News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fussing over the fuzz

JT, the managing editor who had worked his way up from city hall and police beat reporter,  said that police department corruption ran in ten-year cycles.  Every ten years,  police departments would have a  scandal in which some of its members were exposed for corrupt relationships or practices.   He said   that low pay and constant contact with criminality wore away at some officers and they gave in to the temptations of money or angry rage.

I remember the night that the Rock Island Police Department teamed up with the sheriff's department and raided Mills' whorehouse, which had been in operation for decades.  They arrested Jenny, the madam, who was allowed her one phone call and made it to the chief of police.  "Goddamnit, Klaus," she said,  "we paid you to warn us when a raid was coming."  Klaus soon found himself out of a job and opened an antique store.   Jenny retired, too.

And  I remember Big Joe, a lumbering 6-foot-6-inch cop who wasn't the brightest but maintained a rigid Irish Catholic honesty and an intolerance for police misbehavior.  So,  he was assigned to the night beat foot patrol in the merchant area of the downtown  when there were no enterprises open that might invite police collaboration.  There were some bars where workers from the factory area would stop by after the second shift for boiler makers and occasionally get a bit out of control.  Big Joe would lumber in, wrap the offender in a bear hug, and assist him out the door.  Often,  he'd summon a squad car to drive them home, even though the squad drivers wold protest that they weren't running a taxi service.  Other times, he would call for a family member to drive the drunk home.  Joe arrested very few people.

There wasn't much gun violence back then.  It was against the law at the time to carry a gun into a bar.  When one was displayed or discovered,  Joe would approach the armed person and tell him that weapons had to be checked outside.  Joe would "take charge" of the weapon and check it in at the police station,  where it could be retrieved when the owner was fully sober.  A factor in Joe's ability to maintain the peace was that he was the department's best marksman.  He consistently scored the highest in the qualifying tests and was a frequent winner at sports shooting contests.  He was known for stopping attempted night time burglaries of stores on his  beat and of spotting incipient fires and busted waterlines and of helping vagrants find shelter for the night.  He knew his beat so well  and was  so alert and conscientious that he could spot problems in the making.  He was affable but no one messed with him.  If someone misbehaved, they would usually straighten up when people threatened "to call Joe."

I knew him from the time, as a college student, when I had a job in a shoe store.  I special ordered his work shoes for him.  They were size 18.

Joe was a peace officer from a different time and a different theory of policing.  Many of his colleagues operated on the theories of "police science,"  which  advocated a more commanding presence for the police.  Their relationships with the public were more authoritarian.  They dominated the hierarchy and were the kind that  reporters dealt with most often.   They tended to not like reporters.  That was because reporters kept track of habeas corpus matters and insisted upon reviewing the records on a daily basis.  Police found this inconvenient at times.  One reporter was grabbed by the neck by a duty sergeant and lifted off the floor.  JT published the incident in the metro section and sparked an investigation of police brutality.  That reporter and I are still friends on Facebook.

One of my first journalistic encounters with police came as a student newspaper reporter in Chicago.  Some students who worked at concession stands during sports events witnessed police accosting people in restrooms and arresting them for various  violations such as soliciting sex.  Then they would try to extract a bond or a "fine" from the accused.  The editor of the student newspaper, who was a veteran of the Korean War,  was told about the scam and managed for reporters to witness the operations and then interview the victims and other people who were witnesses.   The stories were picked up by a major newspaper and some reform ensued.  But the Chicago police departments have a long and varied history of cop crime.  JT would point out that they aren't alone.

There are good cops and bad cops.  There are cops who act with respect for liberty, equality, and justice and try to follow the requirements of due process.  There are cops who think only in terms of their badges of authority.  Some are focused on their clearance records.  And there are cops who make one question if they are bright enough to be wearing a badge.

Police departments are often fractious organizations.  The rivalries, resentments, and animosities threaten their ability to function.  Aberdeen went through an extremely tumultuous period about ten years ago when detectives and patrol officers suddenly resigned or were fired,  chiefs resigned or were fired, and the public did not know if the city was running police department or  producing a reality television show.

This kind of dysfunction was demonstrated last week when some off-duty officers were working as security for a Minneapolis Lynx basketball game.   When the players, in response to the police shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop,  came onto the floor in T-shirts that supported Black Lives Matter in protest of the pointless shooting, the police walked off the job.   Their petulance and support from the police union spokesman received a rebuke from the mayor and police chief.  Their action demonstrates the racially charged attitude that questioning police actions in the apparent executions of black men is an attack on law enforcement.   Exhibiting that attitude places the police in a posture of justifying lynching,  rather than making earnest attempts to deal with gratuitous killings.  The more police try to dismiss or justify the executions, the more reason the public has to be wary and skeptical of the police.  When the public "honors" the police, it is put in the position of honoring the executions.

The killing of five policemen in Dallas and three  in Baton Rouge exposes the added complication that our gun culture adds to racial discord.  A few years ago,  the Colorado legislature reacted to the mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater with a number of restrictive gun laws.  Those laws were later repealed, but they caused a sharp spike in the sales of assault rifles.  The gun advocates contend that people need to arm themselves against their government in case it tries to take away their liberties, and the increase in gun sales was attributed to this faction.   However,  one gun dealer said it wasn't only the NRA types who were buying guns.  Many people were arming themselves to protect themselves against the NRA types should they go on a rampage.

When the advocates of arming the citizenry said arms were needed if the government encroached on their lives,  the message got through to some people.  Micah Johnson and Gavin Long were paying attention. Both military veterans, they armed themselves with assault rifles* and semi-automatic pistols.  They used their training and their weapons to attack the police. And both men cited the police executions of black men, some unarmed and others not showing any evidence of drawing weapons, as motives behind their attacks.  They saw the police shootings as evidence that the government was engaging in combat against black men.  They were acting upon what they saw as the eventuality that the gun advocates warned about.

The police serve an essential function in society, often at the peril of their own lives.  No one disputes that.  And no one disputes the fact that the police are assigned the task of protecting the public and most do it well.   But that does not mean that when the public sees corruption and unwarranted killings on the part of the police that its expressions of concern and protest are anti-police.  Its concerns are anti-corruption and anti-murder.

When the police hide and defend actions by their members that violate the right to life and due process,  they comprise a danger to the public.  They are seen as the blue  menace, not the badges of protection and service.  Anti-police attitudes are something that the police have earned through their tolerance and protection of misconduct of their own.  They need to fight the crime in their own ranks as stridently as they go after civilian offenders.

That would be their strongest antidote for a bad public attitude toward them.  And a more scrupulous image would diminish the motives of people who see them as a part of government that has declared war on black men  That is something that  Big Joe understood.

*  Johnson had  an IWI Tavor SAR 5.56-millimeter rifle and a Stag Arms M4 variant 5.56-millimeter, and Long had the same set,  an IWI Tavor SAR 5.56-millimeter rifle and a Stag Arms M4 variant 5.56-millimeter rifle, according to police accounts.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States