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 10 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 and downright insulting. But the bottom line is this: 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 1967. (Niederhoffer, A. 1967. Behind the Shield: The Police in Urban Society. New York: Doubleday.)
Lawrence Mulvey, the former commissioner of the Nassau County, N.Y., 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:
“…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.”
[You can listen to Otis’ comment here.]
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, in part, 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, “90%, 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? 90%.
In our book, Ed, Ben and I independently came up with, out of 153 incidents, 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%. So 93% of the shoots in our estimations were justifed.
90%, 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 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 … 90%.
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. But it would be unfair to define Silver by his few mistakes.
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. 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 a.m. 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.