Omari, who needs no introduction in Seattle, interviewed the president of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild, Mike Solan, yesterday, Wednesday, July 10th. It was frustrating to watch. I wanted to see Solan loosen his collar while getting grilled under Omari’s Hot-Lamp of Truth but mostly Solan just seemed as frustrated as I was about the pace of the interview. That’s not a dig at Omari, of course, he did a good job on a difficult interview that covered a lot of nuanced ground. Rather, it’s that Solan’s “reasonableness,” a term Solan stressed repeatedly, is conceived differently than our own. And without that conceptual gulf reconciled at the outset of conversation, it’s easy to overestimate the utility of dialog. This is especially true on the issue of police use of force, where judgments about what’s “reasonable” are informed by a system of moral reasoning that’s quite different from police to civilian. Without a common language to relate the significance of important terms and concepts across perspective, it’s too easy to speak past each other on headliner points.
When Omari originally asked the public to submit questions for a July 1st SPOG interview I tweeted a bunch of questions focused on police use of force and militarization. I was excited for the interview and probably submitted more than my fair share but the interview got pushed and my questions, tragically, went unanswered. But I didn’t lose the opportunity to engage on those points for long. On July 1st, SPD swept CHOP, established a Martial Law Zone around the East Precinct and used its rank and file to man the borders. This presented me with the opportunity to pursue the line of questioning I’d proposed to Omari, as the rank and file were basically a captive audience hungry for praise but bound for castigation.
On July 1 and 2, I spent hours talking across the border of the Martial Law Zone to different cops about police use of force, using my questions as the basis for conversation. I was confident my critique would challenge police viewpoints and hopeful that it might have some positive influence over their thinking, given time to reflect. Having served in the military I know a thing or two about tactics and risk and I’ve done some light reading on the relevant case law. But while my military experience allowed to me frame questions and follow-up responses with a certain sensitivity to the police vernacular, I nonetheless approached the issue from a civilian’s point of view. And instead of finding a path to resolution or a shared understanding, I found a clear line between them, the police, and us, civilians, as it concerns our respective systems of moral reasoning on police use of force. On the use of force, the perspective divide between police and civilian is practically impassible for our differences about how to split risk, I decided after my own reflection.
These conversations showed me that the terms of our public discourse on police use of force are focused on the wrong type of negotiation. So, in the end, I’m glad Omari didn’t waste any of his time on my questions. After the original SPOG interview got bumped, Omari asked people to resubmit questions through a different medium for the sake of organization but I didn’t resubmit. Not that they’re bad questions but they speak over an impassible division without acknowledging the nature of the divide. The right question to ask, I learned, because this division won’t be relieved by conversation in the short term, is who must concede to who?
Once the issue is framed as a matter of concession we’re back on common ground. Because, as Solan said himself, same as I heard from SPD’s rank and file July 1 and 2, “we serve at will of the community.” Here’s the trouble, though. Solan’s dodging reality by saying that because the community rejects the vocational dogmas he protects. Specifically, Solan champions a vocational system of moral reasoning on police use of force that defies democratic will by deferring the risks of policing onto the citizens being policed. This vocational reasoning on use of force is guided by what’s permissible by case law and informed by hyperbolic fears of imminent doom. The community, on the other hand, validates police use of force by the terms of what’s objectively necessary. The discord stems from differing values about the importance of presight and hindsight as it concerns validating judgments on the use of force. While there is a balance to negotiate between the weight of pre-sight and hindsight in judgment, Solan doesn’t seem to realize that his vocational dogmas are too discredited to weigh against our objections. We can now accurately predict that police will kill way more people than necessary in any given year, without strong evidence that permissive use of force is a hedge against greater loss.
So, for all Solan’s insistence that police should be included in the public conversations about reimagining policing, I’m afraid I have to insist otherwise. For two reasons. First, as Solan would agree, policing is subject to democratic controls. And it seems to me that the vocational wisdom of US police is locked in an impassible conflict with democratic consensus. Of course, police are still free to participate in this conversation as citizens, just like the rest of us, and I’d encourage their participation in that capacity. Two, the “expertise” that Solan and the SPD carries is what we want to purge. While there are competencies we’ll want to retain as we “reimagine” policing, like forensics and such, the larger goal of defunding and restructuring is to disrupt the continuity of institutional memory for certain vocational expertise. Entertaining standard police talking points on the use of force will only undermine that effort.
When Solan shared his vision of policing “reimagined” in his interview with Omari, he inadvertently revealed the breadth of the perspective gap caused by decades of unchecked police militarization. Solan basically lobbied for a relationship between police and community that parallels the counter-insurgency relationship between Iraqi Sheiks and occupying US military commanders in the mid 2000’s. “Part of the EPP is to reimagine policing…And I’d say we go directly to each neighborhood that encompasses whatever precinct…have an elected or appointed community member that is the voice of that neighborhood that then communicates with the precinct commander, and they dictate how they want policing done in that precinct.” This does nothing for the black dude passing through the rich neighborhood, except validate police harassment.
Elsewhere in the interview, Solan laments the feeling that police are recklessly excluded from the ongoing conversation about reimagining policing. But what’s reckless to him seems reasonable to me. We should deny the credibility of the vocational expertise of US Police. Because the “void of reasonableness” Solan fears, by discounting that vocational expertise, is simply the absence of a system of moral reasoning that found Tamir Rice’s murder to be “a reasonable one,” vis-a-vis Graham V Connor. And I know Seattle isn’t Cleveland but when it comes to criminal liability for outrageous police violence, like the murder of Shaun Fuhr, it might as well be. The vocational perspective that police bring to the table should be denied because it can’t tell the difference between what’s reasonable and what’s not, and therefore lacks credibility.
Given the unrest that’s followed George Floyd’s murder, it seems safe to judge that America’s done with a dogmatic vocation bringing “reasonableness” to what’s clearly unreasonable. Take, for instance, the wide outcry that followed SPD’s deployment of CS gas against an entire neighborhood during a respiratory pandemic. The deployment of gas was in response to water bottles, and possibly a candle, being thrown at officers in riot gear. As Omari aptly noted to Solan, there’s an issue with the “proportionality” of that response. But Solan was skeptical on that point, as his vocational reasoning leads him to prioritize officer safety over virtually any other concern, even when it’s clearly unnecessary and comes at a great cost to public safety – which is totally fucking unreasonable.
So, before we can really begin a productive conversation about reimagining policing, we need police to signal a willingness to unilaterally surrender the terms of their vocation to democratic consent. It’s simply unacceptable, and totally unreasonable, to expect the vocational doctrines of militarized police to carry weight against our democratic will. But that’s the proposition Solan champions, that “police,” while not subject to the equal application of law, should have a weighty say in how to administrate policing tasks. That is not “serving at will of the community,” and it’s bad for them and us. To return to my opening point, it’s easy to get lost in technicality and miss what’s actually being negotiated while discussing how and when police ought to use force.
While it’s tempting to think that a productive conversation on police use of force depends on understanding case law and tactical scenarios, it really comes down to simple distinctions about the de jure vocational approach to risk and the adjudication process that validates or invalidates questionable uses of force. For example, should police ever shoot first or initiate force, and if they do, what then? How we answer this question depends on where and how we, as a society, want to impose the costs of risk. If police can’t shoot first or initiate force it may negatively impact both officer and public safety by limiting officers capacity for self-defense and preventing them from intervening against developing threats. On the other hand, if police can shoot first and initiate force, officer safety is improved but at an expense to public safety, which may be exacerbated or balanced by allowing officers to intervene against developing threats.
The gridlock between police and public perception on the use of force centers on the dilemma about how to balance this vocational approach to risk, which is currently settled on permissive use of force standards with little to no accountability to law. Both sides of the perspective line maintain a catalog of statistics to support their view. For instance, a cop at the Martial Law Zone who favored preemptive force noted that only a tiny proportion of police interactions lead to the use of force, less than a tenth of a percent, as I recall. This shows criticism of police use of force to be misguided and exaggerates the cost of misconduct, he said. But that statistic doesn’t speak to the terror that’s caused by knowing, as a citizen, that an unnecessary, inappropriate use of force against you is unlikely to result in criminal liability for the officer involved. Conversely, the Washington Post Police Shootings database reveals that about one third of the people shot and killed by police were not “attacking” when they were shot and killed, though they may have possessed a capacity for destruction and demonstrated an ambiguous intent. This statistic can be used to argue that police shoot far too often though it does little to relate to the public the fear and stress felt by police in potentially life threatening situations.
Legitimate arguments can be made for the camps on either side of the question of whether or not police should ever shoot first or initiate force. While we should maintain robust debate on this issue, because no de jure solution will eliminate the complexities of using necessary force for the officers involved, we shouldn’t let the nitty-gritty of that debate keep us from recognizing what’s driving this protest: The public seems to favor the social costs of police withholding force over the costs of authorizing police to use force permissively. Additionally, the public wants questionable uses of force and other serious misconduct to expose officers involved to meaningful legal liabilities, as opposed to officers enjoying a disciplinary process internal to their department that’s subject to interference by their union representatives.
Trouble is, Solan, in step with police from coast to coast, appears to view equal accountability to law as denying police the luxury of being “legally protected to do our jobs,” he told Omari in reference to Washington Initiative 940, passed partly in response to SPD’s murder of Charleena Lyles. I-940 intends to “create a good faith test to determine when the use of deadly force by police is justifiable, require police to receive de-escalation and mental health training, and require law enforcement officers to provide first aid.” On this point Solan is tragically confused, to the disservice of his constituents and the community.
In that same interview segment, Solan raises the point that the officers involved in the shooting of Lyles “took it so profoundly that it impacted their mental health…that’s a tragedy that needs to be talked about further.” Here, it seems Solan is confused about the source of moral hazard. Legal liability for police that use excessive force or engage in misconduct is a healthy check on the integrity of law. If police are not subject to the law they enforce, what interest do they have in it’s integrity? The mental health implications of enforcing a rotten body of law are easily predictable. By evading accountability to law, police raise a specter of moral hazard against themselves.
The inescapable dilemma police face in crafting use of force standards is the inverse relationship between physical and moral hazard, where permissible use of force standards raise the moral hazard just as restrictive standards raise physical hazard. As former military I see that plain as day, and I think it’s better for everyone to minimize the moral hazard. To protect the honor, mental health and community relations of police, we need to expose them to physical danger and legal liability by significantly restricting use of force standards and demanding that questionable uses of force be adjudicated within the same body of law they enforce.
While Mike Solan and SPD may object to my conclusion, for the rebalancing of risk and cost, they’re helpless to resist in any legitimate fashion if I’ve accurately represented democratic consensus. In other words, to the police: Do not resist, this is for your safety.