What's Tony Thinking

Pulling the Rug Out From Under Police


Here’s a brief follow-up to my last blog on “Seattle’s Drug Crisis.”

Another element in the mix of urban decay is the status and authority of police. In recent years (weeks even) highly-publicized cases of police bad behavior and/ or excessive use of force have been in the national and local news. These are real and should be brought to light.

But such cases seem to have contributed to a prevailing view that the police are (all and always) the bad guys. To be sure, I have had a few interactions with police that left me troubled. The post 9/11 militarization of police forces has also been a negative. And I have no doubt that cultural changes are needed in policing. But good police are still needed, and many who serve are good police. Moreover, police cannot be so hamstrung that they are simply blown off by offenders, as appears to have been the case in Seattle for some time now.

There’s a bit of philosophical mal-practice at work here. One now common assumption is the idea that the world/ society divide into the oppressors and oppressed. Clean and simple, isn’t it? There’s enough truth in that to make it believable. And enough false to make for bad public policy. It results, with regards to Seattle’s drug crisis, with an assumption that all homeless and/ or addicted people are oppressed — more or less innocent victims — while all police or other official actors or people trying to run a business are oppressors.

Such thinking may be a factor in the unquestioned orthodoxy of “meeting people where they are at” as Seattle public policy on addiction, per Alec Fryer in the Seattle Times, highlighted in my previous post.

While pondering such matters, I was also reading one of the Swedish author, Henning Mankell’s, Kurt Wallander mystery series. This one titled The Troubled Man. It’s a great series.

Toward the end of the tale, detective Wallander is summoned to his Chief’s office because the Chief, one of the new breed of statistical analysis types, wants to brag about the uptick in their department’s “resolved cases” stats. Here are the relevant paragraphs.

“Wallander listened to what his boss had to say. There was no reason to doubt the report. But Wallander knew that interpreting statistics was like pulling rabbits out of a hat. You could always present a statistic as fact even if it was an illusion. Wallander and his colleagues were painfully aware that the closure rate in Sweden was among the lowest in the world. And none of them believed they’d hit rock bottom yet.

“Things would continue to get worse. Constant bureaucratic upheavals mean an equally constant increase in the negative flow of unsolved crimes. It was more important to check boxes and meet targets that really get down to investigating crimes and taking crooks to court.

“Moreover, Wallander and most of his colleagues thought that the priorities were all wrong. The day that police chiefs decreed ‘minor crimes’ must be tolerated, the rug had been pulled out from under what remains of a trusting relationship between the police and the general public. The man in the street was not prepared to shrug his shoulders and merely accept that something had broken into his car or his garage or his summer cottage. He wanted these crimes to be solved, or at least investigated.”

Not rocket science that “major crimes” get a lot more media/political attention than “minor crimes,” just as major surgeries more glam than general practice, big churches than small churches, etc. Remember “Broken Windows”? It was the idea, in policing, that “minor crime” matters as it creates an environment conducive to criminal behavior.

I wonder how much this fictional lament might also fit for police in Seattle and similar cities?



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