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Police Can't Be Above Criticism

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
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Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey recently told an audience that "something deeply disturbing is happening all across America." Violent crime is surging, he said. And the reason, according to what police officers tell him privately, is that they feel "under siege."

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In one of his few good applause lines in Wednesday's Republican debate, Chris Christie picked up the theme -- twisting it a little as he did so.

You know, the FBI director, the president's appointed FBI director has said this week that because of a lack of support from politicians like the president of the United States, that police officers are afraid to get out of their cars; that they're afraid to enforce the law. And he says, the president's appointee, that crime is going up because of this.

I can understand if police officers feel they aren't getting the political backing they deserve -- though Obama has often spoken up on their behalf. Yet it's worth noting that Comey didn't say police officers are scared. He said they complain of being surrounded by taunting young people holding up their mobile-phone cameras, and "don't much feel like getting out of [their] cars." I'd be surprised if young people packing cellphones put police in fear of their lives. The desire to stay in their cars sounds more like working to rule.

Be that as it may, if the surge of criticism of police misconduct is causing police to look away, leading in turn to a spike in crime, that's a problem. What's the answer?

In a free country, the answer cannot be to refrain from criticizing police misconduct. It can't be wrong to draw attention to cases like the one involving a South Carolina sheriff's deputy (or "school resource officer," a term that would have delighted George Orwell), who dragged a student from behind her desk and hurled her to the floor for no good reason.

The answer is to deal severely with such cases -- making it plain that such conduct is shocking and intolerable -- while always maintaining a sense of proportion. Many people seem to have trouble holding the following ideas in their heads at the same time: Most police are good, brave public servants doing their best, often under extremely difficult circumstances; but a few abuse their powers and are a threat to the people they're supposed to protect.

The core of the problem is the difficulty, indeed near-impossibility, of holding that small minority of bad police officers to account. Typically, the first response from senior officers seems guided more by professional loyalty than a sense of obligation to the public. Police unions dismiss criticism of their members out of hand -- because that's their job. An outsider's impression is that the prevailing culture is not one that strives to expel the small minority of bad police; rather, it tolerates and even shelters them.

The police officer in the South Carolina incident -- known on campus, apparently, as Officer Slam -- has been fired, which is good. Even so, his case still fits the pattern (and not just because nothing would have happened if he hadn't been videoed). Note his commander's comments: "He picked a student up, and he threw the student across the room. That is not a proper technique."

Firing the officer for improper technique is insufficient. Further action is being considered, and one hopes there is some. The police have, and need, broad discretion to use physical force when necessary -- but use of reckless force when plainly unnecessary requires stronger sanctions than dismissal.

The police deserve the public's thanks and support for the risks they face and the work they do. They'd get more of both, I think, if they could acknowledge that a small number of officers aren't just deficient in technique but are a public menace. The instinct to close ranks is understandable, but it would be better for everybody if the police could show a flicker of interest in policing themselves. Until they do, it's reasonable to call for other ways of providing more accountability.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net