Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

Why my karma sometimes runs rough-shod over other people’s dogma

By John A. Gayder


Throughout my career in law enforcement I’ve said and done many seemingly politically incorrect things. It seems I’m forever raising concerns with supervisors and coworkers that question the philosophies and moral basis (or lack thereof) behind various laws and methods of enforcement; I am passionate about this and let very few things get past me without some intellectual scrutiny.

This has led me to be described as a “rebel”, “un-grate”, “civil rights activist”, “pain in the ass” and “troublemaker” by my supervisors and coworkers. These terms are usually leveled half jokingly- sometimes not. The names and labels really don’t bother me; in fact, there are some seeds of truth in them that I can’t deny, except the accusation of my being ungrateful. I am extremely grateful for the wonderful things my job provides, and I view my philosophical/political activism as a way of giving something back to the profession by trying to make it better.

Perhaps the word gadfly describes my activities more aptly: gadfly (gad’fli’) n., pl. – flies 2 a person who annoys others or rouses them from complacency. (Webster’s New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, 1988 Simon and Schuster, Inc. New York.

For those who are not aware of my involvement in drug and firearm law reform, please allow me to make a few things crystalline clear right from the start; I don’t question drug laws and support drug legalization because I think drugs are a good thing or because I want everybody to start taking them. I know drugs are extremely harmful. Similarly, the fact that I am pro gun does not mean I think everyone should be allowed unlimited access to firearms so they can commit robberies or shoot their spouses.

My involvement in these issues is a concerned response to the negative effects that the current laws pertaining to them are having on society in general and the policing profession in particular.

I wish more of my colleagues were willing to explore and challenge the many similar problems that plague law enforcement, but unfortunately there is a general reluctance in the policing profession to think independently about ways of making it better or to preserve its traditions. Questioning any norm or tradition is often thought of as an attempt to dismantle it, but this is simply not the case; questioning a tradition is often the best way to invigorate and enliven it. In my opinion, it is unfortunate that too few are willing to “rock-the-boat” even if it would result in safer, more effective policing. The primary cause of this reluctance within policing is the close-minded, self centered, fearful nature of the norms that seem to universally influence it as a profession. I am specifically talking about the unwritten “rules” that say, for example: a) that the law can do no wrong, and that b) it is impossible to change things anyway. Rule “a” may have worked fine in the days before activist judges started to use their courts to change society in ways not possible through the conventional political process, and rule “b” is just flat out not true. Change IS possible – the aforementioned Judges prove it all the time. It is just more difficult to make change if you are not a learned Judge nominated by a friendly political party to make the changes they want you to make.

What further hampers constructive changes is the sad fact that even the very discussion of any philosophical change in law enforcement is generally frowned upon.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech freedom fighter who resisted the Soviet system in his country (he was imprisoned five years for the offence of “subversion”) and later rose to become president of the free Czech Republic sums up the conundrum of job related activism succinctly. He writes;
“You do not become a “dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”
Although I’ve never been called an “enemy of society”, perhaps the most disturbing thing I have ever been accused of was thinking too hard and caring too much.

The first part of the indictment occurred at a retirement party for a fellow officer. It was very late and the drinks had been flowing heavily in honour of the retiree. I was invited to sit at a table that was so covered in empty beer bottles it was hard to find a place to put an elbow down. Two senior officers from a nearby agency who I had known from working joint projects under their command were at the table talking in their cups. They were busy solving all of the world’s problems; “You know,” one said to the other with slurred speech, “if we could only do something about the drugs, – we could solve most of our problems in this area.” They both swung their unsteady heads to look at me for agreement. “Oh, I definitely agree sir,” I said. “The sooner we legalize drugs, the sooner the price will go down and then druggies won’t have to rob gas stations or break into houses in order to pay their dealer.” After about five seconds of very pregnant silence, the one said to me, “You know what Gayder? You think too fucking much!” They left the party shortly after that, got into their cars and drove themselves home. The irony of two police officers intoxicated with alcohol bemoaning the evils of drug use was so thick you could cut it with a saber. Me, thinking too much? Guilty as charged!

The next part occurred when I was resisting my department’s proposed adoption of performance standards that had been developed in a foreign country. I got into an argument about it with one of the projects supporters. We spent a couple of hours after work discussing the issue. His position was that if upper management liked the standards, and even if they didn’t or couldn’t work as advertised, what was the big deal with just “going along” with their adoption? My position was that the international standards disregarded local mores, removed personal initiative, flexibility and innovation, and that as a result our effectiveness and esteem in the eyes of the public would be lessened. He flat out told me I “cared too much about the job”. If caring can be a crime, I confess – I am guilty as charged again!

Thinking, which includes thinking about philosophical issues, is – and should be -an inseparable component in the evolution of all law enforcement activities. Crime fighters have always required the “whodunit” puzzle solving, concrete type of logic needed to break cases. But pondering the philosophical side of things is an equally vital requirement too. If one doesn’t think there is a place for philosophy in policing, then think again! Humans are philosophical by nature, and police officers are just humans in blue uniforms.

The consequences of personally avoiding philosophical consideration and reflection is having someone else do it for you. We should be on guard anytime we hear a senior officer or politician say philosophy has no place in policing. They are likely saying it because they either want the officers under their command to do something that the officer’s conscience would naturally rebel at, or they are trying to evade the self-judgment of their own conscience for some action they performed in uniform in the past and are not proud of.

I have actually heard some otherwise excellent officers say “the law can do no wrong,” or, “It’s not my job to think about the law, It’s my job to enforce it.” Yet the officers who behave in such a seemingly unthinking and unreflective, “robotic” fashion do so because he or she believes in the moral correctness of doing so. It is both ironic and paradoxical that they choose this course of action by employing what anthropologists call “higher order thinking” – the very stuff robots cannot do.

The policing profession is inseparable from philosophy. Absolutely nothing we do occurs in an intellectual vacuum. One of the first proofs of this is found in the fact that its new members usually gravitate to the profession based on its moral underpinnings; they seek a job in policing because they want to be “the good guys.”

Here are some questions that will help demonstrate how philosophy forms an elemental part of the policing profession: Do you dislike thieves and think they should be apprehended? This is the classic good vs. evil argument. Answering the question is called moral philosophy. Which are worse; child molesters or speeders? Philosophy again. Should you prosecute the unemployed man you catch stealing canned goods to feed his family? Philosophy in action. Is it more important to spend your patrol time looking for the person who keeps spray painting obscenities on City Hall, or should you instead be patrolling the area where a serial rapist is active? Philosophy strikes again.

Far from being an abstract, philosophy is actually the engine which drives all policing. We cannot do our job without it.

When I was hired (the late 1980’s), one of the standard questions in the hiring board’s battery of situational “what if” questions designed to check the candidates philosophical suitability was; How would you feel if you were assigned to guard an abortion clinic against protesters? Alternatively, candidates were sometimes asked to consider the same “keep the peace” scenario involving a homosexual pornography theatre or bathhouse. Of course, the answer that the interviewers were looking to get from the candidate was “that the law was the law” and that he or she would not let personal beliefs interfere with enforcing it. That was the answer I gave, and at the time I really believed it too. However, I have grown up a little since then. Reading some history and seeing what goes on in the world with my own eyes has led me to believe that blind, unquestioning obedience to legal authority can be counterproductive and even dangerous to the very society it seeks to serve. Men and women in uniform must consider the morality of what they are doing because judges in modern international courts have repeatedly upheld the principle first enunciated in the Nuremburg trials after WW2 that stated how “following orders” could not be a defense for unethical behavior.

Am I blindly obedient to anything at all? Absolutely! I am a happy slave to observation, analysis and the adaptations they prescribe. (There is that damned philosophy again!) Has it bothered me that I have since changed my mind about unquestionably following orders as discussed with my recruiters? Not for a second. I know that on occasion some of my supervisors have secretly wished I would behave more like a mindless brown shirt, but I would counter that this was not what the people who laid the groundwork for our western society envisaged as an ideal citizen or police officer. Even though policing occurs in a paramilitary environment of rank structure, discipline and orders, the British common law tradition of which we are both heirs and descendents holds police officers to be independent agents of the crown. Nobody is supposed to be able to tell a police officer what to do. He or she is to be impervious to all influence as far as is humanly possible. Police officers are expected to observe situations and then modify their course of action based on the evidence of their senses and rationality. This very fact is acknowledged in the law itself as almost all statutes are written for enforcers to interpret from a permissive point of view – officers are told they may arrest or charge for this or that. Very rarely does the law say an officer shall or must do anything.

Is it possible to think and care too much? Although the short answer should be no, some of the observations I’ve reached in my now 15 years of policing are as follows: thinking too much is actually NOT a big problem. Thinking and coming up with often unpopular, politically incorrect conclusions – no matter how well reasoned or researched they are – can occasionally be a big problem. In fact, thoughts which lead to conclusions that are contrary to the status quo are possibly the surest way to disqualify officers from promotion, make them unpopular with their co-workers, and even get them fired! So unless policing culture changes into a more open and reflective institution my advice to officers who have a long career or promotion in mind is to stop thinking immediately.

Of course, too much thinking about how best to solve the problems facing policing and the society it serves can only be the result of caring too much. So if you want to nip the problem in the bud – stop caring as well.