Friday, November 06, 2015

Citizens Are Not Enemies To Be Subdued (A Letter)

James Pasco, Executive Director
Fraternal Order of Police
328 Massachusetts Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20002

Dear sir,

One would hope that you view yourself as the head of a professional organization of law enforcement officers who serve and protect the citizenry of your country, rather than the head of a gang.

Since you're comfortable talking to national press about punishing citizens for exercising their right to express their views in public, I guess you can expect to receive responses to it from around the country. Hello from New Mexico, where one of our police agencies, you may have heard, has had to come to terms with its own use of deadly force.

You have every right, of course, to take offense to what filmmaker Quentin Tarantino said at a legal public rally - although having listened to his address in its entirety, it seems to me you are not engaging what he actually said, and have chosen to believe he is "anti-police." What Tarantino actually said was that some officers have, in cases that have drawn national notice, abused their authority or made terrible mistakes. If you can't acknowledge that that is the case, there is little you can contribute to a productive conversation on a serious social problem. Which is sad in itself but we move on.

You are also free to boycott his movie and encourage others to do the same. The threatening tone you have chosen to take, however, in remarks to the Hollywood Reporter and other venues, is colored by the authority you represent and utterly incompatible with democracy. To restate this more simply: it is one thing to express disagreement and suggest that a boycott might be appropriate redress; but publicly threatening "surprises" to Mr. Tarantino or implying that police agencies might react in a retaliatory manner to his exercise of free speech, to exert a chilling effect on other citizens criticizing police behavior, is unacceptable in a free society.

It would be a more productive use of your creative energy to engage the problem itself. One does not have to be "anti-police" to recognize that agencies around the country have seen incidents involving misuse of police authority, that the systems responsible for investigating violence by police tends to shield officers from accountability, that officers who have gotten in trouble in one department frequently find the same employment in a different department where their problems may repeat themselves, that the pressures of the job, in some cases gaps in training, in some cases deficient policy, lead to incidents in which citizens suffer violations of their rights up to and including physical injury and death.

Recognizing this as a problem does not make us "anti-police." This is just what Tarantino said in his address: some of these incidents are unjustified homicides. He called for accountability. If an officer commits murder, we should treat it as such, just as we should exonerate an officer if the facts justify their conduct. This is about letting the truth prevail.

In perfect candor, I think you do officers a disservice by reacting this way instead of engaging the problem. Police officers are working men and women. To me, they are human beings who accept difficult and dangerous work and, I think you will agree, they are confronted with the consequences of social problems in ways other workers do not. They are physically endangered by the social conditions in which people make their choices. We ask a lot of our officers, and we entrust them with a great deal of authority, including the authority to take someone down or even take their life. Wielding that power changes people. Engaging in this problem as humanitarians and professionals is not just for civilians; it is also for the working people who don that uniform and live with the consequences of their own actions.

 If you believe in a free society rather than an authoritarian state, you cannot escape the premise that we are all in this together. Instead of punishing those who speak about real problems in their society (and false presenting what they said as being an attack on police), you need to engage in the discussion. There is much we can learn from you once you stop treating us as enemies to be subdued.


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