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July 14, 2014

Good People in a Lousy Organisation; An Alternative Reading on the Pittsburgh Police & FOP

Over the last years decades, the news has brought us stories of Pittsburgh Police tragedies - sometimes involving officer deaths and injuries, sometimes involving egregious officer behavior and citizen deaths and injuries. In general, we tend to treat these as outlying events, as unique circumstances that could not be anticipated or prevented - but might all the tragedies (officer deaths and officer violence) stem from one common cause?

Could it be that the problem is not the individual police? Perhaps the men and women who wear the uniform might not be the problem and are simply facile scapegoats.

In each of the police deaths and injuries (including the police dog) the officers were left to themselves in a complex situation - no external support, no command interaction, no leadership involvement; they did what they could with what they had, all by themselves. In both cases, with a man trapped in a basement they did not secure the perimeter and call in their sergeant, commander, SWAT or a negotiator; they went in themselves and the results were tragic. They were not working in a culture that expected them to call for more help; they were not trained to call in more assets.

In the recent Pride Parade situation, a relatively low-experience officer was left standing alone between two angry shouting crowds, without any support, until the inevitable finally occured. (and to really understand the Pride Parade situation, one might do well to read Shooting an Elephant, by a policeman named George Orwell).

In each of the cases where a citizen was beaten in situations the community finds unacceptable, the officers were operating without supervision, without videos or accountability, in a persistent context where they're on their own, results are rewarded, and their official reports are taken as gospel. (Until somebody finds a video). Is anybody surprised that a few bad actors surface in this environment?

Could it be that instead of having bad Police, we have 98% good police in a bad Department? By which I mean - bad management, bad supervision and operational oversight, bad training and procedures? Bad leadership? Is the media and public and blogosphere blaming the troops when we should be blaming the brass? Could it be that Pittsburgh has mostly virtuous Police officers in a bad, dumb, disfunctional organisation? I think it's quite likely.

Could it be that over years of tight budgets and leaving these police officers with nobody to look out for them but each other, the FOP has become their only refuge? In that situation, would the FOP seem resistant to change and wary of the several administrations that have allowed the situation to fester?

Could it be that we're not paying the police officers enough - so they have to earn money on secondary details which they run themselves - and has our failure to pay a fair wage produced the corruption of uniformed cops working in strip clubs?

How do you fix this? You have to change the culture, the reward system, the leadership, and flush out the bullies and tyrants that developed in the vacuum. But the first step is: you have to acknowledge that it's our fault, and not any one officer's fault; and you have to know that you don't fix anything by declawing the only bulwark they have.

3 comments:

tonycpsu said...

There's certainly a tension between the taxpayers' desire to have services without paying for them and their desire to have effective police serving and protecting them. When you have an adversarial system between management and the union (with management ultimately working with only the resources taxpayers and the politicians will provide them), sometimes the union will protect its members beyond what most of us would deem appropriate. We've seen this with teachers unions being overprotective of the (very tiny minority of) truly horrible teachers -- when you squeeze every nickel of extra compensation out of the system, eventually all you have left is job security.

The solution, as you've outlined, is to pay the cops (and the teachers) what they're worth in the first place, but taxpayers, like the politicians, don't look that far ahead.

Bram Reichbaum said...

"Is the media and public and blogosphere blaming the troops when we should be blaming the brass?"

It's always been my impression that most critics of the police dept. were already of that opinion. The ACLU's Vic Walczak confirmed / reiterated in the paper the other day that it's always the same few names that keep coming up in complaints. And when I talk to people on Grant St. they usually criticize certain deputies and commanders that maybe oughtn't have been the ones promoted to those positions, not the rank and file.

Unfortunately, although you doubtless have a point about the reasons those workers turn to their union, I'm pretty sure that union has successfully gotten some things into contracts that really oughtn't be in there. I'm not sure what you mean by "declawing" them, but some damage has been done in terms of civilian oversight and it needs to be dealt with.

Anonymous said...

Good soldiers working for bad generals ?

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