Raymond J. de Souza: Upholding the law incompetently can have spectacularly bad consequences

Racism or ideological motives are often blamed for poor law enforcement. But sometimes it is just plain incompetence

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Recall that image of National Guard troops sleeping in an unheated garage after the inaugural ceremonies in Washington? It’s one that I hope will dwell in the memory.

It’s an image of incompetence, and that’s important.

In discussions about policing, the criminal justice system and the surveillance state, critics across the spectrum are quick to attribute ideological motives. On the left, racism is the explanation most employed, and on the right, a suspicion of the totalitarian tendencies of the bureaucratic state.

It’s an image of incompetence

Those explanations are oft employed because they contain a good deal of truth. But they do not explain everything. Sometimes it is just plain incompetence. When government employees wear uniforms and carry guns it does not make them immune from the incompetence that is sometimes found in other government work, whether it be road construction or sanitation.

The massive failure of the Capitol Police during the mob invasion of the building was quickly attributed to ideological causes. Were the police in cahoots with the mob? Was the underwhelming response racially motivated? No less than President Joe Biden said that there would have been a different response if the mob had been largely black. The option that the police could simply be incompetent, with spectacularly bad consequences, was not entertained as it should have been.

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Why is that important? Because if the problem is that the Capitol Police are racist, the remedy will be more of what police departments all over have been doing for the past 20 years or more — diversity training, equity programs, community consultations and the like. None of that will help if the problem was an incompetent set of leaders.

Members of the National Guard rest in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 13, 2021, in Washington, D.C. The fact that some National Guards were forced to sleep in an unheated parking garage in the days leading up to the Biden inauguration is a prime example of governmental incompetence, writes Raymond J. de Souza. Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

After the assault, the American security state deployed its mighty power for the inauguration, with some 25,000 National Guardsmen out in force, about four times the troops it took to invade Grenada. And then, even as the security officials were patting themselves on the back for protecting America’s leaders from the American people, those self-same guardsmen were told to bunk down for the night in an unheated parking garage.

Apparently the crack commanders of the National Guard and their colleagues in the Capitol Police hadn’t figured out where the guardsmen would sleep. Massive upset and embarrassment ensued. But this time there was no racial or ideological theory. It was just incompetence. That’s welcome. Not the incompetence itself, but the consideration of same as explanatory for poor performance. This has relevance for policing and security more broadly.

In early January it was announced that the Kenosha, Wis., police officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back would not be charged. It was self-defence, the district attorney said, as Blake thrust a knife toward the police and had resisted previous Taser shots.

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An alternative explanation is that the white officer was inclined to shoot a Black man, and that the prosecutor was disinclined to prosecute a white officer for shooting a Black man. That may well be the case; it would not be the first time.

Activists show support for Jacob Blake Jr., who was left partially paralyzed after being shot seven times in the back by a police officer, during a vigil near the Kenosha County Courthouse on Jan. 4, 2021, in Kenosha, Wis. The officer was not charged. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Another explanation might be that a police officer called to a domestic disturbance, accompanied by other officers, who shoots a man seven times in the back after having already Tasered him, is not competently doing his job. Would one shot in the leg not have sufficed? Did he know how to use a Taser properly? Independent of race, the officer is guilty of bad policing.

One could make the same case in the killing of George Floyd. It’s bad policing that chokes the air out of man already prone and restrained, regardless of race.

But policing is not done regardless of race. Incompetent policing, when combined with racism, results in needless shootings and deaths, and fuels the already hot fires of injustice. Incompetent policing, independent of racism, will still cause needless shootings and deaths. A diversity-sensitive, inclusivity-trained but incompetent police force will continue to wound and kill those it is supposed to protect.

Competent policing, even in a racist environment, will mean fewer shootings and deaths.

One of the obstacles to making the police and armed forces more competent is the widespread view that they are the “finest,” the “best that they can be.” Therefore, when something goes horribly wrong, it must be because they are ill-motivated, not because they are poor at their jobs.

Hence the corrective potential of the National Guard garage sleepover. It is a reminder that alongside animus, incompetence is deadly. The silver lining is that sometimes incompetence is easier to correct.

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