'Hands Up. Don't Shoot' Isn't Anti-Cops—It's Anti-Bad Cops

Steve Russell

I’ve been watching the chest pounding about the ambush killings of two police officers in New York by a crazy man with a long criminal history.

Who are they saying was responsible?

Anybody who uttered "Hands up! Don't shoot!"

The mayor of New York for admitting that he had to have "the talk" with his biracial son about how to abase himself in the presence of police because failure to do so might cost his life.

Rudy Giuliani said President Obama is responsible because of things he said about the issue of unarmed people being shot dead.

I was struck that those taking a political ride on the deaths of newlywed Officer Wenjian Liu and father of two Officer Rafael Ramos can't be bothered to learn to pronounce "Ramos." I was also struck by the assumption that anybody who wants policy change is "anti-police."

In support of that assumption, exhibit A is video of one of the recent demonstrations in New York City where the crowd is chanting, but it's not "Hands up! Don't shoot!"

It's "What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want them? Now!" That video proves, if it needed proving, that mobs have no sense.

Ever since the rash of shootings of unarmed people--and let us not forget the public strangulation of a man for selling loosies, a rare death penalty for white collar crime---there has been complaint that the killings of police are more frequent and do not get equal concern.

I am not convinced that the killing of police is more frequent than the deaths of unarmed people at the hands of police. Here are the 2014 numbers of police on duty deaths:

Assault: 2
Automobile accident: 25
Drowned: 1
Fire: 1
Gunfire: 46
Gunfire (Accidental): 2
Heart attack: 15
Motorcycle accident: 3
Struck by vehicle: 3
Vehicle pursuit: 5
Vehicular assault: 10

Have the police shot more than 46 unarmed people nationwide to date? I don't know but I can't dismiss the possibility out of hand. The reason I don’t know is that, as a nation, we don’t count how many unarmed people are killed by police.

Suppose police deaths are equal or greater in frequency.

*Police are supposed to respond to political control; criminals are criminals. If a law could stop the criminals, other than a law limiting access to the tools of the trade, they would already be stopped.

There will be no law limiting access to the tools of the criminal trade because, the National Rifle Association asserts, when guns are outlawed then only outlaws will have guns, and that cute slogan trumps any number of free countries that have managed to deny criminals the tools of the trade while maintaining robust private gun ownership for home defense or hunting or competition.

*Police are always armed; unarmed civilians are by definition not.

In a free country, people who work for the government--not just police--are often subjected to public abuse. In an unfree country, people who work for the government do the abusing and citizens STFU.

It's as simple as that. Some police supporters ask us to honor the bravery of police in the abstract and claim that if we don't kowtow to the abstraction regardless of the facts in any particular case then people will be unwilling to wear the badge.

I say it takes more bravery to police in a free country than an unfree one, because in a free country your actions are not always right and your beat is never a free-fire zone. If it's necessary to ratchet up the bravery required of people who wear the badge, then call me a Pollyanna, but I think enough people will still be motivated to protect and to serve. Teaching future police and listening to their motivations makes me believe people do not seek a law enforcement career to become unaccountable bullies.

It's no doubt ego gratifying to be "the law" personified, with the power to punish instantly with no hope of appeal. A free country does not work that way.

"Easy for you to say, Russell--you're a judge and you can hide behind the black robe."

I'm a judge, but I am not "the law." If I were "the law," then any person affected by my orders could not demand that I give reasons for my orders in writing. If I were "the law," then there would not be two levels of judges over me grading the papers I am required by law to write--and that does not count federal court, should I violate the Bill of Rights.

No doubt, there are countries where judges don't have to say why they ruled just as there are countries where the police use of force is never second-guessed. The question on the table when unarmed people are shot dead by minions of the law is whether we envy those countries or honor our own principles that limit the powers of all governmental actors—the executives, the legislators, the policeman on the street and the judge in the courthouse.

I'm proud to serve where my powers are limited even though I know I don't intend to abuse anybody. I'm not offended by the protections in law that assume I might abuse somebody. I think we can hire enough police officers who feel the same way, and there’s nothing “anti-police” in aspiring to excellence rather than pretending everybody with a badge is already excellent.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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