Last January, I wrote a piece here on the Pipeline called “When the Sheepdogs Become the Sheep.” In that piece I lamented the ongoing transformation of America’s police officers from crime fighters to Covid code enforcers. Alas, ten months later, that transformation is coming nearer to completion.
There is a growing chasm among two distinct groups of police officers: those who genuinely invest themselves in the fight against crime, whether as a patrol cop or a detective, and those who seek to promote up the ranks to the higher levels in their departments. A Venn diagram of these groups would show a miniscule intersection of the two circles, and recent events will have that intersection grow smaller still.
Among the cops actually engaged in police work, political considerations have no role in their decisions on whom to stop, detain, or arrest. This is not to say every law violator who comes to a police officer’s notice should be arrested and hauled into court. Every good cop knows the value of discretion. Sometimes there are more serious problems that demand his time, or there may be dividends paid in the future when someone is given a pass for some minor violation.
But the cop interested in promotion sees things differently. He conducts himself so as to please his superiors, who like himself in most cases have their eyes on achieving the next rank. Sad to say, but the interests of those superiors are not necessarily aligned with those of the citizens in the areas they serve. In most American cities, the typical commanding officer of a police station has but one short-term daily goal: to keep his phone from ringing.
This is of course in the service of his long-term goal, which is to promote to the next rank. To those unfamiliar with the inner workings of a police department this may seem strange. Surely, you might assume, promotions are achieved through the reduction of crime in one’s area of responsibility. This is not always the case. More often, promotions are won by minimizing problems for the people on the tiers above your own, i.e., by making sure their phones do not ring.
In any police department there is a stratification, a bright line—it’s usually at the rank of sergeant or lieutenant—at which most cops below it are in the first group and most above it are in the second. The higher one goes in the department, the more removed one gets from the grime and tumult of actual police work.
Today, every police executive lives day and night in utter dread of that one phone call, the one that informs him a subordinate has been involved in an incident that soon will be blasted across television news programs and social media, bringing protesters and even rioters to the steps of police headquarters, city hall, and points beyond. It is these incidents that must be avoided, even if at the cost of rising crime.
If you doubt this, consider the city of Minneapolis, on which the nation’s attention was focused following the death of George Floyd in May 2020. Floyd’s death caused panic and consternation throughout the city’s government, with politicians and cops at the higher ranks ever so desperately seeking ways to avoid sharing blame for it.
Since former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted for killing Floyd, what news has the typical American heard out of Minneapolis? None. The 16 percent increase in homicides over last year, the 26 percent increase in shooting injuries, the 5 percent increase in robberies, none of these grim statistics has gripped the national attention in a way even close to the way the death of a drug-addicted career criminal did. More death and bloodshed? More robberies? Blame it all on the pandemic; it’s nothing to worry about as long as the satellite trucks aren’t parked in front of police headquarters and the reporters aren’t out there stirring up the rabble.
America’s police officers are getting the message, and in most large cities proactive police work is a thing of the past. Yes, the police are still responding to radio calls. They’re still willing to put up the crime-scene tape and collect the shell casings at a murder scene while waiting for the coroner to haul the body away, and if they figure out who did the killing, they’re happy to arrest him as long as he doesn’t run or fight or do anything else that will make them look bad on Twitter. But when it comes to looking for the guy carrying the gun and stopping him before he does the killing, forget about it; there is no upside to that kind of police work anymore.
America’s police departments, their ranks already shrinking due to recent events, are being diminished further by the imposition of Covid vaccine mandates in many cities. In Chicago, for example, more than 30 percent of the police officers have thus far failed to report their vaccination status as required under the new city policy, and 21 of them have been placed on no-pay status. Chicago is already suffering from high crime, so one shudders to imagine what would happen if a third of its police department is dismissed for failing to get vaccinated. (The sheriffs in three counties near Chicago have said their deputies would not be sent to assist should the need arise).
Some may be surprised to learn that in most cases the police do not have an affirmative duty to protect the public or any individual. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Castle Rock v. Gonzales, that police officers in Castle Rock, Colorado, could not be held liable for failing to enforce a restraining order, despite the fact that the failure led to the murder of three children.
So, what is the law-abiding citizen to do in the face of rising crime and retreating police? I recommend the methods adopted by the Eugene, Ore., man described in this news story, who when a burglar entered his apartment in the small hours of Oct. 18, protected his companion and his home as the law allows. Now there is one less burglar to worry the citizens of Eugene, and the town is that much safer for it. If we could but see more stories like this every day, the crime problem would soon take care of itself.