There’s a lot going on at the Capitol these days, which makes it easy to miss important things; like the bill, now heading to the State Senate, to open up the majority of police internal affairs investigations to the public.
The ostensible reason for the legislation is to increase transparency; but one suspects other impulses at play as well, and it is these which cause uneasiness with the proposal.
The motives would appear to rise from concern over the perception of widespread police misconduct — excessive use of force, that sort of thing. Democratically speaking, the popularity of such measures is difficult to quantify — the vast majority of people think only of police-related matters when crime is a pressing neighborhood concern, at which point history shows they tend to oppose efforts to impinge further on the police officer’s job of ridding the streets of their tormentors. At other times, those of general tranquility and order, issues specific to law enforcement are pushed out of mind by more immediate concerns.
But at all times the aggrieved minority — herein defined as those who harbor a negative view of the police, either as something of an ideological matter, or because they did something to garner unwanted attention from a police officer — will be on hand to press their case, constantly and often loudly.
The unanswered question, unanswered because it is seldom asked, is why should the police systemically misbehave? What would be their rationale or motive? The premise of this bill, and of other attempts over the years to increase “transparency,” requires us to believe that police misconduct inheres in the job itself; that police as a breed harbor an excess of their ration of the wickedness that stains every human endeavor.
That defies both logic and empirical analysis, but we are still confronted with the fact, proponents will tell us, that police officers are accused of misconduct at a greater rate than, say, school teachers or sanitation workers, so surely there must be a problem?
The answer to that question is that, by necessity and definition, police contact is an unpleasant experience. With the uncommon exceptions of community outreach and visits to schoolchildren, virtually every member of the public a police officer comes into contact with in the course of performing the duties society demands of them is having an exceptionally bad day — either they got caught breaking the law, or they are a victim, or they are otherwise impacted by a crime or some other calamity. Seldom do those scenarios lend to recalling police contact as a favorable, sunny experience. And those who are inclined to break the law will concurrently be inclined to view efforts to frustrate their activities in a less than favorable light, regardless of how properly procedure was followed.
And there is, it must be remembered, a reason for those procedures, even those which seem excessive, most of which were written in the blood of officers killed in the line of duty.
It is exceedingly difficult for most of us to appreciate just how unique the role of the police officer is in society; which is, essentially, to deal with the ugliest that human nature has to offer, all day, every day — those things which most people would rather not see, experience, or think about, save an hour or two of the sanitized version which entertains them on TV in the evening, safe in their homes. Clocking in at a job where you face the very real possibility of desperate, unpredictable, or purely malevolent violence, where a simple mistake can easily land you in an emergency room or a morgue, is not something most people can comprehend and tends to sharpen perspectives.
Hence, the procedures – both the street ones, which evolve as threats do, and the administrative ones, developed for handling complaints and the disciplinary issues that inevitably crop up in the police ranks, as in every other institution made up of humans.
The nature of the unique business of law enforcement guarantees inflation in both the sheer number of complaints, and the probability that most of them are unfounded. Distilling the valid from the counterfeit requires that sharpened perspective which can only immersion in the world of policing can provide.
This creates a dilemma in a free society which requires a considerable amount of tact to navigate, and which is also very susceptible to demagoguery.
It is easy, politically speaking, to respond to problems, real or perceived, by appealing to the demagogues, whose dissatisfactions are constant. But what needs to be examined is whether the proposed action will advance shared community objectives, the first and foremost of which is safe streets; and if it is helping or hindering reconciliation between the police and the community.
Exposing internal affairs investigations to the tendentious eye of the outrage culture advances neither aim, and the consequences could prove tragic.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.