One morning, on the A train from Far Rockaway to Manhattan, a young — perhaps rookie — cop walked through the cars. It was the late 1960s, a time of great hopes and great upheaval — a portent of times to come.
The cop had a fat paperback sticking out of his back pocket. With a bit of contortion, one could make out the title: The Problem of Crime in a Free Society.
We can only imagine how experience has affected him over the years. But today’s police departments walk an even more precarious tightrope. And sometimes, the tightrope is electrified.
In April 1968, nine people were killed by Chicago police in riots following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After Chicago Mayor Richard Daley read the Chicago Sun-Times report about the deaths — two of them allegedly innocent bystanders — he said, “I have conferred with the superintendent of police this morning and I gave him the following instructions … to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand in Chicago, because they’re potential murderers, and to issue a police order to shoot to maim or cripple any arsonists and looters …”
That August, outside the Democratic National Convention, 10,000 anti-war demonstrators, chanting “The whole world is watching,” faced off against 23,000 Chicago police and National Guardsmen. Mayor Daley was determined that the outsiders wouldn’t take over the convention or the city. His orders were issued to the beat of clubs on long hair.
But was the whole world watching? John Callaway reported little-remembered facts, in the Chicago Sun-Times in November 1999:
“In the midst of all the violence and chaos, no one was killed.” And “Most Americans approved of how Daley and his police handled the demonstrations, not to mention Chicagoans who returned him to office by a landslide in the next election.”
The intervening decades have changed everything, from how we receive and process information to how leaders and law enforcement are held accountable. Today, the world really is watching. Everyone with a smartphone is a reporter. The internet, body cameras and activist agitation have created an atmosphere where the tables have turned. Today, the authorities have less and less authority.
What would that young cop on the A train say about how the police handled rioting in Ferguson, Missouri? How do you balance the need to protect a community with the need to recognize the rights of suspected or actual lawbreakers?
How much force is too much force? So much of what we perceive of as force is more packaging than product. In the age of instant media, it’s all in how it plays online.
A case in point is the “militarization” of police departments. When does equipment stop being police-level and become military-level? Does it depend on the size of the gun or the vehicle?
Col. Jon Belmar, Chief of Police of St. Louis County, Missouri, has defended the armored trucks and military-style equipment used by police in last month’s unrest in Ferguson, maintaining that they helped keep civilians and law enforcement officers safe.
Belmar told USA Today, “Had we not had the ability to protect officers with those vehicles, I am afraid that we would have to engage people with our own gunfire. I really think having the armor gave us the ability not to have pulled one trigger … I think the military uses armor to be able to provide an offensive force, and police departments use trucks like that so they don’t have to.”
This is a far cry from the belligerence of Mayor Daley.
And the police today are facing a far different kind of opponent. This is not about officer Darren Wilson shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson. This is about the new reality — especially since 9/11 — of a nation at risk.
It is no longer enough for a police officer to speak softly and carry a big baton. Officers should learn to speak softly, but they need more firepower.
As Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said, “When there is a Virginia Tech, when there is a Beltway sniper, when there is a Mumbai, the first responders are going to be American police and they need to know what they are doing with that stuff. That is going to remain a tension in this business that’s not easily solved by knee-jerk responses to terms like militarization.”
Part of the answer, as New York Mayor de Blasio and Police Chief William Bratton have begun to implement, is a reeducation of the police. Racial profiling is illegal. But it happens all the time — official or unofficial. A black man in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong hour gets treated as a suspect. Racism is alive and unwell. And the disease has to be cured.
But that cure won’t come through reducing the effectiveness of the police in an emergency. And there are always emergencies in the city that never sleeps.
Just ask that transit cop with the book. Yes, crime in a free society is a huge challenge. And we have to meet that challenge — not allow handwringing media to hand victory to the forces of crime and terror.