Policing is not for everyone. Police officers stand between the innocents and the predators of the world, and hold that line with their blood. Pay is modest. Missing holidays and birthdays and family gatherings is the rule, not the exception. Police officers are regularly attacked, challenged, taunted, and slurred. When crime plummets, politicians are quick to filch the credit, and, when it serves their ambitions, just as quick to pander to the chorus of blame against officers. Police officers begin each tour of duty, knowing that they may never see another.
Policing is not a profession into which you should stumble; nor is it a profession into which you should hurl yourself with salivating eagerness.
Policing is not for everyone. It is a calling.
To be a good cop means cultivating particular virtues: courage, certainly, like Los Angeles County Sheriff Stacey Lim and Bexar County Sheriff Lisa Castellano or compassion and savvy, like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Tim Purdy, and a thousand others, a thousand times a day serving in quiet devotion to a thankless profession. Good cops, the vast majority of cops, protect the rights of the citizenry under a deep sense of fealty to the Constitution that they swear to uphold.
Policing is not a profession into which you should stumble; nor is it a profession into which you should hurl yourself with salivating eagerness. Each signals trouble at opposite extremes. But bureaucracies are inherently insensitive to the trouble. Bureaucracy cannot distinguish between the sober-minded on the one hand and the stumbler or salivator on the other.
In bureaucracies, quantification subverts qualification. Hiring becomes a function of numbers, algorithms, and box-checking: grade on a test; number of college credits; number of sit-ups churned in a specified interval; budgetary mandates; demographic representation. Metrics may seem objective and scientific but, when enshrined as idols untempered by reason and context, they corrupt. Metrics erase the depth and art in vetting, and that paves an inviting path for bad cops.
Bad cops like Derek Chauvin.
HOW DOES A SOCIOPATH BECOME A COP?
Derek Chauvin passed the police entry exam with the required score. He secured the required number of college credits (or an acceptable equivalent) to achieve eligibility. He blew past the mandated number of push-ups and sit-ups required by civil service rules. He passed a standardized psychological examination that is so crude as a tool of analysis that even a sociopath can divine the “right” answers—and, make no mistake, Chauvin is a sociopath.
The story of Derek Chauvin is not a tale of systemic racism. His story is much more pedestrian than that—and more pathological for it.
Once hired, he made and very likely exceeded, all the expected enforcement quotas, euphemistically termed “performance goals” or something like it in the bureaucratic vernacular of his agency. And since, in bureaucracies, metric-fixation defines police officers by their monthly activity reports, by the enforcement “numbers” that they cough up each month (after all, what would an evaluation be rooted in if not the “numbers?”), Chauvin secured solid scores on his evaluations (anything less would have disqualified him from mentoring new officers—one of his regular assignments). In short, so far as his agency was concerned, Derek Chauvin was a fine candidate for policing.
Of course, the cops who actually worked with him had a different assessment. The established, veteran cops who came into contact with Derek Chauvin had a keen sense that there was something wrong with him. Chauvin surrounded himself with naïve and inexperienced rookies—another sign of trouble, if anyone in authority had cared to pay attention. He also had a troubling history of aggression—against pregnant women and teenagers. Those familiar with him knew that he was one of those problematic personalities who make it into the profession because they look good on a spreadsheet—but who does not belong there. Consider that not a single one of his co-workers has emerged to defend him. More tellingly, none have even expressed any surprise at his behavior—at the fact that he drove his knee into the neck of a person who was prone and not moving for some eight minutes.
But judgments that a person is not suited to the profession are qualitative in nature, and therefore meaningless within the framework of an organizational structure steeped in quantitative metrics and mechanical protocols. The story of Derek Chauvin is not a tale of systemic racism. His story is much more pedestrian than that—and more pathological for it. The story of Derek Chauvin is a tale of the rigid soullessness of bureaucracy that reckons “good” and “bad” by computation and is, therefore, incapable either of elevating the one or of suppressing the other.
POLICE EXECUTIVES: APPEASEMENT OVER JUSTICE
The soullessness and sterility of police bureaucracy has been on full display, blazing in paltry splendor, since the death of George Floyd and the subsequent insurrection that has exploited it. The effete, helpless, hopeless stuttering of politically appointed executive managers and “Top Cops,” the gatekeepers of bureaucracy, from Minneapolis and Seattle to Portland and New York City, is an expression of moral bankruptcy.
[N]ot a single appointee in the field has dared contradict his mayor, even under the storm of lawlessness swallowing some of the nation’s great cities, not in New York City, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, or Minneapolis. These mayors take care to select appointees who will kneel when they bid them to kneel.
The moral bankruptcy offers no guidance to front-line officers who crave guidance, leaving them desperately demoralized. And it offers no answer to the activists who hurl invectives at police as they storm and occupy station-houses. In response to shattered glass and burning shops, to Molotov cocktails and craven ambushes, glassy-eyed police functionaries parrot timid pleas, mouth insipid mea culpas, and join in rapturous handholding of the sort that no one respects, either inside or outside of the profession.
Lest you think (as some on the Right are disposed to do) that law enforcement functionaries (as distinguished from front-line officers) secretly want to answer the violence and lawlessness in a principled, decisive way, and are somehow kept from doing so by the mayors who appoint them, we would remind you that mayors do not appoint their functionaries at random. Mayors manifestly do not seek out principled, independent thinkers with unbreached moral centers to serve as law enforcement functionaries. The proof is that not a single appointee in the field has dared contradict his mayor, even under the storm of lawlessness swallowing some of the nation’s great cities, not in New York City, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, or Minneapolis. These mayors take care to select appointees who will kneel when they bid them to kneel.
If the behavior of police executives, in the context of the withering attacks against the profession, nevertheless seems surprising, consider that it follows its own peculiar kind of logic. Front-line officers spend their time racing from one 911 call to another, investigating crimes, rendering aid, and trying to make the communities that they police better. Executive managers spend their time engaging in stealthy machinations, scheming how best to filch the next rank within the hierarchy of the agency. And these so-called leaders, navigating a mindless network of civil service rules and fickle political agendas, are empowered to determine what is to count as “qualified” and what is not; who is to count as a “good” cop, and who is a “bad” one. This should excite confidence in no one. But it does render the phenomenon of a Chauvin a bit less incomprehensible.
THE SOLUTION: DEMAND RESPONSIBILITY OF LEADERSHIP
In the wake of any act of corruption or brutality (and, worse, acts that are not corrupt or brutal, merely politically inconvenient), law enforcement bureaucracy employs the same self-preserving ruse. It marginalizes the lowest ranking employee that it can, affects a kind of Victorian dismay, deploys operatives to urge “we never said to do that,” followed by some perfunctory adage about changes to come that, finally, change nothing. And people buy it. After all, the ruse is escorted before hungry cameras by grave-looking, white-shirted executives with constellations of brass stars arrayed on their lapels.
The whole, cynical exercise really trades on an equivocation between fault and responsibility.
The whole, cynical exercise really trades on an equivocation between fault and responsibility. Derek Chauvin’s actions were his fault. That settles one side of it. But, upon reflection, does anyone sincerely mean to argue that there is no responsibility to be shouldered by the hierarchically-structured, paramilitary organization that hired him, trained him, evaluated him, monitored him, assigned him (to train rookies, among other things, that is, to train a next generation of Chauvins) and that established the values, culture and goals under which he thought that he could do what he did? Functionaries hope that you will not raise the question; they hope to slide along the slippery distinction between individual fault and organizational responsibility that ends with the buck stopping nowhere.
Yes, reform is needed—and desirable. But in all the talk of reform, not a single proposal thus far addresses anything fundamental. Ambitious, local politicos mandating which swaths of anatomy may or may not be grazed by officers during the chaos of a violent encounter betrays a silly and reactive superficiality. And bureaucracy loves superficiality because, finally, it leaves everything exactly where it was. The issue of responsibility is suffocated.
The frustrating thing about the shrill ululation that passes for debate at present is that it effectively casts solvable problems as if they were intractable ones. The phenomenon of the “bad cop” is not intractable. Here are the preliminaries of a solution: if you want to eliminate the phenomenon of the “bad cop,” stop pretending that you can generate good cops through a mechanical, quantitative process. And, just as importantly, demand from those who affect the mantle of leader within the field of law enforcement that they conduct themselves with the firm understanding that they are responsible for what occurs under their commands. If they wish to hoard the credit for successes, they must equally suffer the failures—and Chauvin represents a wicked failure.
Who paid for the failure of Derek Chauvin? Thus far, the lowest in the hierarchy. Where is his Captain? Chief? Commissioner? Where is the Mayor who, directly or derivatively, hired them all? They remain essentially where and what they were before the death of George Floyd. At root, that is why these incidents happen—and will continue to happen.