A pair of stories in recent days pointed up the complexities of modern policing and the tremendous challenges faced by people who work in the field.
The Milwaukee Sentinel Journal recently published a long form article outlining their review of thousands of documents related to federal ATF agents’ duping mentally disabled informants and engaging in other troubling behavior.
According to the article, agents went so far as to encourage two teens – one who was mentally disabled – to get large tattoos on their necks promoting a fake store front that agents operated as part of an undercover gun sting.
And that was only one of a series of findings identified in the article. Others included:
- Allowing juveniles to drink alcohol and use drugs in one of the store fronts;
- Offering extraordinarily high prices for guns and other stolen merchandise, which resulted in a spike in thefts and burglaries in the area;
- Damaging buildings rented for sting operations, and then sticking the building’s owners with the repair bills;
- Allowing felons to walk out of the store with guns given them by undercover agents;
- Hiring a felon to run one of the fake store fronts so agents could nab sellers of legal firearms for knowingly selling the weapon to a felon.
While no one would argue against the need to aggressively investigate illegal firearm trafficking, these tactics go too far. Taking advantage of children and people with mental disabilities, and using methods that contribute to other criminal offenses in a community, is not the type of high-quality policing we expect and deserve.
The police can and must do better.
Which leads me to the second story. This past week, NYPD Officer Carlos Ramos literally gave a homeless man the shirt off his back on a freezing cold day. The officer saw the man trying to rip up his shirt to wrap his feet, which had somehow gotten wet that morning, when Ramos happened by and offered to help.
And this apparently wasn’t the first time this officer had done something similar. According to Officer Ramos:
“I’ve helped out other people, especially when it’s cold,” he told the Daily News. “A nice cup of coffee, a tea, whatever seems appropriate… always wanted to help those that need help, protect the city, protect the country.”
Ramos didn’t have to do anything. He could have kept walking, ignored the homeless man’s dilemma, and no one would have offered the first word of criticism.
He also had no way of knowing that his story would be reported in the media, just as the ATF agents in the first story had no idea that their problematic tactics would be reported.
And that’s the point.
Society demands and deserves the very best from its law enforcement officers, whether or not what they do ever comes to light. Striking the right balance between aggressive, proactive policing and an ethic of authentic care and concern is a tremendous challenge. I think we all get that.
But it’s an absolute necessity.
We need more officers like Ramos, and fewer willing to use and abuse citizens in ways that violate basic human dignity and, quite frankly, common sense.
That’s the important lesson here.
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