Why are cops increasingly hostile towards people?

I've had an interest in police culture and practices for a long time. I haven't run into a huge amount of officers in my life, but I have seen some really good ones and some really bad ones. I'm just interested in what motivates them, I guess - it seems like most cops are bored most of the time.

And as I learn more, a trend towards belligerent behavior seems to emerge. It angers me for the obvious reasons, but the truly helpful and respectful cops stick out in my head and lead me to ask, "Why is this happening?" Many people have been collecting the evidence for this trend and asking the same question (Radley Balko's blog is excellent in this area). I've heard a lot of answers: some blame the drug war, others blame the influx of military into law enforcement ranks, and still others blame it all on standard-issue government evilness. But I found another, more direct and provable answer in an article at PoliceLink.com entitled Street Survival Insights: Behavior Traits that get Cops Killed; Long Known, Still Ignored.

The long and short of it is that a study was done fifteen years ago and, while the conclusions were speculative and hard to prove, five traits of behavior likely to get cops killed were dreamed up arrived at. Of these five behavior traits, the very first three have directly to do with friendliness, openness, and generally acting like a human being among equals:

  1. Friendly.

    This adjective was frequently used to describe the murdered officers, along with "well-liked," "laid back," and "easy going." While a friendly demeanor "does much to promote a positive image for the officer and the department, overly friendly behavior at an inappropriate time" can backfire, the researchers warn...

  2. Service-oriented.

    "Tends to perceive self as more public relations than law enforcement," the researchers said of the prototypical slain officer. Of course service is part of your job. But on the street, your "customer" is not always right. To protect and serve the community, the researchers remind, "officers must realize that they need to protect themselves first" and not indulge a "misguided sense of service" that results in "placing prisoners' comfort over their own personal safety." In policing, your success-and your safety-often depend on your ability to get people to do what they don't want to do.

  3. Hesitant about using force.

    Victim officers tended "to use less force than other officers felt they would use in similar circumstances," the researchers found. And they customarily "used force only as a last resort;" their peers said they themselves "would use force at an earlier point in similar circumstances." Courts have clearly confirmed that it's justifiable in situations you reasonably perceive as threatening to employ even pre-emptive force to stop a threat; you don't have to wait until you are assaulted or injured. Yet some trainers are noticing that some officers today seem so hesitant about using force that it appears they are more afraid of being sued or thought overzealous than they are of being murdered!

If you're wondering why the relationship between community and police has been eroding so consistently for so long, you need only read that article. Law enforcement professionals have been told for fifteen years that several of the core behaviors that comprise civil society are likely to get them killed. We should not be surprised that they are not friendly, respectful, genuine, or judicious. The attitudes that embolden officers to embrace militarization, treat the community like occupied territory, and abuse their privileges are the result of some vague conclusions of research conducted by the FBI - not exactly the paragons of community-level law enforcement.

But one of the sad answers to my question.

Read this article
Written on Monday, February 04, 2008