Police Above the Law?

Agitator guest blogger Jim Bovard draws attention to a rather disturbing story from last week in the Washington Post that got very little attention. Indeed, the story was buried on page B07, indicating that the editors figured this had relatively little news value:

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier put out fliers yesterday warning officers in town for National Police Week that they must obey city laws covering disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and other “unacceptable behavior.”

Lanier ordered the fliers distributed around downtown in hopes of curbing complaints about officers drinking in public, playing loud music and causing other trouble. Several D.C. residents contacted officials in recent days with complaints about rowdy and profane conduct.

[…]

[T]he complaints this year do not rival those generated in other years. In the mid-1990s, for example, some New York City officers held loud, drunken parties at Washington area hotels — mooning guests, groping women and damaging property. Other incidents have ended with prosecutions: A Boston police officer was convicted in 1996 of making threats during a disturbance at a Georgetown restaurant, and a New York officer pleaded guilty to a 2003 sexual assault of a police cadet in a hotel room.

When thousands of people gather, even for somber events such as this one, there are invariably going to be a few incidents. The response, though, seems to be something other than chagrin that a few bad apples are making fine professionals look bad:

Several visiting officers said they were offended that Lanier was posting signs ordering them to behave.

“Is this because the attention is on us, or is this a way of saying the chief doesn’t want us here?” said retired New York officer Mike Dufan. “We’re here year after year to honor the fallen dead. Do we have a few cocktails? Yes, we do. I could say the same about congressmen and senators, but there isn’t a big stink about them.”

Bovard recounts his personal observations of bad conduct by the officers at the above post and at his own site.

Many of the cops were bicycling around to draw attention to their campaign for a memorial to cops killed on duty. I was cycling around downtown on Saturday, May 12. Not only were they running red lights en masse, but they would surge out into busy streets and hold their hands up as if every driver was obliged to slam on the brakes (despite the green light) – and let royalty proceed.

Again, I’m sure that these incidents do not accurately represent the group as a whole. Still, it’s frankly embarrassing that police officers, let alone officers gathered to memorialize their comrades who died in the line of duty, would have to be singled out for reminders that the law applies to them. Then again, the cops on “Cops” and similar shows act like thugs knowing that they are on camera for a national television audience.

I often get the sense that many police officers have a sense of entitlement and feel themselves above the mundane laws that apply to you and me. For example, police cars routinely blow past me on the road, going well past the posted limit, even though they don’t have emergency signals on. And, certainly, the days of police officers addressing mere taxpaying citizens as “Sir” and “M’am” are long gone.

Police provide, at considerable danger to themselves, a “thin blue line” of protection that allows the public to go on with our daily lives with a greater sense of security. For that, they deserve our thanks. At the same time, they are public servants, not overlords. A police force can not do its job very effectively without the trust and active cooperation of the citizenry. Yet, too many law abiding citizens fear and even dislike police officers.

Something is very wrong with that picture.

FILED UNDER: General, Law and the Courts, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael says:

    Police Above the Law?

    Many of the cops were bicycling around… Not only were they running red lights en masse, but they would surge out into busy streets and hold their hands up as if every driver was obliged to slam on the brakes (despite the green light) – and let royalty proceed.

    OMG, it’s just like Orwell predicted, police on bicycles ignoring the law! I no longer feel safe.

    And, certainly, the days of police officers addressing mere taxpaying citizens as “Sir” and “M’am” are long gone.

    Last time I got a traffic ticket, I was addressed as “sir”, even though I was barely old enough to vote. Maybe it’s because I’m in the south?

  2. James Joyner says:

    police on bicycles ignoring the law! I no longer feel safe

    I suspect most of the motorists who had to slam the breaks to avoid hitting these jerks were less than thrilled. To the extent that they were identifiable as police officers, it creates resentment. A police force resented by its public is less likely to get its active cooperation. That makes you less safe, whether you feel it or not.

  3. Boyd says:

    Watch “Cops” much, Doc? I’m combing through my (admittedly lousy) memory for an episode that displayed thuggish police behavior, and can’t come up with one.

    Yeah, they can get pretty rough with folks, but as best I can recall, it’s only after the “suspect” has given them good cause. Well, they can shout a lot when they’re telling someone to get on the ground and such, and sometimes in the heat of the moment they give confusing or contradictory direction, but I wouldn’t describe their behavior as “thuggish.”

  4. Anderson says:

    I think Steve Verdon’s had a few comment threads that we could just cut & paste here.

  5. Steve Verdon says:

    Yeah, they can get pretty rough with folks, but as best I can recall, it’s only after the “suspect” has given them good cause.

    Right, like Kathryn Johntson who was murdered by the police? Or the air force MP who was shot by a San Bernardino sheriff’s deputy while doing precisely what that deputy was ordering him to do? We’ll skip any of the hundreds wrong door raids that Balko has dug up?

    When the populace start seeing the police as something to be distrusted, that is a bad thing for society. When the cops start to see themselves as seperate from the society they are protecting, that is a bad thing. When cops start to look like a paramilitary force, that is a bad thing.

  6. Boyd says:

    Sorry, Steve, I guess I wasn’t clear enough in saying I was talking about James’s accusation of thuggish behavior on “Cops,” not in general. “Cops” was my only point.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Boyd,

    I must confess not to watch “Cops” on a regular basis and that most of the episodes I’ve seen have been snippets that I’ve caught for one reason or another. Still, most of the officers I’ve seen on there are belligerent, unprofessional, bullies who seem to be escalating the stress of the situation.

    Mostly, the perps are not hardened criminals drunken yahoos with sub-room-temperature IQs. But rather than trying to cool down the situation, they go into Respect My Authoritay mode and back people into a corner, inciting stress reactions.

  8. Boyd says:

    I’ll have to watch with a bit more critical eye next time I watch it, then. I don’t get that impression from the episodes I’ve seen, but I haven’t watched it with that idea in mind.

    I guess watching “Cops” is my guilty pleasure, supplanting The Jerry Springer Show or maybe Geraldo’s old talk show. Gak!

  9. More of Scalia’s “new professionalism” at work!

  10. jim says:

    Not sure what is happening around my part of the south but every officer now thinks he/she is some kind of big city SWAT. Lots of hardware, buzz cuts, boots and a pseudo military attitude/swagger. Also there are increasing run-ins with regular people—traffic accidents while speeding and no lights or sirens—that sort of thing.

  11. Steve Verdon says:

    More of Scalia’s “new professionalism” at work!

    Yep.

  12. Anjin-San says:

    I am curious. If OTB is dedicated to the rule of law, when will we hear a call for Gonzales to resign/be fired?

  13. spacemonkey says:

    When cops are outlaws, only outlaws will be cops.

  14. Michael says:

    I am curious. If OTB is dedicated to the rule of law, when will we hear a call for Gonzales to resign/be fired?

    I think it’s already been done.

  15. Anjin-San says:

    Michael,

    If it has, I missed it…

  16. James Joyner says:

    There was this.

  17. Alan Kellogg says:

    The current situation vis a vis cops in this country is the product of two trends. That we refuse to hold misbehaving police officers accountable for one. The fact our educational establishment refuses to teach self responsibility for another.

    Once we taught our kids they were responsible for their actions. Now we teach them to rationalize what they do. Once our police academies taught cadets that they had an image to uphold and that how they behaved reflected on them and their fellow officers. Now they teach their students that they are the sole line against barbarism and old night, and that civilians are either sheep to be controlled, or wolves to be destroyed.

    The situation is not going to change until we take a stand and show our protectors that we are capable of protecting ourselves.