The Ethics Dilemma That Has No Solution: We Can’t Trust Police, But We Have To

Ellis arrest

A Netflix documentary that debuted last year crystallized my conclusions about the current attack on police, policing, and the justice system as a part of “white supremacy,” and the so far successful effort by Black Lives Matter and its allies among progressives and the Democratic Party to unravel the core values of American society as part of the “solution.”

The documentary is “Trial 4,” and it tells the disturbing story of how a black Boston teenager named Sean Ellis was railroaded into serving 22 years in prison for the 1993 execution-style murder of a Boston cop. Yes, it’s a documentary, so it is hardly objective, but it is even-handed for the genre, and to this long-time Boston native, it rings true in most respects. It also brought back memories of my U.S. race relations course in college, taught by the estimable Thomas Pettigrew, which convinced me that the plight of the black community in the U.S. was probably beyond repairing.

Ellis was finally exonerated just last month, as all of his convictions were either reversed or thrown out, with prosecutors (finally) deciding not to pursue any further action against him. Presumably he will get a large settlement from the city. He deserves one.

The details of the story are best followed by seeing the program, but key points are these;

  • The murdered officer, a white, Irish veteran officer, was a corrupt cop who was known on the force to be corrupt, but he was nonetheless honored in death as a paradigm of law enforcement virtue. Thousands of police officers, even from other states, came to his public funeral. The determination by his peers to find and punished the assassin who shot him five times in the face was intense.
  • The law-abiding police who knew the truth about the deceased officer, John Mulligan, never made any official complaints, hewing to the so-called “blue line.” In this they mirror all professional groups: doctors, lawyers, politicians, elected officials, and of course the clergy are all reluctant to blow the whistle even though basic ethical values require it.
  • Two of Mulligan’s fellow officers were running a series of illegal activities that Mulligan either was involved in or knew about, including overtime scams, planting evidence, arresting innocent black citizens and pressuring them into giving false evidence, and stealing drug money in legal and illegal searches.
  • These same officers (they flank Ellis in the photo above) took control of the investigation of Mulligan’s murder, and one of them manipulated his own relative to falsely identify Ellis as being at the scene of the murder. They also intimidated Ellis’s uncle, who was on parole and was threatened with being sent back to prison, to implicate his nephew.
  • Despite what looks in hindsight like huge, neon-flashing signs reading “Frame up! Frame up!,” the justice system lined up against Ellis and with the cops, even a supposedly reform-minded black District Attorney (who insisted of retrying the murder charges against Ellis after two hung juries mostly favoring acquittal) and the African American judge in the trials.

Indeed, it was the district attorneys office and the judge who engaged in the most stunning behavior. After the two officers were exposed as having manufactured evidence to convict other defendants and as acting as criminals themselves in enterprises that involved the murdered officer, Ellis’s lawyers’ motion for a new trial was opposed and rejected with the argument that there was “no evidence” that they manufactured evidence against Ellis. But if the jury had known about the record of the officers, the evidence they produced would have been inherently questionable, and dictated a “not guilty” verdict.

There is much more: as in many such cases of unjust convictions, random events and personalities lined up by pure chance to create a catastrophe. The portrayal of the two sides of the black community vs police conflict is especially frustrating. In one poignant exchange, Ellis describes why he got involved with dealing drugs as a teen. His father had abandoned the family, and his mother was seldom functional, as a crack addict. His teenage girlfriend had a fatherless baby, and he needed to buy such basics as clothes to go to school. He kept filling out applications for jobs with local businesses, but was never hired. “What are we supposed to do?” Ellis asks. “Drugs mean money. That’s what you do here.” Ellis’s indignant mother made me want to leap through the TV and strangle her by saying, more than once, “I had all these problems, so I used the crack, hoping things would be different after. But they never were.”

On the other side, a retired white Irish Boston homicide detective, obviously agreeing to appear in the documentary as a CYA exercise, kept shrugging off the corruption of his former colleagues by saying that “they may not have been perfect” but that the case against Ellis was “clean,” though it obviously wasn’t.

The main message I received from “Trial 4”, reminding me of something I already knew but had pushed to the back of my mind, is that police culture breeds corrupt cops. It has ever been thus, and I see no practical way to change it. The “solutions” being put forth by activists, Black Lives Matter and within the black community are desperate, emotional and useless. Civilization needs law enforcement: defunding police is an absurd remedy. Teaching black children that police are racist predators and are out to destroy them is both dangerous and foolish, although several blacks are interviewed in the documentary who cooperated with police only to be abused and framed. Assuming all police are racist villains is bigotry, and unfair to the likely majority of police officers who are dedicated and self-sacrificing public servants. I am friends with a career police officer who epitomizes what we want our police to be: the now-retired police chief of Fairfax and Montgomery counties, Tom Manger.

The problem that I see no solution to is this: law enforcement only works when the public and all segments of it trust the enforcers. Yet no group that is only intermittently trustworthy is trustworthy. It is comforting to write off  Derek Chauvin, Timothy Loehmann (the cop who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice), and many more unfit cops as “bad apples,” but that deliberately ignores reality. Police officers, to be trustworthy, need to be far more ethically-oriented, intelligent, stable and educated than they are likely to be, and have ever been, to be competent and reliable in such a stressful, difficult job. Police officers have power, and power corrupts; it takes discipline, training, character and determination to overcome that tendency. We don’t imbue enough of the general population with those tools; why would we expect the segment of the population drawn to police work to possess them in sufficient numbers?

“Blue Bloods,” Tom Selleck’s idealized CBS drama about a New York police family, really cheats by having one of the two cop sons of Police Commissioner Selleck  be a Harvard Law grad. In fact, being a police officer should require a law degree and the ability and skills to get one, but that’s impossible. Cities can’t and won’t pay for such an upgrade, and few lawyers are going to choose risking their lives on the street over six-figure starting associate salaries.

Many law enforcement officials come from the same groups and psychological mindset as criminals. I started realizing this when I was studying the history of the Old West, and it’s a trope in movie Westerns, like “True Grit.” It’s also logical, when you think about it. The term “cowboy cops” has been used a lot recently, and the term is apt. Police are likely to be relatively unsophisticated thinkers, and to regard their job as stopping the “bad guys.” This leads to the kind of law enforcement practices we see in “Trial 4” and that Orson Welles riffed on in “Touch of Evil”: once police think they have identified a crime’s perpetrator, they see their job as making sure he or she is convicted. The ends justify the means, and the Bill of Rights and the related SCOTUS rulings are just impediments to be overcome. And at some level, much of the public accepts that extreme utilitarian approach.

I wasn’t a prosecutor for long, but it was long enough to know that when Alan Dershowitz says that the police lie “all the time” to convict defendants, he’s not exaggerating by much. I had cops testifying on the stand that I suspected were shading the truth, but I couldn’t prove it, and I lacked the authority to drop the cases that hung on their testimony.

Do cops engage in unethical and illegal practices to convict black citizens more often than whites? In Boston, certainly, that wouldn’t surprise me, but even if it’s not true, does it matter? As long as cases like Sean Ellis’s happen (in another case examined in the documentary, the same two corrupt cops planted cocaine on a Dominican immigrant, used that to get a warrant to search his apartment, and stole almost $3,000 they found there) and as long as activists and race-baiting politicians can benefit from attributing the worst incidents to systemic police racism, African-American trust in the police is impossible.

Yet one of the main reasons police are so often acquitted in jury trials is that the public still trusts them, and believes they are “the good guys,” doing their best against growing odds, unappreciated, self-sacrificing, maybe crossing legal and ethical lines sometimes but only for the best of reasons. I think that belief is vital. If the public can’t believe it, the result is terror. If the public won’t believe it, the result is chaos.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics Dilemma That Has No Solution: We Can’t Trust Police, But We Have To

  1. I have long considered teachers and cops as the two groups that will reflexively defend the worst among them. Even cops will admit that the culture is there, that you will pay if you go against other cops. When they go to such great lengths to punish those that step out of line, I have a hard time considering it “a few bad apples” – no, the whole basket is rotten. The line “there is nothing a good cop hates more than a bad cop.” It’s true because there are very few good cops.
    I don’t have the answer, either. 2020 has seen cops beat on and demoralized. But rather than look in the mirror at their own conduct, they blame others and double down. If cops don’t want to be defunded, they shouldn’t respond by having the “blue flu”. That only encourages the public to think “why have them if they won’t do anything.” What we have been getting is a mass exodus of officers, which won’t improve the situation.

  2. “In fact, being a police officer should require a law degree and the ability and skills to get one, but that’s impossible.”

    It became fashionable somewhere along the line for communities to brag about having a “professional police force,” basically indicating they went through an academy somewhere. As you imply above, truly professional cops would probably receive a couple years of situational training before ever hitting the street.

  3. I’d highly recommend the book “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell, which I just finished. He addresses this very topic about how trust is essential to basic human interaction, even if it means accepting the occasional disastrous lie.

    He also discusses an aggressive method of policing called the “Kansas City Method”, that breaks this fundamental aspect. Police actively seek traffic stops on flimsy pretexts to fish for suspicious activity, and look for signs of deception (that scientifically are not all that reliable) that let them search the car. One illustrative fact is that after police adopted this method, traffic stops in North Carolina doubled from 400,000 to 800,000 over a few years, with no notable increase in underlying traffic violations (that increase in traffic stops turned up a whopping 18 illegal guns….).

    While “defunding the police” is absurd, a very credible argument can be made that this popular form of aggressive policing, outside of very narrowly targeted scenarios, is actively harmful and legitimately should be reformed with better research and training. These legitimate criticism of police are lost in active disinformation campaign that focuses on at best at marginal cases, and often lie about key facts to demonize police.

  4. The scope of thought provoked by this post could fill volumes. I will try to be brief.
    Some corrupt organizational cultures are so big and so corrupt that they seem to defy correction. This seems to be the case with big agencies like NYPD, Chicago PD, and perhaps Boston PD as well as others. Some of these agencies seem to have major corruption scandals every ten or fifteen years, which likely means there is some omnipresent level of corruption just below the surface. It boggles the mind (mine, anyway) to contemplate what would have to be done to set a large erring agency on the right path. In the agencies I worked for, (200 – 250 employees max) just one incident involving one officer was a scandal. Yet, I can only comment accurately from my own experience.
    I entered law enforcement in 1974, at what I call “the end of the knuckle-dragging era,” when the first steps to upgrade police selection, training and supervision were just taking hold. My first agency required two years of college as a prerequisite to employment, and required us to remain enrolled in college until the completion of a baccalaureate or higher degree, pursuing the goal that the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice established in 1967, “that all police personnel with general enforcement powers have baccalaureate degrees.” This was, of course, presented by the Commission as “an ultimate” goal, but it was being actively pursued by some agencies. Our Director of Public Safety was a retired FBI agent with a law degree and a PhD, and he ran a tight ship. Other agencies in the surrounding area were not so enlightened, and stereotypical “good old boy” cops abounded. We took pride in being “a cut above” most agencies and worked within a culture that would not tolerate dishonesty, brutality or incompetence. My agency ran the training academy for a ten-county regional Planning and Development Commission, and our administration used the academy experience to try and spread our “public safety service” philosophy to other agencies in the region. This is the foundation I took with me after I got my undergrad degree and went on to a better paying job with a larger agency.
    I never went to law school, but I got my MPA, and I had a judge tell me once that in his opinion I knew the criminal law better than most attorneys. (Don’t ask me any questions about estates and trusts, however.) By the way, according to a 2017 report, an estimated 30 percent of cops in the US had baccalaureate degrees and about 6 percent had graduate degrees.
    During the ensuing years, I occasionally encountered “bad cops” of various types, usually either inept or prone to sometimes excessive use of force, but in a few cases -four to be exact- actually corrupt as in committing crimes on the job. Specific actions depending on my role at the time, I did all that was in my power to help improve or remove the inept, and to remove and/or prosecute the brutal and the corrupt. I never perjured myself and personally knew of only a couple who did, and they both got caught and were fired. I saw none of the mythical “blue wall of silence” where actual serious misconduct was involved. Good cops, at least where I worked, do indeed despise bad cops. I worked for five sheriffs in two agencies and none of them ever tolerated corruption, brutality or blatant ineptitude. Again, it is all about building the culture and making sure that potential bad cops know the prescribed consequences of their actions, and then consistently following through with those consequences. It takes more than noble words and high-minded slogans. As one of my former training colleagues is fond of saying, “What’s lived in the halls is more important than what’s written on the walls.”
    Every community generally gets the policing they deserve. If they tolerate bad cops and/or elect officials who appoint and tolerate them, they will have bad cops. If they want to get the cream of the crop of potential officers, they will provide pay and benefits commensurate with that goal. If they want the best trained best equipped officers, they will commit the resources necessary to achieve those ends.
    Accountability and excellence are obtainable if insisted upon. If a community or an agency are willing to settle for mediocrity, that is what they will get. If people allow city or county leaders to let the union run the agency, then they have surrendered control, which in my opinion is a serious dereliction of their responsibilities. But, as Lincoln said of people’s responsibility during elections, “If they decide to turn their backs on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

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