Sunday, May 29, 2022

TIL: An Old Saying in Police Precincts

In college, I read Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." In it he popularized the term "paradigm shift" for insights that forever change the framework in which we view the world.

An example is Copernicus's upending of the Ptolemaic cosmology with a helio-centric model. Just think: before Copernicus, the term "solar system" didn't even exist. Now it's second nature to all of us. Another example is Einstein's upending of Newtonian gravity with general relativity. Just think: before Einstein, the word spacetime didn't even exist. Now it's...well, still not second nature. Relativity is still impossible to wrap our minds around, even a century after Einstein, but it has fundamentally changed science.

Thomas Kuhn's work had a big impact on my formative thinking. That's maybe too portentous an introduction for what I'm about to say I learned today, but I'll say it anyway. In all the commentary on Uvalde, one comment (actually a Tweetstorm) has the potential of causing a paradigm shift in my worldview of law enforcement and public safety.

The Tweetstorm:

Folks are talking about police a bunch, and that's something I might actually be able to provide context for. Police are never, and will never be, required to endanger themselves in any way for any reason. This has been litigated thoroughly.

The argument cop reps make is that nobody's job can require that they jump in front of bullets like weird nerds for idiot tech moguls. This argument is reasonable! Nobody's job should demand the employee's death as a condition of employment.

The obvious problem, of course, is that cops' job /is/ purportedly to protect people from violence. The corollary is that this is not a cop's actual job. They have no duty to prevent violence, no duty to put themselves at any risk, no duty to help anyone.

No cop will ever be punished for refusing to help, ever. Or refusing to risk anything. This is /why/ cops insist so hard that their jobs are intrinsically dangerous! They don't have to take any risks, so their narratives emphasize that they are actually the victims.

Corollary: never, ever believe anything a press release tells you about what cops do or did, because cops tailor them very carefully. This is why cops primarily assault people who are not armed, and why they do so with deadly weapons. To minimize risk.

The primary responsibility of any individual cop is to minimize risk to themselves. No cops 'confronted' the shooter, because they could have gotten hurt. No cops entered the school, because they could have gotten hurt. The tricky bit here is that they didn't let parents help.

Because once they're on scene, and protecting themselves, if they had let other people get involved they would have increased the risk to themselves, the cops. And the cops' job is to show up, protect themselves, and document their fear of risk. That's it.

This easily gets tangled up in the PR cops have done in the past. "To protect and serve" is not a statement of duty. No cop is required to protect or to serve. Most of us have some perception of a "good cop" who has responsibilities. That is fiction. Thanks, Terry Pratchett.

Any portrayal of a "good cop" is not a portrayal of a cop engaging in their job. If a cop helps someone for any reason, it is entirely external to their identity as a cop. They might have done a "good thing", but a doctor who holds the door isn't necessarily a "good doctor."

Eliminate this fiction wherever you recognize yourself engaging in it. Never fucking watch die hard again. Or a police procedural. Because when we collectively /think/ cops should be responsible or do any good, in the smallest way possible, they will not.

This is why it's more dangerous to be literally anyone else than to be a cop. Everyone's job requires interaction with danger. Traffic. Violent customers. Dealing with cops. Hospitality is incredibly dangerous! Cops make up a guy and then kill him for their own safety.

Institutionally, police are pretty much the only profession that permits its members to arm themselves against a hypothetical threat and then kill anyone who overlaps with it. The rest of us have to be polite and bandage ourselves and hope. Cops don't.

This is, as a corollary, why cops hate civilians so much. If a cop is in danger it is because a civilian inconvenienced them. Something bad happened, and a civilian saw a cop nearby or attempted to invoke one. This causes risk to the cop. Punishable by death.

Takeaway: it is dangerous just to call the police. It is MORE dangerous, in many ways, to call them, because by exposing them to danger you give them excuses to punish, assault, or kill you. And, as above, their job is to identify risk and then eliminate the source.

In Uvalde, this is what happened. Cops were seen by civilians, and they did what cops do. They protected themselves, and then controlled the most convenient source of risk to their jobs - the civilians that saw them. And then they lied about it. Poorly.

^That's it, that's the end of the thread. But it's a couple of days later, and I thought it would be good to follow up with further clarification. We will be seeing /lots/ of changes to the story given by officers over the next few days, as officers coordinate their stories.

Take every one with a grain of salt. ANY statement from police departments that uses the passive voice ("projectile impact responsible for death of man near officer-involved incident") is an attempt to hide something, if not an outright lie, and media often publish them verbatim.

Every department has training that acknowledges danger. This does not mean there is an obligation to take risks. A common instruction around precincts is "better to be judged by twelve than carried by six." Which is to say, a cop should murder someone before taking risks.

There is one situation, just one, that I can think of, where a cop must take a risk, and that's when they are under a direct order to do something. Direct orders rarely involve risk. "Contain the area" means "put up tape" not "confront the offender."

And I can't stop you watching Die Hard, but my point is: you are being lied to. You know it's fiction, but it reinforces the myth. Cops fundraise off this myth, and they use it to insulate their inaction. The lie takes money from your pockets and keeps them safe from criticism.

And that's a pretty rude thing to do to you, a person who just wants to watch Die Hard. It's disrespectful, and you deserve better than to be treated that way.

I didn't make this thread for clout, so this attention is new to me. I don't have anything to promote, and I don't want to promote off this tragedy anyway. If you want my venmo, DM. I'm looking for a new position, as well. But the thing that matters is you ask questions.

That's what matters to me, and I'm deeply grateful that you read this thread, and I'm deeply grateful that you broadcast it and went through the horrible work of interrogating what you maybe thought you knew about policing. Stay safe, y'all.

It's common to see on Twitter the disclaimer "Retweets don't equal endorsements" and that applies here, at least in parts. For example, I disagree with, "This is why it's more dangerous to be literally anyone else than to be a cop. Everyone's job requires interaction with danger. Traffic. Violent customers. Dealing with cops. Hospitality is incredibly dangerous!" The job of police officer requires that they interact with the public, more inherently risky members of the public than hospitality jobs require. Carrying a gun and having a license to kill, so to speak, doesn't protect you from an ambush you don't see coming. You don't have to deny that the job of law enforcement is more dangerous than almost any other to make the separate point that police seek to minimize risk to themselves. You don't have to deny that there are heroes among law enforcement to concede that the job description doesn't require a police officer to martyr themself to protect members of the public. But nuance like that is hard when emotions are raw, as they are now.

Another disagreement: Chaos Bride Kyelaag says, "No cop will ever be punished for refusing to help, ever." It's rare, but it does happen. Three Minneapolis police officers were convicted of "failing to provide aid to [George Floyd] in time to prevent his death." This might be the exception that proves the rule, but nevertheless the Tweetstorm overstates its case.

Even though there are details in the Tweetstorm that I think are overstated, the gist of the Tweetstorm offers a new perspective that I hadn't appreciated before. The gist is this: if a police officer does something heroic (and they do), it's because bravery is baked into that individual officer's DNA. It's not because the job demands it. It's not because a commanding officer demands it. Commanding officers protect the department first and foremost, not the public. Police unions defend police officers first, last, and always, not the public. The public needs to understand that when they call 9-1-1. Because that perspective is so outside the framework in which we usually see law enforcement, it forces me to consider the world in a different light. It's a "paradigm shift."

I don't expect everyone to agree. I told you even I don't agree with everything in this Tweetstorm. But one other thing Thomas Kuhn emphasized about scientific revolutions is relevant. They don't happen because everyone hears the new theory and thinks to himself, that makes sense. It happens much more slowly. First the textbooks get rewritten. Second a new generation is taught from those textbooks, Finally all the old people who were taught the old theory die off, leaving the new paradigm firmly established.

P.S. People can say London, Paris, or Rome and have others know exactly where they are talking about without needing to mention a country. Same for New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Sadly, Uvalde now enters that select category of famous places, but for tragic reasons. Americans will never again have to say "Uvalde, Texas." The city name alone is now infamous.


Mark Steger said...

On Facebook, Aimee Rivera offers this corroborating story.

J. Casey Hurley said...

So, why are we hearing that, since Columbine, the protocol is to confront the shooter ASAP? Isn't that in the training they get, in the training manuals?

Mark Steger said...

Casey, good point. I, too, have read that the Uvalde police did not follow current protocol involving an "active shooting" situation. I've also read that the Uvalde police believed it was no longer an "active shooting" situation, leading to their delay. In any case, what it means to "confront" an active shooter remains vague, in my mind.