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devil duck

Thoughts on hiring people to be violent

So once again a white on-duty police officer has killed an unarmed, mostly-innocent black man, in violation of his own department's policies, and will face no criminal charges; it's not clear whether he will receive any negative feedback from his employer, or will be subject to a civil suit.

Part of the issue is race, of course -- this kind of thing seems to keep happening with white officers and black civilians. But there's a larger problem which would remain even if there were no racial angle.

One of the qualities of a State, in libertarian terms, is "a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence." Our society routinely hires people to exercise that "legitimate use of violence": soldiers, executioners, jailers, police officers. All of these people are expected to do, as part of their job descriptions, things that would normally be criminal offenses, because they're allegedly acting not as individuals but as representatives of the State. If these people were held to the exact same standards as ordinary civilians, they couldn't do their jobs and nobody with any sense would accept such a job.

But our problem right now is the opposite: we've hired people to be violent on behalf of the State, and effectively immunized them from any personal responsibility for their actions on duty; we've given them individual discretion far exceeding their training and mandate.

One expects the severity of the action to be correlated with the strictness of the procedures. An executioner, in killing people, has to follow a very precise script, after a procedure of months or years has allegedly established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A jailer isn't supposed to kill people at all, but can use violence to keep people in captivity, again after a lengthy legal procedure. A soldier, in killing people, obviously doesn't have time for all that "in the field"; the person to be killed is decided to be a legitimate target in a matter of seconds by virtue of appearance, physical location (in a war zone, outside the U.S.), and (perhaps) the appearance of posing an immediate threat. A police officer applies basically all the same criteria, except that the people to be harmed or killed are inside the U.S. and (mostly) citizens, so there are stricter standards: a police officer is supposed to follow legal procedures (which frankly can be pretty complex), while still making decisions in a matter of seconds. And a police officer isn't hired to kill people, but only to use that as a rare last resort. [Note the remarkable similarity between a police officer and a soldier. I'll get back to this.]

I suspect that there's no objectively "right" answer, only a continuum of unsatisfactory compromises. People with a right-wing mind set of "it's a tough world out there, and it takes a tough man unfettered by bureaucracy to get the job done" will prefer one end of the spectrum, while those with a left-wing mind set of "we're a nation of laws, not of men; people's rights should be taken from them only after commensurate due process" will prefer the other end of the spectrum.

However, as I was thinking through this post, I mused "police officers need guns and some individual discretion in order to do their jobs," and shalmestere said "Like in England, where the police don't routinely carry guns?"

Even civilians may under some circumstances be permitted violence, mostly in defending themselves or others from immediate danger. But (except in "stand your ground" states) they're expected to use no more force than necessary, to take reasonable measures to avoid confrontation, to call the cops if possible rather than confronting bad guys directly, etc. Come to think of it, these are all things that we'd like to expect of police too.

I suspect that in many countries, police officers don't think of themselves as "soldiers with stricter rules of engagement," but rather as "civilians with a special duty." Not "trained killers minus some of their discretion," but "good neighbors plus some extra trust."


Yes, that occurred to me too, and I wasn't sure where to fit it into the post. I bet it's a lot easier to ask your police officers not to routinely carry guns if your civilians aren't routinely carrying guns.
I've been contemplating a similar post, but from a different perspective. What we have is a classic risk-shifting problem in which the question is: how much do you want to deter bad decisions by the police (police killing innocent person, engaging in excessive force, or otherwise engaging in violent unacceptable behavior) v. accept the greater risk that a police officer will not use violence when appropriate. e.g., hesitating because a criminal does not appear to be a threat, or allowing an escape because the only way to stop the criminal is use of lethal force.

I will note that the military spends much time on this. They call it "rules of engagement." As warfare has translated into urban warfare, and as enemies deliberately infiltrate and/or base in civilian areas, the military (both for the U.S. and other countries) applies increasingly more complex rules of engagement. Some of these are based around a growing body of international law, some from the goal of winning "hearts and minds" of local populations.

We have generally shifted most of the risk of bad decisions by police onto the general public. The result is a predictable "moral hazard." Why shouldn't police simply roll out of a squad car and shoot a 12 year old, or apply a choke hold at the least sign of "resistance?" Every signal we have -- in terms of liability or other form of sanction -- indicates that this is the way we want police to err. Under the current system, we are willing to bear the cost of even reckless use of force over the possibility that a police officer will not use sufficient force when use of such force is warranted.

We can, however, shift the balance in any number of degrees. This would create incentives to avoid the use of force and other bad policing where inappropriate, the same way that criminal sanctions and civil liability do in other areas of life. We can force both individual police officers and/or police departments to bear more potential risk. This should reduce risk to the public. The question is the optimum trade off.
Right. There will always be an error rate, but how do we want to distribute it between false positives (cops beating up or killing innocent civilians) and false negatives (cops failing to catch bad guys)?

Of course, lowering the error rate would be nice in any case. That presumably depends on police hiring and training practices: the pickier you are in hiring, and the more time-and-money you spend on training, the lower the error rate. Which comes down to money. How much is our society willing to spend on lowering the total error rate?
Then there's the question of cui bono? Who benefits from a low false-positive rate, and who benefits from a low false-negative rate?

People more likely to be stereotyped as criminals -- young, male, and/or racial minority -- benefit the most from a low false-positive rate. And people more likely to be victims of crimes benefit the most from a low false-negative rate.

Since poor and racial-minority neighborhoods tend to also be high-crime neighborhoods, one might expect the residents of those neighborhoods to be the ones agitating for freer policing. Or one might at least expect that interest to counterweight the mostly-minority population's interest in not getting beaten up. But we don't see that; why not?

I'm guessing it's because, in many such neighborhoods, the "catching-bad-guys" function of the police has been almost forgotten, obscured by the more visible "beating-us-up-for-no-reason" function. How often do the black residents of Ferguson or the ghettoes of NYC actually see themselves as benefiting from police presence?

By contrast, middle-class white Americans like me are more likely to see themselves as victims of criminals, not as victims of police. When the police make a false-positive mistake in my neighborhood, we appeal to a judge and, with reasonable probability, get the ticket or charge dismissed or reduced. Total cost a few hours and a few hundred dollars, not a life.
I should add that police in this country are treated as "soldiers with even looser rules of engagement" than actual soldiers deployed abroad.
I was wondering about that. I've been assuming that the rules of engagement for police officers, incorporating among other things centuries of court interpretations of the Bill of Rights, are more complex and stricter than those for a soldier operating in a foreign war zone. But never having been or lived with a soldier or a police officer, I don't know.