The bizarre claim from the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association that Mayor Bill de Blasio's sympathy with demonstrators against racially-motivated police violence somehow contributed to the tragic deaths of two city police officers demonstrates the resurgence of the "if you're not with us, you're against us" police mentality. This is particularly disturbing in the largest police department in the nation, one reasonably racially and ethnically diverse and educated, even if not necessarily the best-trained and best supervised. Police Commissioner William Bratton's shrugging off the claim as traditional political tensions between mayors of large cities and police unions is short-sighted.
I offer no statistical analysis of whether the incidence of police misconduct, especially in minority communities, has increased or is better publicized in this age of smart phones and increasing public concern. As an author of a legal treatise on the subject, I am well aware of the pitfalls of generalizing, and as a resident of New York City, I only know of the millions in settlements paid out to successful litigants in an area of law that particularly favors police and department defendants in civil suits. (The last number available is $137.2 million in 2013). I am not an expert on the subject of "police culture," but sociologists have documented a "culture" of isolation from minority communities, civil rights violations, covering up misconduct, leniently punishing violent or corrupt officers and resistance to change. As evidenced by New York's "stop and frisk" controversy, Chicago's notorious "torture" precinct, and a spate of recent Justice Department investigations of local police in New Orleans, Cleveland and Cincinnati, that culture has persisted in the face of even the best curative efforts.
Particular examples are obviously treacherous, but telling, especially if they are run-of-the-mill and do not involve highly fraught confrontations. A recent Maryland case found that undercover Baltimore City detectives patrolling a housing project to "detect" drug activity acted with malice when they approached a teen and one said, "If you look at me the wrong way again, I am going to ram this stick up your ass." They then threw him into an undercover van; "searched him for money, and broke his father's cell phone;" drove him around for a few hours and pushed him out of the van outside city limits in the rain "with no money, cell phone, shoes or socks." The events occurred just a few hours after a similar stop and treatment of another youth in the same area.
The most revealing aspects of this particular incident are its apparent frequency and casual callousness. Also, detectives dressed in civvies and unidentifiable, the "Princes of the City" in that old movie of the same name, may feel particularly free to enforce draconian drug laws, simply harass citizens to show authority. The well known phenomenon of hassling and arresting for "Disrespect of Cop" (or perception of same) may also be at play. Such arrests for "resisting arrest" or "obstruction" or "interference" are often thrown out by the courts.
That this should happen in the Age of Obama is even more troubling, although we should not be surprised since he never received a majority of the vote of working class white adult males. It seems that there has been a merger of traditional police culture with the conservative drumbeat of disrespect for, disparagement and even ridiculing of the president and the demeaning of his office. The widely held perception that Mr. Obama has "failed" seems to have freed up not terribly well-hidden stereotypes. It's almost as if "Well, we gave them a chance — two chances — and they screwed up, so let's go back to the good old days." In fact, going back to the "good old days" has been the standard conservative response to everything — global warming, pollution, the "cold war," and civil rights.
The police had their "good old days" too and apparently have sensed the broader trend. If this is true, then the well intentioned proposals aimed at making them better trained, more "professional" and more cognizant of the limits of their power and authority simply pale in the face of a new and disheartening reality.
Isidore Silver is a professor emeritus of constitutional law and history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of "Police Civil Liability" (Lexis-Nexis). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.