Because their duties can be dangerous, and because we want them to show up when we need them, and because they represent security and order and even civility, cops are generally appreciated and respected far beyond what most of them think — and what some of them deserve.
Despite all the protests since Ferguson and the assertion that there's a "war on cops" in the United States, Americans generally have a high opinion of police officers. In fact, a Gallup poll last fall found public respect for them surging: Three out of four people said they had "a great deal of respect" for the police in their area. That was the highest level of respect for cops since Gallup started asking the question in the 1990s.
There's some racial divide on this, of course, but not as much as you might expect, given the number of widely-reported shootings of unarmed black men by police officers: Eighty percent of whites said they had a "great deal of respect" for police in their area while two-thirds of non-whites (67 percent) had the same level of respect.
Views around Baltimore are similar, as the Goucher Poll found a year ago.
In that survey, 82 percent of Marylanders agreed that "in general, police officers are respected in your community." Though more whites (86 percent) held that view than African-Americans (77 percent), those are impressive numbers.
But the love fell off considerably when the Goucher Poll asked deeper questions. For instance, only 49 percent of Marylanders agreed that "people of all races receive equal treatment by the police in your community." (Whites came in at 57 percent on that, blacks at 38 percent.) And while 70 percent of whites agreed that "police in your community are held accountable for misconduct," only 39 percent of blacks concurred.
So there's an established perception that racial bias affects how cops carry out their duties. And at least 42 percent of all Marylanders do not believe police officers are held accountable for their misdeeds.
Still, there's an overriding respect for police officers, probably for the reasons I stated — the danger of the job, our dependence on them, our need to feel laws are being enforced. In the ideal, we want our cops to be all about justice and public service: Smart, strong, trusted, courageous.
But, as a result of our general respect for the ideal police officer — a kind of bias in itself — we cut them breaks: They get, by statute, extra protections from scrutiny and discipline despite being entrusted with the power to use lethal force, if necessary. We give them the benefit of doubt, beyond what civilians get, when their behavior is questioned. We generally think they are not paid enough for what we ask them to do.
In Baltimore, most city officials have gone along with this for years.
Three years ago, a Baltimore Sun investigation of court cases found $5.7 million in damages to victims of police since 2011. That represented more than 100 court judgments or settlements related to brutality and civil rights violations in a relatively short period of time. The Board of Estimates approved those settlements. You'd think that a diligent mayor, comptroller and City Council president, all members of the board, might have wondered out loud what was going on, and what police officials were doing about bad cops costing taxpayers so much money.
You would think that cops who behaved badly would not be given special assignments, such as a post with an elite firearms unit, at a time when the city was experiencing a surge in homicides. You'd think a commander would want absolute confidence in the men he was entrusting with the special duty of going after bad guys with guns. No one is perfect, but you'd think a special unit would get special vetting.
But look what happened.
Now, a check of records by The Sun found that the city has paid out at least $524,000 to settle separate lawsuits involving four of the accused. One of them had been the subject of dozens of complaints and three lawsuits. Are the pickings so slim that our police department has to recycle cops with so much baggage?
We live in an age of scrutiny — cell phone cameras everywhere, social media drawing attention to all kinds of things — and probably no government apparatus has been subject to as much scrutiny during the last three years as law enforcement. Baltimore cops have been in an intense spotlight since before the death of Freddie Gray, and the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a civil rights investigation of the police department during the time of the gun unit's alleged offenses.
If all of this is true and the charges stick, then what we have here is an example of grand stupidity or arrogance by cynical cops, or sheer brazenness, or commanders being blind or asleep. Or all of the above.
No one in the department picked up on any of this alleged misconduct?
And I have not even mentioned overtime pay. It's outrageous. One member of the gun unit was paid an annual salary of $85,406, and he made another $83,345 in overtime in fiscal 2016. Another, the cop with all the previous law suits and complaints, made $77,600 a year, and another $66,600 in overtime.
The federal corruption charges against the officers include allegations of overtime fraud.
None of this raised a red flag? Not even a pink one?
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Maybe cops believe they have plenty of cover: A system that protects them from scrutiny and discipline, and a department that needs all hands on deck and cannot afford to lose experienced officers. Or maybe they take comfort in knowing that, historically and innately, the public respects, trusts and supports them, and that while everyone is innocent until proven guilty, cops are more so.