“Unprecedented” Disrespect for Police is Well-Deserved


“There has been a spate of particularly brutal and senseless attacks on the police,” according to Eugene O’Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a former police officer and prosecutor. “It seems to me, [there is] an unprecedented level of disrespect and willingness to challenge police officers all over the place.”

What a telling quote.  (We’d have missed it, too, if Scott Greenfield hadn’t written about it today.  Apparently this was quoted on Fox, and we’ve never gotten around to actually watching or reading Fox News.  We get our news mostly from Fark and the WSJ.)  We have no data with which to verify the claim that police are getting attacked more often.  Nor are we aware of any studies showing an unprecedented level of disrespect for the police.  But like all good anecdotal claims, it seems right because it meshes with our own perception — regardless of whether our perception accurately reflects the truth.

In other words, it’s telling not because it is true, but because it feels true.

Perception is everything.  Reality has a way of catching up.  It’s true of almost every human endeavor except pure math and the most rigorous science.  Perception either is truth, or it becomes truth.

And the perception is that people have “an unprecedented level of disrespect” for the police.  Accurate or not, it’s fast becoming the truth.


So how come?  That’s easy.  Disrespect must be earned.  People tend not to disrespect others until they’ve been given a reason to.  But once respect is lost, it is practically gone forever.  Reputation works that way.  And when people lose respect for an authority figure, the effect is even worse.  There’s a sense of betrayal.  A violation of trust.  When a trusted authority figure has betrayed that trust, the natural response is not mere disrespect, but hostility.

In recent weeks, there has been talk of more and more people getting arrested for videotaping the police.   It’s nothing new — we’ve been reading such stories for several years now, ever since cell phones started being kitted out with video cameras.  Still, it’s a topic of the day, and we’ve had a few conversations with people on both sides of the issue.  Leaving aside the whole wiretapping issue, however, (a typical explanation for such arrests in states without a one-party-consent rule, though it’s still bogus when the taping is in public and not remotely unlawful eavesdropping), it sure seems like cops are making these arrests because they’re afraid of being made to look bad.  Perception matters.

Are they afraid of misperception?  Sure.  “The camera doesn’t lie,” folks say.  But that’s demonstrably false.  Look at that famous video of Rodney King getting clubbed by a swarm of cops.  It sure looks like he’s getting hit for no good reason, doesn’t it?  But the video doesn’t show King going 80 mph through residential neighborhoods after a 100+ mph freeway chase, it doesn’t show King acting like he was flying on PCP when he got out of the car, it doesn’t show him fighting off multiple officers who tried to handcuff him.  The video actually shows the cops acting by the book, doing exactly what they were supposed to do — get him on the ground and keep him there.  He got hit with batons when he kept trying to get up, and the cops struck him to keep him on the ground.  The jury acquitted the cops, because they did it by the book.  But there was rioting and mayhem as a result, because the perception was different.

The camera does lie, because it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Cops suddenly rushing up on a guy for no apparent reason, frisking him, and arresting him — that looks bad if you didn’t know the guy had sold crack to an undercover a few minutes before.  But the camera didn’t catch that.  But guess what, that’s still the cops’ problem, and rightly so.  Eyewitnesses in the community didn’t see it, either, after all.  Is it any wonder why some communities have a strong perception that the cops keep grabbing people for no good reason?  Because that’s what they see.  Right or wrong, that’s the perception. 

And it’s the cops’ job to manage that perception.  Nobody else’s.

But the cops have to be afraid of legitimate perceptions, too.  The camera does happen to catch a whole lot of real police misconduct.  Cops abuse their power all the time.  They do lock people up without good reason.  They do hit, shoot, tase people without good reason.

This misconduct is nothing knew.  There have always been dumbasses, martinets and thugs in uniform.  They’re a minority, but they’ve always been around.  What’s new is that, thanks to the ubiquity of digital cameras and YouTube, people who ordinarily would never have heard of these acts are now able to see them all the time.

Maybe there’s a danger that, because of their sensational nature, these videos get seen so frequently that they create a disproportionate impression, a false perception that this goes on a lot more than it really does.  There’s probably something to that.

But it doesn’t matter.  The fact is that people are seeing more and more police brutality these days.  And they’re seeing it, not just hearing stories.  People are internalizing it, it’s becoming common knowledge.  Not just to people in the poorer communities whose voices are never heard to begin with.  Middle-class, law-abiding folks are starting to believe that the cops can’t be trusted.


Now, the snarky thing to say at this point is “we could have told you that.”  We’ve been practicing criminal law since ’96, and from our very first case we’ve dealt with police misconduct.  We’re friends with a lot of good cops, but it’s been a long time since we felt any trust for a cop just because they’re wearing the uniform. 

But for the general population to feel the same way?  Is that really a good thing? 

Perception is all.  And if the police are generally perceived to be unjust, then they will lose their moral authority.  That is dangerous.

It is dangerous for the policing side of criminal justice, because moral authority is pretty much all the police have, when you think about it.  Even here in NYC, with a police force the size of a whole town, there are nowhere near enough cops to do the job if a decent chunk of the population chose to defy them.  Any cop with half a brain knows that the only thing standing between him and the mob is the mob’s fragile respect for the badge.

Without that respect, the police would have to resort to fear.  The NYPD would have to mutate back into being just the biggest, best-armed gang in town, bring back the TPF goon squad, just to get the job done.  That’s bad for the rest of us. 

Our entire criminal justice system is designed to work by managing perceptions.  Crime is controlled by deterrence, which you only get if there’s a general sense that the system is fair and the guilty get punished.  If you set everything up just so, and you could get people to believe that without having to incur the expense of prosecuting and punishing the guilty, you’d still get the same level of deterrence. 

The police are part of that equation.  They react to crime and try to catch the guilty so they may be punished.  They also serve to uphold the law, which they do not by enforcing it, but by embodying it.

The police really are supposed to be the good guys.  The fact that a lot of them aren’t is something we defense lawyers ought to know, but for the general population to start believing that the cops are the bad guys?  That way lies chaos.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  All of us, now.  On YouTube.

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6 Responses

  1. James [via Facebook] says:

    I think part of the problem is that the police are enforcing laws enacted by politicians that we, the public, don’t trust. We don’t trust the politicians, and we don’t trust the laws. Therefore, enforcing laws that we don’t trust does not… exactly enhance their standing within the community.

    Another example of police losing the trust of people would be the situation in Arizona. The police, federal and local, have clearly lost the trust of the manority of the public. The law was passed, because the public did not feel like the police, federal and local, were enforcing the other laws that they were charged to enforce. That is why the law allows the average citizen to sue their local police for ‘not’ enforcing the law. And just to add substance to this perception the police, both federal and local, are trying to avoid having to enforce this law that the majority of the state (greater than 70%) and the nation support.

    I have a number of police officers that work for me at my reserve unit, and as a general rule I have a fair amount of respect for them. However, they are military police in addition to being civilian police, and I think the combination makes them more likely to be professional than if they were strictly civilian police.

    (As a side note, the Uniform Code of Military Justice is much more protective of the individual’s rights than civilian law.)

  2. Nathan says:

    There’s a great article in the WSJ today about how the Arizona police are getting ready for the law to go into effect. They feel like they’re caught in the middle, and no matter what they do someone’s going to have a problem with them. They’re preparing to be baited by activists who want to portray them as profiling bastards, and they’re preparing to be called out by xenophobes for not enforcing the law. So there’s a lot of training going on of what to do and what not to do.

    The best advice they’re getting? “Act as if every act and word is being videotaped.”

    That’s good advice for all police everywhere, I’d say.

  3. Amii says:

    One way for law enforcement to regain respect with the community at large is for them to actually police themselves.

    As someone that has long mistrusted law enforcement, but also been perceived by LE to be a typical, middle class, law abiding citizen, I’ve noticed the change in perception of which you write. Those close to me used to think I was a conspiracy minded, paranoid regarding LE. Now I’m the well informed adviser as more and more of them have run ins that should be minor…but aren’t.

    And with the increased number of incidents of illegal activity being filmed, reported, etc., they are always followed by an internal review that found the police acted appropriately. This is not lost on the public anymore. If they are going to save themselves, they have to start policing themselves.

  1. September 28, 2010

    […] The case has become the most visible in a rising tide of police backlash against citizens videotaping them while they abuse their authority.  We wrote on this (and the reasons why the police are losing respect) here. […]

  2. November 17, 2010

    […] which leads to the police feeling even more embattled, which becomes a vicious circle.  (So it’s no wonder that we’re now being told of an “unprecedented” level of disrespect for the […]

  3. October 1, 2012

    […] For, as Nathaniel Burney has noted, Our entire criminal justice system is designed to work by managing perceptions [about law enforcement].  Crime is controlled by deterrence, which you only get if there’s a general sense that the system is fair and the guilty get punished.  If you set everything up just so, and you could get people to believe that without having to incur the expense of prosecuting and punishing the guilty, you’d still get the same level of deterrence. […]

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