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Friday, March 27, 2009

Where Norm Stamper Gets It Wrong

Image of Norm Stamper, retired Seattle Police Department Chief of Police

Normally, I respect and agree with most of what ex-Seattle Police Chief, and current member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), Norm Stamper has to say about the issue of police misconduct and brutality. He has a pretty firm grasp, as an insider, of many of the issues involved in the complex issue of how American policy and culture itself enables and encourages police brutality.

However, in his latest piece over at The Huffington Post, I found some fault with what he had to say about the shooting deaths of four Oakland police officers earlier this week and how he believes we should react to it.

Mind you, I agree that we shouldn't seek to connect too closely the deaths of those officers and the hardship it brings to their families with the severe problems with police brutality and misconduct in Oakland. I also agree that we should treat their deaths as we would any other regrettable and senseless loss of life done intentionally to another human being...

After all, we don't know what kind of police officers they were, whether they were good or bad... and it doesn't matter anyway because no matter what they didn't deserve to be killed. They deserve all the respect that any other person should get when they die. However, it's clear that we never do treat police officers like we do other people, and Norm doesn't want us to.

Just consider the response to their deaths so far... consider, for how much coverage we might think the shooting death of Oscar Grant in Oakland at the hands of a police officer received, the coverage of the shooting deaths of four Oakland Police officers was 10 times as prominent in the mainstream media than was the highly publicized death of Oscar Grant. (yes, I counted)

Sadly, Norm pushes that this is how it should be and advocates that we should enshrine them just for being police officers, just because they died performing what he feels is the most harrowing job in the US...

But it's not the most harrowing job in the US...

Sure, Norm does acknowledge that more people die on the job in other fields than police officers do, that's something I made clear a few months ago when I researched the latest statistics available to us from the US government.

In per capita death rates per occupation in 2007 (the latest stats available), law enforcement doesn't even crack the top four:
1. Fishing and Fishery Workers (111.8 per 100,000)
2. Logging Workers (86.4 per 100,000)
3. Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers (66.7 per 100,000)
4. Structural Iron and Steel Workers (45.5 per 100,000)
Law Enforcement (20.2 per 100,000)

Law Enforcement deaths barely inches into the top ten in total deaths per occupation in 2007:
Deaths by Occupation for 2007

But, as I said, Norm acknowledges this... what he is mistaken about is this:
"It doesn't occur as often as most are led to believe, certainly not as frequently as it does on TV. There are a good number of riskier occupations--mining and construction, farming and firefighting come to mind, as does fishing on the Bering Sea in the dead of winter. But there is no job, other than soldiering, where one's life can so quickly be cut short--at the hands of another. Sudden, violent death is an occupational hazard for police officers."
Here, Norm is quite mistaken in his argument that we should automatically honor police more than any other person in their deaths because they are more likely to be murdered on the job than anyone else...

Here, he's clearly wrong:
Job site deaths sorted by number of homicides

You are more likely to be murdered working as a retail clerk or manager than you are to be murdered while working as a cop. Since this is the case, I wonder why I don't see Norm arguing that we should be erecting shrines, dedicating moments of silence, and creating hundreds of Retail Clerk Memorial Funds like law enforcement officers have?

Indeed, in those numbers we see that murder isn't even the top cause of death for all law enforcement fatalities... that would be automobile accidents.

So, Norm's argument that officers who die on duty should be memorialized as heroes just for being police officers due to the risks they take by becoming police officers seems hypocritical, sadly. As I said, they should be given no less respect than any other person in their deaths...

But, part of the whole problem with police misconduct is that we raise police officers up to the level of heroes in our society, we are told to trust and respect them just for being police officers, we give their testimony more sway in courts of law and courts of public opinion just for being cops, and we are told that we should memorialize them more than any other person when they die...

...even though they are just as human and fallible as the rest of us.

The problem, you see, is as Norm says it is, that insular police culture of "Us vs Them", that culture that makes officers believe that they are better than the rest of us, that we are less human and less worthy of respect than they are...

It is that culture which enables and encourages police brutality... and by telling us we should respect those four officers who died in Oakland more than we respect Oscar Grant or any other person who dies at the hands of another simply feeds into that culture of superiority and abuse... it only serves to grow that notion of "Us vs Them".

Especially when the argument used to convince us that we should treat police officers differently than ordinary people is flawed in it's own right.


Five Before Midnight said...

Interesting post. I haven't checked out his column yet. It's interesting how people react when officers die. I got a slew of nasty stuff from people at other sites beyond the usual "anti-cop" rhetoric.

It's funny though b/c people tell me I don't know what it's like to worry about my father coming home from work at night (or morning) and I say, "Really? My dad was a cab driver." Not exactly the safest job either.

Police officers do dangerous jobs and these men's deaths were tragic. And I've known officers who have been killed. But death is tragic, period. They're all people.

Packratt said...

Well, the biggest concern about this case, in my mind, is what kind of retribution the citizens of Oakland might face because of these shootings given that there are officers that only know how to deal with this out of anger.

As you and I both know, displaced anger is a common thread with abusive behavior in police officers, they have a bad day and take it out on a motorist who committed a minor infraction or they take it out on someone who covers incidents of police misconduct not even related to them... given that, I'd imagine there are cops in Oakland itching to take revenge on people who had nothing to do with what happened that day.

But, otherwise, I'm glad that you got my point. It's odd for me to see a known advocate against police brutality fall into the same mentality trap that he speaks against in the very same article. But that's just how pervasive and insidious the "Us vs Them" culture becomes ingrained in police officers.

So much so that they cannot see the contradiction in insisting that they are human like us but also insisting that we treat them as if they were more than human, somehow better than the rest of us, at the same time.

It's disturbing really, once you really think about it.

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