Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Cowards With Badges?

     Time was, Americans took pride in what we called “the forces of order.” The police were prominent in that group of public servants. We believed that they existed to protect the rest of us. We understood their jobs to include the obligation to accept risks, including mortal risks, under certain circumstances. We believed that they understood that as well. And perhaps it really was so.

     It doesn’t seem to be that way today. Indeed, police actions in recent years suggest exactly the opposite: that police forces are characterized by an aversion to risk that the rest of us would deride as cowardice.

     Everyone is risk averse to some degree. No one accepts any and every risk he confronts without consideration of its upside and downside. Certain occupations are kind to the extremely risk averse. Others are not.

     The rash of reports about police not venturing into active-shooter confrontations, police shooting unarmed and unresisting citizens, police shooting dogs, and police intimidation of nominally peaceable citizens suggests that some of our cops are more risk averse (and less respectful of Americans’ individual rights) than the occupation should tolerate. Certainly the situation is worse for Americans in regions where the police are frequently active.

     A number of commentators have opined that the typical citizen is better off not involving himself with the police to any degree. You say your house was burglarized? Let the insurance company handle it. Your car was stolen out of your driveway? Same advice. You were mugged on the street? Same advice, with the addendum that you should rethink your choice of neighborhoods to walk through.

     Every interaction with anyone carries some degree of risk. An interaction with a policeman is no different, except that the policeman is far more likely to be armed. To depend on the police to protect you and your property, when Supreme Court decisions have held that there is no such obligation, is foolish. If the general level of risk aversion among police is truly rising, it’s even more foolish.

     But is it unfair to view policemen generally as cowards with badges?

     Institutional dynamics, whether in the private or the public sector, are bound by certain laws of valuation akin to Gresham’s Law of monies and currencies:

     "When a government overvalues one type of money and undervalues another, the undervalued money will leave the country or disappear from circulation into hoards, while the overvalued money will flood into circulation." It is commonly stated as: "Bad money drives out good".

     In point of fact, Gresham’s Law operates in any institution in which two items – and they may be persons — are valued equally by the institution despite differences in their operational value. For example, if Smith and Jones, two employees with equivalent responsibilities, are equally valued by their employer – i.e., in salary, perquisites, prestige, and opportunities for promotion – while Smith consistently outperforms Jones, Smith becomes likely either to leave the company or to reduce his performance to Jones’s level. This dynamic can be seen in operation in many places. Owing to the irresistible power of the SNAFU Principle, it’s the bane of large companies with many levels of management.

     Police departments are not immune to these dynamics.

     Over time, older policemen retire or die and are replaced by younger ones. If the departing policemen exhibited less risk aversion than their replacements, the dynamics discussed above will result in an ever more risk averse police force. Whether that is happening now is a subject for serious study.

     The possibility has been discussed, at Western Rifle Shooters that police are taught today that “the most important thing is to go home safe.” If this is true, and there is anecdotal evidence to support it, then the emergence of extremely risk averse police – e.g., the sort who stood down during the Parkland, Florida school massacre – is only natural. I have no countervailing evidence. Whether there is an opposed effort in progress in police academies is hard to determine.

     Of one thing we may be sure: A highly risk averse police force is more dangerous to law-abiding citizens than to criminals. Criminals are comfortable with violence, and the police know it. The typical private citizen is not comfortable with violence...and the police know that too. Given that a desire to wield authority is a common characteristic of persons who enter law enforcement, that would have serious implications for relations between cops and private citizens, and for much else besides.

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