Freedom to Screw Up

I agree with just about every word of Matthew Hennessey’s post in City Journal on the murder of five police officers in Dallas on Thursday night:

Ordinary, law-abiding people should be allowed to foul up, most of us agree. This is a free country, not a totalitarian police state. No one “deserves to die” while riding in a car with a legal gun, just as no one deserves to die for selling CDs in a parking lot or peddling loose cigarettes. But on Staten Island, where Eric Garner died during a confrontation with the NYPD in July 2014, what turned the encounter from a routine arrest into a tragedy was Garner’s failure to heed police commands. He was ordered to comply and he refused. He told the cops, “This ends today.” That was a mistake.

Did the NYPD cops who dealt with Garner mess up? You bet. One of them put Garner in a chokehold, banned by department regulations, and Garner died. But no cop shows up to work looking to kill someone, and the day would have ended differently had Garner followed the instructions he was given. Sad but true.

We should hold cops to a higher standard of accountability than the average citizen because they are given great power—including the legal use of deadly force. Yet, we can’t forget that the police are people, too. They don’t have unlimited patience or a sixth sense about when their job will turn violent. Recognizing bad guys takes experience—and a critical aspect of experience is learning from mistakes.
This creates an obvious problem. The collective experience of all cops is supposed to be distilled into police training programs, but each individual cop must learn some hard lessons on his own. All the training in the world won’t put an end to police mistakes. The only way to have no police mistakes is to have no police.

When every party does everything perfectly correctly, as in the case related in the Facebook post I passed along yesterday, there’s a happy ending. When mistakes are made, tragedies may occur instead. The more heavily armed you are, the more dire the consequences of your screwing up.

There’s an aspect of the phenomena he describes that deserves more emphasis: rich people can screw up without serious consequences more readily than poor people can; white than black. That’s unjust but I don’t know if it’s remediable. The latter case maybe, over time. In the case of the former the cure would probably be worse than the disease.

One more point, brought to mind by murders in Dallas and the other instance of race-based homicidal violence perpetrated by a black man against whites. Whatever the injustices suffered by blacks in this country, the very last thing black folk should want is race war. In such a war too many of the casualties would be black. That’s something of which the civil rights leaders in the 1960s were painfully aware but I’m afraid that recognition has been lost today.

20 comments… add one
  • CStanley Link

    All good points, but it’s also important to consider what happens when people do screw up. Is the system generally handling these incidents in a way that is fair and inspires trust?

    Initially when the BLM movement came on the scene, I thought they were inadvertently choosing the wrong cases to highlight. There were instances that looked at first glance like police homocides, but when all the facts came out the officers were cleared because there were circumstances left out of the earlier reports and videos. After the first few of these i trances I thought to myself that if they would choose the cases where there was real injustice, I would be on their side, and surely they want people like me to side with them?

    I’ve come to think I underestimated the BLM leaders. I now think they deliberately choose these cases because they know that the investigative process will clear the police and this will inspire anger. They don’t want to fix the system, they want to blow it up.

  • The media also play a role. In a population of 320 million there are bound to be a certain number of outrageous incidents. By perseverating on them they inflate their real incidence.

  • PD Shaw Link

    The primary problem with the publicized incidents is that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring a criminal case against these law enforcement officers, given the problem of proving intent beyond a reasonable doubt. I used to think people just didn’t understand that, but now I think its simply contextual.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I found this blog post from an STL police officer depressing:

    When the peacemakers are not at peace, there will be no peace for anybody.

    How can there be?

    When law enforcement officers are not safe, you can bet that you, wherever you are, are not safe as well.

    The rules of engagement have changed.

    There are no more “rules” out on the streets. Even the worst mobsters and thugs years ago had some tact and chivalry. They played by some rules.

    Today, it is not uncommon to see women and children killed, sometimes purposely, and sometimes simply as collateral damage, in a war that values no life but one’s own.

    I have quickly become tired to no end of seeing posts from people about what they perceive to be unjustified recent police shootings.

    I’ll say this up front. Your postings and rush to judgement is partly to blame for the unrest and the bloodshed in Dallas.

    Social Media Killed Five Cops

  • TastyBits Link

    A lot of law enforcement should be called law non-enforcement. Your job is to deal with criminals not non-criminals, and to do that, you need to know the difference. You also need to know how to treat criminals to get the best outcomes. On the streets, there are certain protocols that must be followed, and this includes by the police.

    Today, law enforcement officers are screened to eliminate the ones most qualified to handle themselves on the streets. You need to be an adrenaline junkie. You need to lack the normal fear responses. You need to be able to understand a world based upon power. You need to know how to adapt to fluid situations.

    The Rodney King incident was not the beginning or end, but it was a concrete marker on the trek to today. There were a lot of crooked police departments. How far back it went, I have no idea, but the problem was present in the 1980’s. Police Departments were abusing non-criminals, and that was what Rodney King was about.

    Rodney King was a crackhead who deserved a beatdown. While it might be debatable as to the degree, it was not debatable that non-criminals should be getting a beatdown for any reason, but in L.A., they were. To the idea that criminals should be treated any differently than Catholic Nuns, the bleeding hearts of yesterday had the same reaction as the bleeding hearts of today – sheer horror.

    Rather than fix the problem the progressives decided to fix the symptoms, and they did. Law enforcement no longer have the opportunity or means to physically abuse anybody. Criminals are safe from beatdowns, and the type of law enforcement officer is not the “criminals deserve the beatdown they get” type. The problem with that type is when they cannot tell the difference between non-criminals and criminals, and the solution is to teach them how or to put them on a desk job.

    Instead many people who should be on desk jobs are working the streets because they can pass the tests. Your number one job is to protect the public, and then, your number job is to protect yourself. Shooting non-criminals because you are protecting yourself is doing job number two and not job number one.

    When I only get only my fries and Coke from the McDonald’s drive-thru, they have failed. It takes my entire meal to fulfil the job requirements. Call me crazy, but I expect my law enforcement officers to be able to exceed the job performance of the McDonald’s drive-thru windows employees.

    The progressives will once again seek to fix the problem, and they will only make it worse. The large US cities are sewers, and many are war zones. Chicago is an American nightmare. It is not a choice between scared cops shooting first and inner city war zones.

    Law enforcement officers do not get a pass to screw-up. They are expected to do their job better than the non-law enforcement person. I cannot shoot anybody just because I think they have a weapon which turns out to be a wallet, cellphone, or comb.

    In the large cities, the Deputies can benefit by spending time working in the jail. It will be filled with everybody they will eventually meet on the streets. Then, there needs to be intense mentoring programs. It is only by working with the old-timers that the rookies will begin to learn the nuances of the job.

    What is going to happen is that the white people are going to move into new areas. The white areas will become lighter, and the black areas will become darker. Progressives will move into the whiter areas while decrying the racist white people doing what they are doing.

    Police Departments and Sheriff’s Offices in the predominately minority areas may become mostly minority, and the problems will persist. Black law enforcement officers are just as bad as the white officers. If I got my racial attitudes from the black Deputies, I would make the KKK cringe, but I realize it was mostly “in the family” type talk.

    I have a question. If the suburbs are filled with racists, it would seem that urban sprawl would be a good thing, and nobody would want to bring the racists back into the urban areas. If anything, there should be a push to get as many white people out of the urban areas as possible, and then, the remaining black people could live their lives in peace and harmony.

  • jan Link


    Most likely you found that blog piece “depressing” because it was depressingly honest.


    Your comments (unfortunately) make a lot sense.

  • TastyBits Link


    Thanks. A lot of people get their knowledge of criminals from Cops or Law & Order. They need to get out among the crackheads, rapists, and murders more often.

    Back in the 1980’s, the Orleans Parish Sheriff had a strict hands-off the civilians policy, and you were more-or-less “guilty until proven innocent”. He was elected with a lot of the poor, elderly, and black voters, and I guess he did not want to get them pissed-off.

    Criminals were another matter, but even with them, there were unspoken rules. If you beat the crap out of everybody all the time, it creates chaos and disorder. It has to be done when appropriate, and it has to be done within reason. Both of these elements are moderated according to life on the streets not your typical suburban living room or progressive salon.

    It is closer to the social order of animals, and that is just the way it is. There is no “End of History”. As a law enforcement officer, you need to be able to move between the human and animal social orders without any mental problems. One minute you are treating a civilian politely and respectfully. The next minute you are handling up on a criminal, and then, you might need to deal with the criminal’s civilian family. Guess what? You need to switch back to polite and respectful.

  • A lot of law enforcement should be called law non-enforcement. Your job is to deal with criminals not non-criminals, and to do that, you need to know the difference.

    My college roommate became a police officer. That’s a remarkable story I may tell some other time. I attended a lot of cop parties hosted by him. My sense is that the distinction wasn’t between criminals and non-criminals but between cops and non-cops. Everyone who wasn’t a cop was pretty much assumed to be a criminal.

  • steve Link

    “Initially when the BLM movement came on the scene, I thought they were inadvertently choosing the wrong cases to highlight.”

    The Eric Garner case in NYC and shooting the kid in Cleveland were wrong? In nearly every case the police are going to be able to say that there was a reason for what they did. We will end up with zero bad cops. That doesn’t even begin to pass the smell test.


  • I agree with steve above that the two cases he cites, the Eric Garner and Tamir Rice cases, are instances of avoidable killings by police. Not necessarily criminal but avoidable nonetheless.

    However, in the Eric Garner case, I think some theory of causes needs to be introduced into the discussion. The proximate cause of Mr. Garner’s death may have been the actions of the police but the cause-in-fact was New York’s cigarette taxes. A multiplicity of regulations provides opportunities for police confrontations that would not exist otherwise.

    The police knew that Garner was a hustler. He died because he resisted arrest. He was arrested because he was selling loosies. High cigarette taxes make selling loosies lucrative.

    The more things you want managed by the government the more fatal police confrontations there will be.

  • steve Link

    “The more things you want managed by the government the more fatal police confrontations there will be.”

    Along the same lines, the Castile guy in Minnesota was touted by right wing sites as having a criminal record. He has, according to the best I can find, 55 traffic citations. The guy was in his early 30s. In my 60s i have not been stopped by the police that many times, and heaven knows I do not go light on the gas. This kind of suggests, need reporting to know, that the community was using traffic stops and fines to generate income. If you are going to stop people that often, the chances of a mistake are more likely.


  • CStanley Link

    Steve- I recall a lot more BLM involvement in the Michael Brown and Freddy Gray cases, was my point.

    As for the traffic stops, I tend to agree with you although I think there are other issues involved too. There’s been some reporting that the Castile stop used a broken taillight as a pretext but the officer was really pulling him over because he resembled a BOLO armed robbery suspect. I’m not going to speculate further, not enough facts at this point….but I’m just pointing out that people in poor black neighborhoods are susceptible to getting pulled over for multiple reasons. I’m also not condoning that but it’s something other than racist intent.

  • Along the same lines, the Castile guy in Minnesota was touted by right wing sites as having a criminal record. He has, according to the best I can find, 55 traffic citations. The guy was in his early 30s. In my 60s i have not been stopped by the police that many times, and heaven knows I do not go light on the gas.

    That’s where things get jumbled up in a big, ugly ball. Driving while black, revenue generation, police stopping known gangsters for things they wouldn’t stop a white anaesthesiologist for, the 2nd Amendment absolutists’ hair up their collective arse about the right to bear arms, social dysfunction, and on and on.

  • Andy Link

    From John Robb:

    It’s amazing how quickly social media broadcasting has become central to social violence. It is being used by all of the participants:

    Attackers: Larossi Abballa Facebook livestreamed his terrorist attack on the home of a police chief in France.

    Victims: Diamond Reynolds Facebook livestreamed a policeman shooting her boyfriend while he was reaching for his wallet.

    Bystanders. Michael Bautista livestreamed the Dallas police shooting.

    This use of social media has led to a new dynamic that bypasses the “redirecting – calming – slowing” influence of traditional media and the government. This new dynamic is raw, unfiltered, and fast. It also radically increases both the likelihood and the intensity of social violence.

  • jan Link

    Social media has become a quick, raw, emotional conduit used to convey events to others. Oftentimes, due to camera angles, the ideology of the person using social media, cherry-picking what is passed on to people, taken out of context footage etc. the incident is inaccurately portrayed. But, no matter what, it can still get traction out in the mass public.

    And, when it comes to the BLM movement, bent on showing the grievances of the black community, the first social media impression is what remains and is what oftentimes creates needless friction and/or violence between innocent people totally removed from the event itself.

    Furthermore, I think Obama and his DOJ have done little to discern the truth surrounding many of these confrontations, let alone involve themselves in fairly addressing the social problems attached to them, and the mending needed to be done to avoid them in the future.

Leave a Comment