Policing in America is tough – a dangerous job with erratic hours, modest pay, ever-present danger and rising public opprobrium. Who would put up with all that? As it turns out, ever fewer cops.
As America emerges with new vitality from the prolonged inconveniences of the pandemic, a recent study by a police policy group suggests there may be smaller police forces to keep the reopening civil and safe. It found that the attrition rate at police departments is spiking, the consequence of renewed questions about police tactics at a time of rising crime rates, a surge in gun sales and citizens using cellphone cameras to record everything.
“If you walked into a room full of police executives and officers and said, ‘How many of you would want your children to be cops?’ almost nobody would raise their hand,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum, which works with police departments to improve training, personnel and tactics.
Wexler’s group surveyed nearly 200 police departments and found that between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021:
• The retirement rate increased 45% over the same period a year before
• The number of resignations increased 18% over the previous year
• The rate of hiring fell by 5%
Several police departments have been hit particularly hard. The police department of Asheville, North Carolina, lost more than 80 officers, about a third of its force. In New York City about 2,600 officers retired in 2020, a 72 per cent increase over 2019.
In Washington DC more than 70 officers with the US Capitol Police resigned or retired after the 6 January assault on the Capitol, according to Gus Papathanasiou, the Capitol Police union chief. Three officers died as a result of the siege — one from a stroke just afterwards, two by suicide in the days following the attack. A fourth died in a separate attack on the Capitol in April, when a car rammed a barricade.
“What keeps me awake at night is not the challenge of hiring and training more police officers, but keeping the officers we have right now,” Papathanasiou said. “We have many officers on the fence about whether to stay with this department.”
A shift away from policing as a steady, honourable job is not new. Public trust has always weakened after high-profile incidents of officers using aggressive force, often leading to death. The pace accelerated last year in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and the re-energised Black Lives Matter movement that it fuelled. It’s as if calls by progressives to “defund the police” are being answered by the police themselves.
“I didn’t see this on the horizon,” Wexler said in an interview. “The combination of things with the pandemic certainly has had an effect on everyone, but it doesn’t feel like we’re going to recover as quickly, and I worry about what leadership is going to look like, how we’re going to get cops at the entry level and develop the next generation of police leaders.”
The latest wave of scrutiny over police tactics began seven years ago, after a New York City police officer used an illegal chokehold in arresting Eric Garner, a 44-year-old Black man on suspicion of selling individual cigarettes without a tax stamp. His death an hour later gave new energy to Black Lives Matter, then a social movement in its infancy.
Over the next few years, police have been accused of over-aggressiveness in the deaths of Blacks in nine other states. Then came the Floyd killing, which exploded into a summer of nationwide violence and protests demanding racial justice and police accountability. Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer kept a knee on his neck for more than nine minutes. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was found guilty on murder charges and sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison.
While the Floyd killing shocked the nation’s conscience, it also narrowed a focus on police training as never before, raising important questions over the degree to which police are allowed to use excessive force in carrying out arrests and the legal protection they have against lawsuits that arise from it.
The protests also ignited a call to “defund the police”, an emotional plea to end the killing of Blacks by police. Republicans exploited the words to mean “eliminate the police”, a useful tool to scare voters with crime rising and elections coming. Many Democrats argued it was an unfortunate term that really meant shifting dollars from police to social service agencies better equipped to deal with potential pathways to crime, such as mental health issues, joblessness and homelessness.
Social scientists have disagreed over evidence of any direct links between violent crime and police budgets, especially during the throes of a pandemic. But it has renewed impetus for many departments to rethink how they train officers to respond in dangerous situations. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities have begun moving money from police to social services agencies. No department was eliminated.
In Congress, the House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, designed to increase accountability for police misconduct, restrict certain policing practices and establish best practice and training requirements. The Senate has not yet voted on it.
In Wexler’s view, restoring public confidence in the police and restoring police confidence in their own profession, requires a new approach to confrontational situations — “slowing things down, getting cover, and using time and distance to communicate,” he said, describing tactics he learned several years ago from police in Scotland, where officers do not carry guns.
“If you can change training, you can change the culture,” he said. “And if you can change the culture, you can change policing.”
The truth is out there, whatever it is
David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as Mulder and Scully in “The X-Files”
For eleven television seasons, American audiences were riveted by The X-Files, which followed two FBI agents in search of extra-terrestrials and evidence of worlds beyond ours. The show was a huge hit because Americans love unexplained events and the conspiracy theories they birth. The idea of The X-Files was that the government knows about aliens but keeps the evidence secret.
To many, the show was not entirely fiction. The belief in space aliens has been with us for decades, a combination of eyewitness testimony of flying saucers, the top-secret projects underway at a government site in the Nevada Desert (Area 51) and a growing distrust of government that has spawned all manner of wild conjecture.
Now we have a new report from the Director of National Intelligence that would fit neatly into an X-Files episode.
For more than sixteen years, US military pilots have recorded unusual sightings in the skies. They appear as blips on sensors, sometimes moving with speeds and directional changes unknown to current technologies. The government calls them Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, conceding they are something, but what, exactly, no one can say.
Or will say.
The report lists five categories of possibilities that include space clutter like birds or balloons, ice crystals, secret technologies from the US, or secret technologies from a foreign government.
But it was the final possibility, classified as “other”, that cued up the The X-Files theme song. This final section said the sightings “remain unidentified”, giving rise to what many Americans have suspected for years – that what the pilots actually saw were space aliens, and their discovery remains a government secret. This was as specific as the report got: “We currently lack sufficient information in our data set to attribute incidents to specific explanations.”
In other words: go away and stop asking questions.
What’s really at stake here is trust in government. We used to have it. Donald Trump’s four years of lies and misdirections blew much of it away.
Then there’s America’s enduring fascination with the possibility of life beyond earth, a popular notion since HG Wells wrote of a Martian invasion in his 1898 novel War of the Worlds.
By the 1950s, Hollywood was in full space-alien bloom with serials, television shows and movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, an early atomic-age tale of a human-looking spaceman named Klaatu (British actor Michael Rennie) landing his flying saucer in Washington to threaten destruction of earth if countries start annihilating each other. Star Wars, Star Trek and ET introduced us to other creatures.
Beyond the pilots in the government report, any number of people have reported seeing unusual activity in the skies, including former government workers who insist that an alien space ship once crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, and government officials captured an extra-terrestrial they named “J-Rod.”
Or it could be that the government wants those stories in circulation to deflect attention from what’s really going on: research and development of new military technologies and aircraft.
In any case, that may be the true value of an inconclusive report, that it keeps alive the uncertainties of what the pilots saw as a distraction.
In a recent essay published in The New York Times, Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, wrote, “Can the new report, or any government report give us clear answers? I’m as sceptical now as I’ve ever been.” The tagline for The X-Files was “The truth is out there.”
Sure it is. But we may never know it.
Gassing in Arizona, gaslighting Biden
For many Americans, it’s a new day. No more masks. No more social distancing. We watch movies together, go to sporting events, eat indoors at restaurants, cram onto airplanes. Go to bars, clubs, dinner parties. Schools are reopening. Woo-hoo.
The long slog through the pandemic is easing, and America is returning to what passes for normal, even as infection rates and deaths are climbing because half the country refuses to get vaccinated.
Crazy, right? No. We’re Americans. We do whatever we want and thumb our noses at anyone who disagrees. Half the country doesn’t believe in science, anyway. Besides, more of us are buying guns, so we can always shoot our way out of trouble – even a pandemic. In Texas, the legislature just passed a bill allowing anyone to carry a gun anywhere.
OK, OK, enough about the pandemic. Most people are sick of hearing about it. Time to move on, even if the virus lingers. Here are a few developments you may have missed
* * *
More than two-dozen states still carry out executions for the worst crimes, using a variety of methods — lethal injection, electrocution, hanging, firing squad and gas. But here’s a twist: Arizona, which has been executing people for years, recently announced it would use Zyklon B gas, the Nazis’ go-to means of mass extermination.
Prior to World War II, Zyklon B was common in the US for fumigating the clothes of Mexican immigrants entering the country. The Nazis took it a step further, using it to kill Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps.
Authorities in Arizona apparently didn’t make the connection to genocide.
* * *
Donald Trump is now in storage. Well, a wax figure of him is. Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks Museum in San Antonio, Texas, had to remove his effigy because customers kept punching it.
“We’ve always had trouble with the presidential section because no matter what president it was – Bush, Obama or Trump – they’ve all had people beat them,” Clay Stewart, the manager for the firm that owns the Waxworks, told the San Antonio Express-News. “The ears were torn off Obama six times. And then Bush’s nose was punched in.”
* * *
The pandemic didn’t deter everyone from air travel. But it affected flights, nonetheless. After a woman flying to San Diego from Sacramento refused to comply with the federal mask mandate, she got into a fight with a flight attendant and knocked out two of her teeth. She was charged with felony battery and was later banned from the airline for life.
It was hardly an isolated incident. Airlines have reported close to 3,000 incidents of misbehaving passengers, most involving masks.
* * *
As noted, millions of Americans are loath to get vaccinated. America’s solution? Bribe them.
States and companies have begun offering incentives to overcome the hesitation. A handful of states offered cash prizes, some through lotteries with chances to win $1m. Others dangled more modest rewards. Oregon offered free college scholarships. Minnesota residents could get a free fishing licence. In some states, you could win free admission to amusement parks. Companies joined the campaign with chances to win cash prizes or get discounts on products and services. Krispy Kreme went all out, offering any fully-vaccinated customer a free doughnut.
* * *
Every Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, we honour those killed in military service. Barnard Kemter, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and veteran of the Persian Gulf War, was paying tribute at the American Legion Post in Hudson, Ohio. Everything was fine until he mentioned a ceremony in 1865 that included freed Black slaves honouring Union soldiers who died in the Civil War.
At that moment, his microphone went dead. It wasn’t a technical glitch, he learned later. Two of the ceremony’s organisers had pulled the plug, saying they didn’t like his message.
* * *
While President Biden is urging Americans to support his infrastructure plans, he may be wasting his time in search of Republican support in Congress. A prominent House member from Texas, Chip Roy, was caught on video saying his party wants “eighteen more months of chaos and the inability to get stuff done” to enable Republicans to regain control of Congress in 2022.
Not only did that echo the sentiments of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Roy’s words memorialised Republican strategy to block Democrats’ priority issues, which include combating climate change, expanding voter rights and, alas, conquering the coronavirus.
* * *
An update: Just days after the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees gave in to widespread protests and offered Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones a tenured faculty position, she declined it and accepted the same from Howard University in Washington, DC. The hesitation of UNC was widely assumed to be her work on “The 1619 Project” for The New York Times, an argument that slavery was a fundamental element of America’s creation and birthed the systemic racism ingrained in American life. “It’s not my job to heal the University of North Carolina,” she said, explaining her decision.
Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times