Tragedy, the Police, and the Law

The murder of two NYPD officers is, it goes without saying, a tragedy, and a crime. It is every other bad adjective one wants to ascribe it. No one, whatever position they may hold, deserves to die at the hands of a thug, a man who was so cowardly that he snuck up on the patrol car where where Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos sat. They leave behind them families who obviously loved them dearly, and whose grief is and will be horrific.

The initial information appears to suggest that Liu and Ramos were killed by a criminal who began Saturday by first attacking his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore before deciding to end his crime spree by shooting the two police officers and then ending his own life. What’s more, the killer had an extensive criminal record.

The linking of this crime with the protests for police reform and anger over the deaths of unarmed black men is aided by the killer’s own statement: that he was exacting revenge in the names of Michael Brown and and Eric Garner, whose own deaths have led to protests over police tactics. I’m less certain it was that, and not a suicidal endgame by a criminal who sought notoriety by latching onto the recent national conversation about policing.

The condemnation by people across the political spectrum – from Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network has organized some of the protests against abusive policing – to the right has been swift. No one within the realm of acceptable political discourse in this country has said anything other than these acts were murder.

NYPD Union Reaction

The reaction by certain elements of the NYPD rank and file and the NYPD Police Benevolent Association, however, has been troubling. NYPD officers turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio as he arrived at the hospital where the two slain officers had been taken on Saturday.

And NYPD sergeants association official Ed Mullins told the media that “the blood of these two officers is clearly” on his hands, citing his “failed policies and actions that enabled this tragedy.”

These remarks could simply be the intemperate statements by a union official. If so, the appropriate response would be for Mr. Mullins’ immediate supervisor within the NYPD to sit him down and discipline him formally. If they are something more – an incitement to disobey – then Mr. Mullins needs to go, and with him every other New York City Police Officer who believes he does not serve the citizens of New York through their elected mayor and city council.

Then there’s NYPD Police Benevolent Association head Pat Lynch who was secretly recorded telling fellow officers: “Our friends, we’re courteous to them. Our enemies, extreme discretion. The rules are made by them to hurt you. Well now we’ll use those rules to protect us.”

This country – by which I mean the United States – has always prided itself on the notion that its military and its policing are civilian-led. And whatever law and order may mean, the phrase certainly means an orderly and lawful police and military that provide safety and security within the context of an elected, democratic government. That’s not always been the case in fact, but the notion is this country’s aspiration.

Indeed, there are precedents in standing up to a semi-organized police rebellion in other countries as well: Most recently, in the face of a coup by police in Ecuador in 2010, President Rafael Correa went to Quito’s main police barracks where he confronted officers:

“You want to kill the president, here he is. Kill me, if you want to. Kill me if you are brave enough!”… [T]he president’s defiant stand gave his supporters time to organize counter-demonstrations. Most of the army, which extracted Correa from the cop-besieged hospital, stayed loyal. And Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and the rest of South America made it clear they wouldn’t tolerate Correa’s ouster. Eight people were killed and nearly 300 wounded in the police riot.

These dangerous precedents

Let’s be clear: police officers, as is true of anyone in any other line of work, deserve to have a safe workplace. In general, they do, at least according to FBI statistics. The number of police officers killed on duty has been falling since the mid-1990s, consistent with the general decline in violent crime. Just 27 police officers were feloniously killed in 2013, the lowest raw number in more than 50 years. (More officers died in the line of duty due to accidents and medical conditions.)

This year is likely to see more deaths – around 50 – but, as Radley Balko notes in the Washington Post, that number is still low, and low in the context of a national population that is vastly larger than it was in the 1960s when violent police deaths were also higher.

Still, policing is dangerous when compared with many other professions, including mine. That said, serving as an officer is a choice, one freely accepted. And the sacrifice means, in part, sacrificing one’s own immediate safety knowing that to make police officers absolutely safe means creating a police state that is not something most of us would wish to live in.

Moreover, while officers should not be asked to take on pointless hazards in the pursuit of their duties, the overall policies governing police tactics are a matter not for police unions, nor the NYPD Police Benevolent Association, but for the elected officials and their designees who run those police departments and the courts.

Finally, if law and order means anything, it means respect for command. And command starts with a civilian leader – the mayor and city council – and not with a union leader. Police officers may not agree with the decisions of the command, but they must show public respect. And silence when they disagree.

Otherwise, lawlessness reigns.

Police Tactics vs. Police Safety

Police officers should, like the rest of us, always be subjected to the rule of law. And broader discussions about police tactics, police training, and the militarization of police are part of that conversation about the rule of law.

The recent spate of unarmed black men dying after interactions with police is part of that discussion, and the call for reform should not end.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.