Incentive to Kill


Em Carpenter

Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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64 Responses

  1. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    I mean, cops talk down armed white people reasonably often, and keep their jobs. What on earth could the e difference be here?Report

  2. Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

    It is remarkable that anybody could come way from this case with anything but disdain for how policing currently works, and yet it is not at all difficult to imagine somebody siding with the police department and not the officer. Which is how the problem perpetuates itself.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      We see this happen whenever the Police Union is questioned.

      Both the officers and the system itself has 50%+1 defenders. Why change it?Report

      • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

        @jaybird I’m not sure I follow, but if the idea is that the system will not meaningfully change until its support does, I agree. As long as the police continue abusing the right people – the one that moderate whites can look at and say, “Well, he wasn’t actually armed, but I can understand being concerned about him having maybe been armed…” – then the system will not change. In other words, as long as officers matter more than their victims, the system is set concrete. A case like this one, which inverts what we usually see, lays bare the problem.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Well, the connection is this: imagine a situation where a police officer does something absolutely egregious.

          Like, the police union defends not only the officer, but the officer having done the egregious thing. Here are a couple of examples from 2018.

          If police unions were merely arguing for more pay, more vacation, more sick time, they’d be easy to defend. Heck, only libertarian cranks would oppose them.

          The problem is that when some people look at the corrupt system and see one of the institutions *DEVOTED* to protecting the most toxic of the police officers as part of the problem, they see the word “union” and immediately say “but unions are good!” and don’t see how one of the institutions devoted to protecting the most toxic of the police officers could possibly be part of the problem.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            Who says “but unions are good”?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              People whose knee-jerk response to criticism of unions is to argue against the criticism even in cases where police unions defend an officer’s egregious acts?

              (Do you want me to find you examples of this sort of thing?)Report

          • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

            @jaybird I am dubious that many of the people in America who currently believe in the goodness of unions are doubling as police defenders.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              That’s the beauty of it! They’re not!

              There is no attack surface of the police that isn’t covered by 50%+1 of the population.

              Saying “maybe we shouldn’t have unions defend these guys when they’ll defend even stuff like Laquan McDonald’s shooting” gets responses talking about the importance of unions.

              As if the union was merely defending more pay, more vacation, and more sick time.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                The argument you’re presenting appears to be that “were it not for unions, police abuses would be reduced significantly.”

                This argument never gets fleshed out with any steps leading from “Non union cops” to “Less abuse”.
                Its like one of those internet memes where step 2 is “underpants gnomes” or something.

                This is critical because the overall premise is contradicted by other arguments, that are a lot more persuasive.

                For example the myriad of examples and writings where the culture of policing is described as one of silence and complicity in abuse;

                A culture that sees itself as an embattled occupying force, and the citizens hostile natives;

                A culture that still is permeated by racism and a callous disregard for the people they ostensibly protect.

                These arguments, that all point to a pervasive culture, are all very persuasive!

                So the idea that “if we could only fire the abusive cops” runs counter to these; Even if the police department could fire them, what evidence is there to suggest that they would?

                Isn’t it just as likely, that the culture of abuse would just fire the good cops and retain the bad? Like they did here?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                The argument you’re presenting appears to be that “were it not for unions, police abuses would be reduced significantly.”

                Oh, well then. Let me disabuse you of that.

                That is not my argument.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                For a moment, I thought someone was questioning police unions, which would have been a terrible red herring distraction.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I’m sure that you’ll cheerfully stand behind unions protecting their members.

                I don’t. I think that the status quo is toxic and that the police unions are one of the things standing in the way of change. (Note: certainly not the only thing. But a necessary condition of change is challenging the Union. It is not a sufficient condition, though.)Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                Sorry, it still sounds like nonunion policing leads to less abuse, just with some caveats of “plus other stuff to be named later” thrown in.

                I just am not seeing any evidence that unionization has any affect one way or the other.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                it still sounds like nonunion policing leads to less abuse, just with some caveats of “plus other stuff to be named later” thrown in.

                I’m sure that you are translating what I am saying into that within your own head.

                But that’s still not what I am saying.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              I am dubious that many of the people in America who currently believe in the goodness of unions are doubling as police defenders.

              Correct. Reflexive defenders of cops are generally anti-union while reflexive critics of cops are generally pro-union. (Why? because politics is a mind killer? …) Jaybird is highlighting the role unions play in creating and maintaining a culture which supports outcomes liberal critics jump up and down about, but – and this is the point – which those critics refuse to admit. I’m not sure why this banal observation about police unions is such a contentious point with liberals here at the Ole OT.Report

            • Avatar Morat20 says:

              Unions are a red herring. As shown by every other union on earth, they simply couldn’t continue to shield this sort of behavior unless they had a substantial chunk of the population behind them.

              And they do. There’s a very large segment of the population that feels this sort of thing is how it should be.

              Which, of course, traces back to everyone’s favorite topic: The Civil War, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era.

              Cops get away with shooting people not because of unions — but because for over a century, an unspoken part of the job of “police officer” was to put the boot in (and if they died, can’t make an omelette, etc, etc) the people whom “society” (WASPs, primarily) thought needed a reminder of their place.

              Uppity minorities. Hippies. Leftist protesters. The police have been wielded as a tool against those threatening the ‘social order’ (conservatve, white, anglo-saxon) for 200 years now. Hammering down the foolish nails that persist in protesting the wrong things, being the wrong color in tthe wrong place, or otherwise not knowing their place.

              And there is still a large section of society that views that as part of the police’s job. And policing culture has that particular concept embedded in it.

              Police unions couldn’t do crap if there wasn’t a lot of people applauding cops putting the boots in, to make certain people “learn their place”.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                Lets not neglect to mention a famous law professor and blogger who was so incensed by protesters blocking traffic, that he wrote a post urging the drivers to run them down. And at least a couple cities considered laws to allow that very thing.

                Its bad barrels of apples like these that give the good ones a bad name.Report

              • Avatar Road Scholar says:

                Unions are a red herring.

                This. Blaming unions for this problem strikes me as akin to the folks that rail about defense attorneys “getting criminals off” on “technicalities”. All a defense attorney can do is present an argument before a judge and/or jury. It’s the judge that issues a ruling or the jury that votes “not guilty”.

                This is a more general societal problem that some people want to blame on unions because… well, they just don’t much like unions in the first place.

                If you want to place blame I would suggest the DA’s that decline to prosecute, the grand juries that decline to indict, and, in the rare cases that make it to trial, the juries that vote to acquit.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                This. Blaming unions for this problem strikes me as akin to…

                In Jaybird’s defense, he hasn’t blamed unions for the problem of cop violence and corruption and so on, he blames unions for *the role the union plays* in protecting cops who do engage in violence and corruption and so on.

                Again, I really don’t understand why liberals find this observation so contentious.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                They see the word “union” and think “oh, by defending this, I’m defending ‘labor’!”

                Surely the bad apples that might show up from time to time aren’t a reason to condemn the whole barrel.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Seems like an easy enough problem to solve: the union could, certainly should, stop protecting the bad apples, aggressively try to weed them out instead. Why doesn’t the union do that? Answering that question is when the knives come out.Report

              • Avatar Road Scholar says:

                Maybe you’re talking about different liberals than me. Because I would certainly be in favor of limiting the role of cop unions to pay and benefit negotiations.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Remember when Jaybird said: “If police unions were merely arguing for more pay, more vacation, more sick time, they’d be easy to defend. Heck, only libertarian cranks would oppose them”?

                Good times.Report

              • Avatar Road Scholar says:

                I agree with you as far “easy to defend” goes. I’m just unconvinced that the stuff the unions are doing beyond pay, benefits, and retirement are actually a significant component of the problem. They can — and do! — make it more difficult to fire bad cops and they can — and do! — often provide bad cops with legal counsel and they can – and do! — lobby for laws that protect bad cops. But ultimately it’s judges, juries, grand juries, DA’s, and legislators that are refusing to indict, prosecute, convict, and sentence bad cops. Unions simply don’t have that kind of power.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I’m just unconvinced that the stuff the unions are doing beyond pay, benefits, and retirement are actually a significant component of the problem.

                You say that as if *other* unions have a stellar reputation for rooting out corruption rather than institutionalizing it.Report

              • Avatar Road Scholar says:

                Actually I’m saying that as if union corruption, to the extent it exists, is really relevant. The DA’s, judges, juries, etc aren’t members of the union.Report

              • Avatar Road Scholar says:


              • Avatar InMD says:

                There are many layers to the onion of what ails law enforcement. The way the unions operate is one of those layers. Laws passed by legislatures, administrative decisions, various precedents and judicial doctrines, socio-economic problems, inequality, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, the military-industrial-cop complex, glorification of violence in our society, and just plain old punitive law and order streaks in American culture are all contributing factors. Any one of them alone probably doesn’t get us here but altogether they create a serious public policy problem.

                Its hard because meaningful change involves goring a lot of sacred cows, and acting out of principle even when it isn’t politically expedient.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Seems to me there are two problems here running in tandem and feeding off each other: convictions and dismissals. We can blame the courts for bad cops not receiving convictions, but we should blame the union for preventing bad cops from being fired.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Some cities such as NY have changed the way they police in positive ways while still having abrasive jerkwad unions. Other cities have retrained cops. Unions are not the primary cause of problems with cops nor is getting rid of them close to the solution.

                As the Scott Walker admin showed even if you try to kill all public unions, cuz unions be the devil, cop ( and fireman) unions will be safe because a loud segment of the population loooooves themselves some cops. So getting rid of cop union seems impossible even for union haters.

                But even if you got rid of unions bad cops would still have defense attorneys. Then they would clone the NRA, saw the right leg off the R and have clone Dana Loesch spewing out aggressive pro-cop stuff. The people who eat that up would still be all in on aggressive shooty cops. Then there are the prosecutors who tend to be pro-cop.

                So cops unions are a part of the problem but it’s the aggressive cops lovers and their allies who are the key problem. Getting rid of unions won’t change them and they will still support the worst cops. And again PD’s can be changed even if they have unions. So harping on unions is a thing for salons like here but it doesn’t retrain or refocus cops nor does it get at their most powerful support.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                So cops unions are a part of the problem but it’s the aggressive cops lovers and their allies who are the key problem.

                Aaaannnd, the most aggressive cop lovers are members of the union.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                Aaaannnd, the most aggressive cop lovers are members of the union.

                If you think that, you’re living a sheltered life.

                I know people want simple solutions, but “OMG, it’s the unions!” isn’t gonna fix it because that’s not the problem. It’s a huge chunk of Americans who cheer on cops doing this, because they’re “being tough on crime” and by “tough on crime” they really mean “Putting the boot in to the wrong sort“.

                We’re a society that has a significant percentage of the population feels that the only problem with torturing “bad guys” is that we don’t go far enough.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                It shouldn’t, but maybe it needs to be pointed out that this very blog post is about a good cop who was summarily fired…because he lacked union protection.

                The idea that in a nonunion environment, the hammer of summary dismissal will magically fall upon only bad cops seems ludicrous.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                This may be of interest. A paper on Collective Bargaining and Police Misconduct.

                – We then analyze the impact of collective bargaining rights, using police departments, which were unaffected by Williams, as a control group for sheriffs’ offices. Our results imply that collective bargaining rights led to about a 45% increase in violent incidents. We also find some evidence suggesting that collective bargaining rights led to decreased racial and ethnic diversity among new officer hires.


              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                I’m not able to assess the study myself, so for now I just have to put it in the pile marked “Smart Guy Says X”.

                X might be right, after it is verified and corroborated by a bunch of other smart guys, but I don’t know that yet.

                What I do know is such a claim, that unionization is a strong driver (45%- Wow!) runs counter to what we are seeing, which as I remarked elsewhere, is the overall culture of policing, racial bigotry, and the culture of society.

                But hey, we learn new things every day.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                The power that police Unions have secured for themselves and their membership, both contractually, and legislatively (re: Officers Bill of Rights) is, AFAIK, unique among all other labor Unions, both public and private. No other Union conducts PR campaigns on behalf of members who are suspected of criminal or violent misconduct. No other Union provide robust legal representation for members facing legal action brought by outside parties (such as DAs, or civil misconduct suits brought by citizens). No other Union successfully lobbies politicians for special legal privileges for their membership.

                It’s understandable that such power has a corrupting influence over the membership.

                That said, if we were to somehow[1] strip such power away from the Union, and legally force it to only concern itself with the things every other public sector Union is concerned with, there would still be organizations that would run PR for officers, and lobby for them, and provide legal representation, and the Unions would, at the very least, pay them money to do such things.

                But I can’t help but wonder if officially segregating such things wouldn’t reduce some of the power wielded, and help get a better foothold for reform efforts.

                [1] I honestly don’t know if we legally can without running afoul of the 1A. The only reason other Unions don’t is because for some reason the public would not stand for the UAW providing PR and legal representation to a member who beat his wife or killed someone in a dispute.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                (Imagine this counter-argument being used by Trump against Climate Change.)Report

              • Avatar Road Scholar says:

                Again, I really don’t understand why liberals find this observation so contentious.

                Because I’ve yet to see people who make that assertion/observation actually show their work. This seems like a question that’s approachable, at least in principle, through the scientific method. Not all cop shops have unions, correct? I mean, I assume all the big ones do, but I have to imagine that there’s a lot of small and medium size departments that don’t. And if that’s the case one ought to be able to statistically analyze the behavior of those departments wrt to shootings and the aftermath.

                Maybe that analysis has been done and I just haven’t seen it, but if so, I have yet to see someone cite such work.Report

              • You know why Trump is so corrupt? The real-estate developer’s union.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                Because, the role that unions play here is to defend accused people.

                Contrary to Road Scholar, this isn’t “like” blaming defense attorneys or the Bill of Rights for the role they play in protecting cops, this is “exactly” blaming unions for defending accused cops.

                And once again, the mechanism of how this translates into less abuse is missing.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                And once again, the mechanism of how this translates into less abuse is missing.

                “I don’t see how a condition that has been explicitly stated to be a necessary (but not sufficient) condition brings about the desired change.”Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck says:

          “As long as the police continue abusing the right people – the one that moderate whites can look at and say, “Well, he wasn’t actually armed, but I can understand being concerned about him having maybe been armed…” – then the system will not change.”

          I’m pretty sure that, e.g., abusing unarmed white female college students would definitely get a response, and it’s pretty obvious that such an officer would be fired immediately and nobody would try to defend them.


          I mean…right?Report

      • Avatar pillsy says:

        Yeah, I mean if we didn’t have police unions we might see more cases where cops are fired for not shooting people, which… wait, what?Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          In this case, the Union didn’t have to step in because of probationary status, but one does wonder if the Union would have given the full court press to protect the officer if he wasn’t probationary?Report

  3. Radley Balko has been writing a lot about the “killology” lessons cops are taught these days: a pseudo-military training that teaches them to be paranoid and tell them, among other things, that the day the shoot someone they’ll go home and have the best sex of their lives.

    Interesting that the man with ACTUAL military training chose not to shoot, isn’t it?Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      Sure, because the sight of a gun doesn’t cause him to shit his pants.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Military experience has not tended to be a good indication that a cop will hot shit his or her pants at the site of a gun, or an unarmed black man.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          Will NOT shit his pants.

          Probably will hot shit his or her pants.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            Oh, I know you can find them. I’ve met them. Hell, I personally know a guy who (internet-) famously organized for a cop union (because the cop union was affiliated with the larger union he worked for). I’ve heard the argument that cops are workers and therefore cop unions are good. It is an argument made by a minority within the labor movement and it’s supporters, and a minority largely aging out.Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      There’s a fundamental contradiction in how “we” think about police and policing.

      1. Because police are exposing themselves to the risk of violent death on behalf of the public, it’s important we not second guess them, or really question them in any way about how they respond to those risks.

      2. The first priority for police officers is keeping themselves safe.

      If the real priority of policing is keeping cops safe, and being a cop inherently exposes one to risk, why do we have cops at all?

      I suspect that unlike other dangerous professions, the idea that the cops are supposed to be protecting the public, and are presumed to be protecting the public against inherently illegitimate actors, makes all the difference.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        The numbers suggest that police aren’t actually in that much danger from violent actors. IIRC, vehicle collisions (not during high speed chases) kill more officers.Report

        • Avatar pillsy says:


          I think it matters that the dangers that people focus on cops facing (violent criminals) provoke fear and anger in ways that the real dangers (car accidents) don’t.Report

        • Avatar dragonfrog says:

          Policing isn’t even in the top 10 most dangerous jobs.

          Farming, fishing, logging, truck driving, garbage collection, and various construction trades make up the top 10, IIRC.Report

      • Avatar Fish says:

        “2. The first priority for police officers is keeping themselves safe.”

        Yes. Think of this in the context of a militarized police force. In a combat zone, one of the highest priorities of a combat unit is force protection: Eliminate a perceived threat before that threat can harm the combat unit. Whether or not the perceived threat was an actual threat is irrelevant. When your police force is militarized, “force protection” becomes a priority over “de-escalation” or “protecting the public.”Report

  4. Avatar Aaron David says:

    Excellent piece Em, and in general I agree with it.


    ALL GUNS ARE LOADED! ALL THE TIME! The dispatcher wouldn’t have said it is unloaded, because they don’t know that. They may have been told this, but that doesn’t mean it is factual. It may be what the caller thinks they saw, but it doesn’t mean that it is factual. They might have missed a magazine being slipped into the gun, a pocket, etc. They might be working on an assumption that it is unloaded because that is what they were told. But facts change over time, even as short of a time as this.

    This doesn’t excuse the rank idiocy of the secondary officers and their killing ways. But it is something that needs to be mentioned. Just like you don’t “shoot to wound” or fire a warning shot in the air.Report

    • Avatar Em Carpenter says:

      Sure, I get that, and I think the officers would have acted on the assumption it was loaded even if they had been told something like “caller advises the weapon is not loaded.” But I do think it was worth mentioning the “intending to commit suicide by cop” bit.Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

        I’m with you on this point, and in general. While it is important to be able to point the gun and pull the trigger as part of the job, and that isn’t easy, it’s also important to develop the ability to restrain that impulse.Report

  5. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    We did discuss this, briefly, back when it happened.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    And Radley Balko just tweeted:

    New at The Watch: St. Louis County’s first black prosecutor ran as a reformer, ousting a 28-year white incumbent. Now, the county’s career prosecutors are threatening to join the police union that endorsed his opponent.— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) December 17, 2018

    And he just updated that the prosecutors have just joined the union.Report

    • I guess I would have expected that the prosecutors would be classed as management and be ineligible for union membership. When I worked in technical organizations at large unionized companies, I was classified as a manager even though no one reported to me. IIRC — and it’s been years — something about exercising a certain amount of independent decision making about the work.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Gotta do it quick so they can enjoy that sweet dues-paid legal protection when the … uhhh … *new* guy fires ’em for insubordination.

      Oooops. I mean, so they can negotiate better pay.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      From Balko’s article before the union vote:

      And so with Bell’s election, the county’s career prosecutors are now looking to unionize. The sudden interest in union representation likely comes from fears that Bell will clean out the old guard upon taking office. In theory, career prosecutors should adopt the agenda and priorities of the incoming county prosecutor-elect. But career prosecutors aren’t likely to be all that receptive to Bell’s agenda. So unionizing could make it tough for Bell to implement reforms by providing additional job protections to any prosecutors who refuse to play along.


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