Police Shouldn’t Be Anonymous
Cops aren't soldiers or spies but fellow citizens.
Former CIA counterterrorism officer and current Savannah police detective Patrick Skinner has some strong views on what’s happening in the streets of America’s cities.
My name is Patrick Skinner, and I’m a local police officer. I love that I can say that. For me, one of the best things about being a local police officer is the openness of the job. On patrol my name is on my uniform; as a detective my name is on my business cards. Either way, it’s always on my tongue: I introduce myself to literally every single neighbor I meet while on duty. By definition and design my work is in public as I work with the public. There is nothing anonymous or unidentifiable in my work. My authority comes from my neighbors, and my ability to do my job comes in part from my neighbors knowing who I am.
My name is Patrick Skinner, and I’m a former CIA operations officer. I love that I can say that now, but at one time I could not say that. Overseas my name sometimes wasn’t even my name; at home my name was my own, but my work was hidden. Either way, the cover story was always on my tongue. My work was clandestine and covert. Even my workplace, my employer, was secret. By definition and design, my work was not in public. There was nothing identifiable or attributable in my work. My authority came from presidential findings and national security laws, and my ability to do my job came in part from my neighbors not knowing who I was.
There are many and major issues surrounding police work in America, all of which need serious discussion and commitment and action to address. I write now about only one, and I write with some urgency. That is the notion that law enforcement — local, state or federal — not just can but should engage with the public in anonymous fashion during times of emergency or crisis. This is happening now in Portland, Ore., with federal law enforcement and often happens with local police across the country during protests. Everything I have done, experienced and learned from all my roles shows me not only that this is the wrong path to address our challenges, it is also the path that led us to this crisis in the first place.
The federal response to these local challenges is not just making matters worse, it’s making the protesters’ point. That point is that law enforcement has become far too militarized in their equipment and mind-set and sometimes unaccountable and even anonymous in their operations and consequences. A persistent concern by so many communities is their belief — with justification — that their local police departments are relatively unaccountable for their mistakes, misdeeds and even crimes while they themselves are hammered by those police for their own mistakes, misdeeds and crimes.
So it is no accident that the federal law enforcement officers sent to Portland were essentially anonymous to the locals and therefore unaccountable to the locals. Since 9/11, even the most anodyne of federal law enforcement agencies have bulked up their roles and their costumes in the theater of counterterrorism. The militarization of local police is finally getting the broad scrutiny it deserves, but the trend of equipping and training for asymmetric war against an ever-elastic list of “terrorists” is even worse under the sprawling umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, whose agencies include the Federal Bureau of Prisons; Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and Customs and Borders Protection, all of which do important work, none of which should be countering protests and demonstrations on American streets.
These federal agencies apparently believe that the public identifying their officers, of knowing who they are, would present an unacceptable risk to those officers. The risk to the public and the very idea of accountability to the public evidently was dismissed. Protesters and city officials alike were not soothed by reassurances from federal officials that there were “unique identifiers” for the federal officers that only their agencies would know. Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, put out a statement defending his officers’ anonymity, saying on Twitter, “You will not see names on their uniforms b/c these same violent criminals use this information to target them & their families, putting both at risk. As Acting Commissioner, I will not let that happen!”
The exquisite paradox — of protesters demonstrating against being treated as enemy combatants by their local police departments, only to be met with federal forces doing the same thing but with better equipment and zero local accountability — is wrongheaded and unjust all around. Law enforcement knows the power of a name, the power of identity, the power of accountability. It insists on all three of those things from the public in almost every interaction. Yet during a time where identity and accountability are needed most — at the time of most tension — law enforcement says it will provide neither.
Unaccountability metastasizes under cover of anonymity, and it is a blight to policing in America. I say this as the police officer I am, living where I work in Savannah, Ga., and the covert CIA officer I was, working overseas. I understand the needs of both jobs and reject the notion that anonymity and secrecy — or the militarized environment in which they operate — play a role in public police work. There are of course reasons a specific police officer engaged in undercover work needs her or his identity shielded, but for police work done in public against the public, visibility and accountability are required. This applies to federal law enforcement as well, especially since in Portland it was those units that were in many ways the outside agitators. They were acting under vastly expanded interpretations of federal authority and responsibilities, over the pointed objections of local and state officials.
My name is Patrick Skinner, and I love that my neighbors can say that. My neighbors are the best thing about my job as a police officer. I am accountable to them precisely because they know who I am. I am not afraid of them. I am not afraid of them knowing who I am. I would be terrified if it were normal that they didn’t.
This is really well said.
Skinner has been a voice of professionalism and community-based policing on Twitter for a while now. He was the subject of an uplifting New Yorker profile back in April of 2018 and wrote another WaPo column last month titled “I’m a cop. I won’t fight a ‘war’ on crime the way I fought the war on terror.” Both are worth the read.
Skinner is the model of what we’d want cops to be, combining intelligence, humility, and compassion. High rightly eschews the notion that the people he meets on the beat, including those involved in disturbances to which he’s dispatched, are the enemy. Instead, he sees them as fellow members of the community.
As much as I’ve written about the evils of militarized policing (an attitude I got from my father, who spent years in policing in the military), I’ve done it as succinctly as this:
At this moment of maximal national tension and outrage, when national leaders are calling the streets of America a “battlespace,” with police officers as warriors who should “dominate” and give “no quarter,” I am telling whoever will listen: Police are not warriors — because we are not and must not be at war with our neighbors.
For decades, the United States has funded and created police departments that resemble occupying military forces, unable to protect and serve. We armed ourselves literally and spiritually for a war on crime, and to quote Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, “And the war came.” What we now see deployed in many cities and towns is anti-policing. It’s the death of true community police work and, too often, the death of our neighbors. The well-documented militarization of American police departments has inevitably produced officers who see themselves and their roles as “warriors” or “punishers” or “sheepdogs.” Much of what our society finds so distressing and unacceptable in police interactions with their neighbors — disrespect, anger, frustration and violence — is not a result of “flawed” training; it’s a result of training for war.
Sadly, it’s almost certainly going to get much worse before it, hopefully, gets better.