Accountability

Memo to Cops: Criticisms Aren’t Attacks

No institution is above criticism in a democracy, but NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton is failing to convince the rank and file of that.

Bill Bratton made a number of sensible and decent comments on Sunday’s Meet the Press. More on those a little later. But let’s start with the one comment that wasn’t so reasonable, not for the purpose of bashing the commissioner but for prodding him in whatever tiny way I can to get him to do better, because any solution to this crisis rests largely on his shoulders.

The quote, the one that took control of the headlines, had to do with cops’ feelings about recent criticisms. “Rank-and-file officers and much of American police leadership,” he said, “feel that they are under attack from the federal government at the highest levels. So that’s something we have to understand also.”

We all know what “highest levels” means. It means the president. Hard to know exactly what Bratton’s intention was here, but in essence he endorsed the recent comment by his old boss and enemy Rudy Giuliani, who said on Dec. 21, “We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police.” Now that’s what one expects of Giuliani, because he once lived and thrived in that cauldron of racial conflict and he largely came out of it with his reputation intact (his pre-9/11 approval numbers were around 50-40—good, but could have been much higher had he not fanned so many racial flames over the years). But one doesn’t expect Bratton, who never really talked like that and who worked in Los Angeles to take steps to overcome that police department’s demented racial history, to think that way.

Maybe he was just pointing out that many police feel that way. Fine. But you know, people feel lots of things. Some of them are justified and some of them aren’t. And sorry: Neither Barack Obama nor Eric Holder, whom Giuliani also critiqued, said anything that qualifies as an “attack” (Bratton’s word) on cops. Here’s chapter and verse on that. Please read it. Obama and Holder have certainly spoken of the tensions unique to police-black American relations, but they have never, ever said hate police and have very often said exactly the opposite.

Bratton should acknowledge that truth. He was trying, I think, to demonstrate balance and equivalence. Earlier in the segment, host Chuck Todd had asked him if he understood and acknowledged that black people have a fear of police. To his credit, he said: “Oh, certainly. I interact quite frequently with African Americans of all classes from the rich to the poor, and there is not a single one that hasn’t expressed this concern.” So he was saying: We have these perceptions on the parts of blacks and cops, and we need to deal with them.

But these aren’t morally equivalent. Blacks, males especially, do have reason to be more afraid of cops than whites do. But cops have no reason to believe that they are “under attack” by the White House. Bratton might have said something that was closer to a real-world moral equivalence. He could have said, for example, that for many white cops, the unfortunate truth is that their experience teaches them that they need to take more caution when approaching young black males. But equating African Americans’ daily lived experience with the rhetorical fabrications of Giuliani, PBA head Pat Lynch, and a few other others is… well, it’s like saying that Eric Garner’s crushed larynx is morally the same thing as Lynch’s tender ego.

So ideally Bratton should have said something like, “I’ve seen no evidence that persuades me that there’s any kind of campaign against police at the highest levels of government.” If it came from him, some cops might actually be willing to hear it. He’s the only player in this drama who still has some credibility with both sides. He has struck a promising tone these last few days with his rhetoric about trying to “see each other.” He alone is in a position to start opening some eyes.

But the conversation can’t happen until police departments understand that some criticism of them is legitimate; that not everyone who levels criticisms is a cop-hater; and that in a democratic society, no institution is above criticism and accountability. We don’t criticize the armed services much in America these days—this isn’t the early 1970s, with anti-Vietnam protesters cruelly calling legless veterans pigs and so on—but by God, when something goes haywire (Abu Ghraib), at least there are some prosecutions and forced retirements. The CIA spends years getting away with the stuff it gets away with, but eventually, something happens like this month’s Senate report, and with any luck a couple of heads will roll.

These people put their lives on the line for the rest of us, too. It’s not only possible but also right to find the deaths of CIA officers in the field to be tragic while also demanding that they follow the law and international treaties the United States has signed. And it’s possible and right to be sickened both by the murder of those two NYPD cops and by incidents of police violence that seem to have a clear racial element to them. But somehow, it feels like the Army and the CIA, rigid as those institutions can be, are more responsive to democratic accountability than police departments. That’s the reality that needs to change. And in New York, at least, Bratton has to lead the way.