don’t detect them. Roberto’s behavior and drug test results are consistent with a synthetic drug like flakka or bath salts.
This situation presented a number of risks to officers. Although not commonly a part of public discussion, the risk of an officer contracting blood-borne diseases such as HIV or hepatitis is very high. Medical personnel dealing with this subject would not be permitted to treat him without protective gloves, and possibly facemasks. Despite this, Deputy Garcia attempted to get Roberto to comply by grabbing his arm. Roberto spit in Deputy Cross’s face, further exposing the deputy to bodily fluids, and limiting his ability to see and defend himself. Then Roberto lunged at him.
This is almost a textbook example of why the TASER was created. It is my belief that no other force option available to the deputies at the time would have ended the violence safely. Deputy Cross deployed his TASER in an effort to end the violence and the risks posed to those present, a reasonable decision.
This was classified, correctly, as an “officer-involved death,” but please do tell me whether you agree with Ben’s analysis. Have you ever considered the danger inherent in confronting a man like Roberto? Most policing involves small, and heroic acts like that every day, acts that demonstrate officers’ commitment to their community. In my opinion, the officers responding to Roberto’s case were clearly justified in their use of force use by officers, who attempted non-deadly force multiple times, even though they may well have reasonably feared for their lives. That Roberto died was tragic, but the officers didn’t shoot Roberto. In fact they used force that is correctly classified as “non-deadly”.
That the officers are included in lists of cops who killed civilians last year is the human condition that cops deal with: they feel misunderstood by the people they serve. As I expressed to journalist David J. Krajicek in a recent interview, as a police officer, “I will never not come running when someone calls for help, but cynicism very may well make me less likely, in [FBI Director James B. Comey]’s words, to get out of my car at 2 am for a proactive look at a situation if all I ever get for my troubles is accusations of misconduct.”
That is an important dynamic, and like most, to try and sum it up with a phrase like, “Viral video effect,” or “Ferguson Effect,” is a terrible injustice. These are very complex human emotions. They are not made for sound-bites. They are not marketing. Is there a “war on cops?” The data I look at tells me that there isn’t - but as I gave the benefit of the doubt above to civilians, I ask you to extend it here to police, for whom the feeling that there is a war on cops is real.
Maybe this explains why I get mad at a reporter, who grabs a single statistic and runs a headline that the statistic is “proof” that a war on cops is false. To the cops, the war on cops isn’t false any more than it is false that African Americans who sense that they are being discriminated against are telling the truth. People feel things. To try and ameliorate feelings with bad statistics from the FBI isn’t journalism.
It’s just a waste of time.