The Brotherhood in Blue (and Red) Gathers at the Tacoma Dome during a memorial service for four police officers recently murdered in an ambush in Washington (above, and below, right). More than 20,000 police officers, including 1,000 members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, took part in the service.
In a State of Nature, it is true, that a Man of superior Force may beat or rob me; but then it is true, that I am at full Liberty to defend myself, or make Reprisal by Surprize or by Cunning, or by any other way in which I may be superior to him. But in Political Society … if I attempt to avenge myself, the whole Force of that Society is ready to complete my Ruin.
— Edmund Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society (1757), original spelling and punctuation.
The year soon to expire, according to the Washington Times, was a particularly “deadly” one for police. That claim was made in the story’s headline and first two paragraphs, and then thoroughly rebutted in its coda.
2009 “was a particularly perilous year for officers involved in gun disputes,” insists the Times, with a 24 percent increase in the number of officers killed in the line of duty by gunfire. As of December 12, 47 police officers died nationwide after being shot while on duty, as compared to a total of 38 who had died in similar circumstances in 2008.
As it happens, however, 2008 saw “the lowest number of gunfire deaths [of police officers] since 1956” — which would mean that 2009 wasn’t unusually dangerous for police, but rather that the previous year was an unusually safe one.
In fact, fewer police died in the line of duty this year (117) than last (125). Tucked away near the end of the article, the Timesobserves: “In 1973, during a heyday of corruption and crime, there were about 600,000 officers and about 156 gunfire deaths. Now there are about 900,000 law enforcement officers nationwide and only 47 gunfire deaths this year — a per-capitadecrease of nearly 21 percent.”
“The chances of being killed in the line of duty are lower than they have been in modern times,” noted Kevin Morrison of the Officers Memorial Fund.
This is the reality behind the all-pervasive rhetoric describing law enforcement as a uniquely hazardous occupation. Pundits of an authoritarian bent, playing to the punitive populist sub-population, refer to a non-existent “war on police”; police officials insist that exceptional episodes of genuinely tragic violence represent the “new normal” for police officers.
The impression that police are under siege is also cultivated through the pomp and paramilitary ritual that characterize police funerals, even when the circumstances of death weren’t particularly heroic (such as a traffic accident or other lethal mishap). Such events aren’t so much intended to lament the death of an individual as to celebrate the might and glory of the State.
The December 8 memorial service in Washington’s Tacoma Dome for four police officers killed in an ambush sets a new standard for institutional self-dramatization by the “law enforcement community”: The event, which drew an estimated 20,000 officers from 150 agencies, including a crimson-clad contingent from the RCMP, was the largest memorial service of its kind since — no extra credit if you’ve guessed correctly — those convened after 9-11.
As the police gathered for the memorial, they were enveloped in a security cocoon akin to that routinely created for presidential visits, with heavily armed SWAT operators in full military gear haunting the rooftops.
As Tacoma’s ABC affiliate KXLY explained, the extraordinary security measures were in place because of concerns that police “might still be a target.” Thus we can see that “officer safety” is the prime directive even where police funerals are concerned.
As is the case with every large-scale police funeral, coverage of the memorial service in Tacoma repeatedly emphasized that the murder of the four Washington police officers wasn’t merely a crime against four irreplaceable individual human beings, but — more importantly — an assault on an “institution.”
We are invited to believe that these killings were particularly outrageous because a criminal had lifted his unhallowed hand to strike down four sanctified personages who wore the insignia of state authority. The same assumption can be seen in the concentrated fury with which police and prosecutors focus their attention on “cop killers,” as if people in that profession are innately more important or more valuable than murder victims from other walks of life.
Retired Pittsburgh police officer Todd Cenci captured that conceit in a December 20 letter to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“I think it’s about time to draft a bill that makes the death penalty mandatory for anyone who is convicted of killing a police officer who is in the line of duty,” opined Cenci. “We need to show our police that we stand behind them 100 percent. So I ask my local politicians to introduce a bill that makes the death penalty mandatory for anyone convicted of killing a police officer on duty — without any exceptions.”
Why not make the death penalty mandatory for all murder convictions? Why should it be unavoidable only when the victim is a police officer? The tacit but obvious answer is that Cenci — who reflects the culture of the profession from which he is now retired — sees police officers as a caste apart from, and more valuable than, the “Mundanes,” or general population.
What of cases in which people kill police in self-defense, perhaps as a result of mistaken identity during a no-knock raid at the wrong address? No extenuation would be provided for under the “no-exceptions” standard described by Cenci.
Once again, Cenci is not merely some Keystone State Floyd R. Turbo ventilating his frustration in the letters column; the approach he describes was followed in the case of Mississippi resident Cory Maye, who shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy who was part of a paramilitary strike team that invaded Maye’s home without a warrant because they didn’t double-check the address.
Although Maye will soon receive a new trial, the prosecutor in the first trial sought and obtained a first-degree murder conviction and a death sentence — apparently on the assumption that when a mere Mundane is on the receiving end of unwarranted police violence, he has no right to resist, because his life is not as important as that of his assailant.
A less pronounced form of the same reflexive elitism was displayed in the pages of Canada’s Victoria Times-Colonist.
On December 8, that paper described the findings of Paul Smith, head of a the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP, regarding the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski when he was needlessly electrocuted by Taser-wielding Mounties at the Vancouver Airport.
Dziekanski, who spoke no English and had been traveling for 20 hours (10 of which he spent waiting in the airport for his mother, who had been told he hadn’t arrived), threw a fit while being held in a secure area prior to passing through customs.
RCMP officers arrived and within seconds shot him five times with a Taser within a period of 31 seconds.Dziekanski, after being handcuffed died within minutes at the scene. Smith’s report condemns the RCMP for making no meaningful attempt to de-escalate the situation, being torpid and indifferent in seeking medical help for the victim, and for staging a crude cover-up of the incident.
Two days after publishing its report on the RCMP Commission’s findings, the Times-Colonist’s editorial board–reacting to reader criticism — decided it was necessary to defend itself for publishing a news story that reflected badly on the police on the day of the Tacoma memorial service.
The entire law enforcement community just finished burying four officers just a few hours south of here,” complained a reader. “We’re waking up to read the morning paper, hoping that it was just a bad nightmare, and find this article [regarding the Taser-inflicted death of Robert Dziekanski at the hands of the RCMP].”
To the paper’s credit, it reiterated the criticisms of the RCMP, even though it did so amid formulaic expressions of submissive respect for the Heroes In Blue (“The thousands of officers who attended [the Tacoma] memorial service celebrated everything that is heroic about police work, and they had to blink back tears as they did it”).
What is genuinely noteworthy about that exchange, once again, is the unmistakable assumption that there was something sacrilegious about mentioning the needless death of an innocent man at the hands of police on the day that the “entire law enforcement community” was mourning four of its own.
Sure, it’s a shame Robert Dziekanski died. But after all, he was just another Mundane.
While the names of every police officer who dies before retirement is known and carefully memorialized, there is no similar record kept of those who were unjustly killed by police.
We are told that 2009 was a year fraught with peril for the police because 47 officers were killed by gunfire. During the same time frame, however, at least 56 people suffered “Taser-related” deaths at the hands of police. It’s difficult to find out how many others were killed by police — in shootings, beatings, or mistreatment in jail or prison. The chances are pretty good, however, that the body count is much higher than the 117 police deaths that occurred during the past year.
Shouldn’t we therefore conclude that 2009 was (to paraphrase the Washington Times) “a particularly perilous time for civilians involved in encounters with the police”?
It is a singular tragedy whenever any human being suffers an avoidable death. When that individual is a police officer, we are expected to prostrate ourselves in inconsolable grief. When the deceased is a victim of unwarranted lethal violence by the police, we are instructed to sympathize with the assailant, who has a difficult and dangerous job. Who will mourn the Mundanes?
A personal note
Over the past several years, as I have dealt with Korrin’s repeated hospitalizations and my own very serious health scare, Jeff has been incredibly helpful and generous. My kids are besotted with him, and he’s been a wonderful uncle. The two of us were alienated for a long time, but in recent years we’ve grown very close. It’s one of life’s larger ironies that I had to wait until my 40s to know him as a real brother.
Please pray for Jeff, or if you’re not inclined to, please spare a kind thought on his behalf. I would really appreciate it.