The hard truth about shrinking respect for the law


Modern society has a lot of problems, but here's a big one: We seem to have no idea how to stop our downward spirals from spinning and sinking faster and faster. Exhibit A is what the world is witnessing in Gaza, where the downward pressure of decades and arguably centuries of bloodshed has locked the leaders of both factions into a kind of tunnel vision that sees no other solution besides more killing. But it's foolish to stand here, all holier-than-thou, and claim some kind of moral authority over the lethal narrow mindedness of Hamas or Netanyahu's Israeli government.

Here in America, we have our own downward spirals to worry about. We watched greed on Wall Street nearly bring down the world's economy, and yet the slow siphoning of wealth by the 1 Percent has continued unabated. We watched America respond to a dastardly, cowardly terrorist attack by too often losing our own moral bearings, torturing "some folks" and spying on our own law-abiding citizens. In the streets of our cities, police forces have militarized (sometimes with help from the billions of dollars unleashed after 9/11) and officers are committing far too many acts of brutality -- unable to reform even with the knowledge that average citizens can now capture their offenses on film.

On that last front, two recent stories have made a lot of noise. Here in Philadelphia, six narcotics cops were arrested last week and accusing of running a reign of terror in the city's poorest neighborhoods -- burglaring and even kidnapping "some folks" and planting drugs to make arrests. On New York's Staten Island, the death of a man who was placed in a chokehold for the not-exactly-capital-offense of selling untaxed cigarettes was just officially ruled a homicide.

But these abuses -- and the culture of lawlessness and disrespect they engender -- are happening everywhere. Today, the New York Times published a remarkable op-ed from a citizen who'd just moved out of Albuquerque in part because the rancid culture in that New Mexico city, including a violent police force that has killed 27 people since 2010 and a seeming open season of violence against an unusually large homeless population there. Here is the chilling conclusion:

This June, a truck swerved onto the sidewalk near a homeless shelter and ran over four people sleeping there, killing one and injuring the others. Surveillance footage suggested it was intentional.

Why wouldn’t the people who committed these crimes believe they could kill and get away with it, when the cops keep doing exactly that?

It's hard to talk about such emotional issues without remembering the context -- that most police officers are good people who do a difficult, dangerous job, and they're the first people we look to when the lowest of our citizenry do some despicable -- and morally inexplicable -- acts. I'm outraged, and so are you, by the punks who carjacked a woman and plowed into a family raising money for their church and killed three kids, and by the cowards who pulled out their guns on a street on Grays Ferry and murdered a 3-year-old girl. No one would argue that -- even as the overall rate of crime declines -- that there is way too much lawlessness on the streets of Philadelphia and other cities.

Thank God we've caught the lowlifes who allegedly committed these recent crimes. But what makes us a civilization, supposedly, is the ability to step back and look at the big picture. And the big picture is that respect for the law -- and for each other --  is spiraling downward, rapidly. The road back starts with parents (with an assist from properly running schools) teaching right from wrong to the young and unformed. But police have it in their power to help break the cycle. Instead, too often they accelerate the race downward -- both in official actions like stopping and frisking law-abiding minorities or arresting urban folks for minor crimes or for breaking pot laws that aren't enforced in the suburbs, or the unofficial mayhem of beat-downs, chokeholds, and the occasional rogue narcotics squad.

Unfortunately, the people who have the power to change things still don't get it. Here in Philadelphia, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey lashed out in anger last week...not as much at corrupt cops as at the Philadelphia Daily News. To Ramsey, it was a "slap in the face" that Daily News ran a front page illustration of Police Headquarters wrapped in yellow-crime tape. (Thanks, also, to my friends at the Inquirer for calling these comments to our attention!) 

I don't know -- with 146 police officers fired for misconduct during the time of Ramsey and his boss Mayor Nutter, including 88 who were arrested and 48 convicted of crimes including murder, rape and extortion, it seems like the crime-scene picture reeked...of understatement. Talk about misplaced outrage. The real "slap in the face" is to local citizens like this dude, kidnapped by renegade Philly narcotics cops, robbed and help in a motel for several days. But then circling the wagons is what our police, and our leaders, seem to do best.

The fish stinks from the head. Just Friday, you had this remarkable moment in which the president of the United States stood up and acknowledged that "we tortured some folks" -- a clear, major violation not just of international statutes and treaties but of U.S. criminal law -- and yet President Obama also made it plain that the American "folks" who ordered and committed that torture will not be punished. That's outrageous. But then, there's been no punishment for the intelligence chief who committed blatant perjury before Congress, for the current CIA spy chief whose minions spied on Congress, the securities scammers and inside traders who helped trigger the 2008 fiscal collapse...or the Philadelphia lawmakers who accepted cash and gifts from a lobbyist.

I could go on. How much time do you have? The bottom line is this. Don't be shocked by people's lack of respect for authority, when people in authority are doing so little to earn our respect right now.

But we are not powerless. There are many things we can start doing, large and small. Here at home, with the police corruption scandal, the Daily News took a break from our alleged face-slapping to publish a strong and sober list of recommendations, including stepped-up monitoring of police activity (by both humans and cameras) and a more powerful civilian oversight agency.

More broadly, America -- once a world leader in promoting equal justice for all -- needs a serious do-over in that department. It starts with admitting the utter failure of the so-called "war on drugs," which has had exactly the same disastrous impacts as the alcohol prohibition of the 20th Century, including the encouragement of police corruption among rogue narcotics cops who'd rather steal the massive profits of drug dealers then execute smarter community policing, to help curb addiction to harder narcotics on the street. But then we also need to end our separate but unequal system of justice -- where you can go to jail for walking down the street for a joint but get rewarded with a bonus for a million-dollar mortgage rip-off, or get re-elected after stuffing cash gifts in your back pocket. We don't need to send more people to prison. We should be sending less, but with a much clearer perspective on what is right and what is wrong, and what is fair.

Anything less is, dare I say it, a real slap in the face.