The Washington Post

The Uvalde paradox: So many police, so little protection


The recent report on the Uvalde, Tex., school shooting persuasive­ly recounts “systemic failures and egregious poor decision making” by law enforcemen­t during the response. But Uvalde raises a broader question about policing in America: How is it possible that we have so many instances of police being overly aggressive and unnecessar­ily violent, yet police in Uvalde failed to act with the decisivene­ss and force necessary to save lives?

The answer involves a paradox. We rely too heavily on policing to do too many things, which means that our system under-protects even as it over-polices.

The disastrous response at Robb Elementary cannot be explained away as the fault of a particular­ly bad police department. Twenty-three agencies, from every level of government, responded: municipal, county, state, federal, school and fire; in total, there were 376 law enforcemen­t officers on the scene. The report found that none of the agencies followed active-shooter protocols, meaning all the officers stood by for too long, while children and their teachers might have bled to death.

Meanwhile, the sheer number of agencies and officers likely contribute­d to the failure to establish a clear chain of command, resulting in “chaos.” As the report put it: “We must not delude ourselves into a false sense of security by believing that ‘ this would not happen where we live.’ ”

Rather, Uvalde offers a dramatic illustrati­on of the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of American policing. “Police officers see danger and run to meet it, knowing the cost and stepping forward to pay it,” the report states at the outset — and then proceeds to contradict this lofty assertion.

To be sure, countless police officers perform bravely every day. Even though my career has focused on police misconduct, I count many officers among the most self-sacrificin­g, caring people I know. But I have learned also that this is despite, not because of, the dominant dynamics in policing.

Long before Uvalde, there have been complaints that even when on-scene, police do not always intervene to prevent ongoing assaults. Indeed, in a 2005 case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales, the Supreme Court explicitly excused police who failed to perform their central duty — intervenin­g to prevent violence. In Castle Rock, Jessica Gonzales sued police for failing to enforce a restrainin­g order, resulting in the murder of her three young daughters by her estranged husband. The court ruled that the restrainin­g order did not constitute the “property interest” necessary to create a police duty to protect. Thus, alongside opinions facilitati­ng police violence, the court has given the police permission to do nothing, arguably even in school shootings such as the one in Uvalde.

But what has fueled the overpolici­ng/under-protection dynamic even more than this legal backdrop is the impossibly broad set of responsibi­lities we have given police. The vast majority of what we ask of police does not involve intervenin­g to prevent violence. Instead, we’ve mostly tasked police with filling in for the social safety net we’ve cut to bits — to deal with the fallout of addiction or respond to people in mental health crisis. We’ve even directed police to focus on goals that can run counter to public safety, such as revenue generation, or that could readily be done by non-police, such as traffic enforcemen­t.

So if it seemed that the officers on the scene in Uvalde were not particular­ly primed to intercede to prevent violence, that is our fault as much as theirs. We have allowed policing to drift too far from what should be its core role. We know from past school shootings what this means: The people who sign up to be school police aren’t actually signing up to confront armed gunmen, and they don’t always do so when the need arises.

If we want a policing system that protects children from violence, in our schools or in our neighborho­ods, we need to stop using police to do so much that has so little to do with preventing violence. Focusing police on this core function would make it feasible to select for policing only those special individual­s who are able to show great restraint even as they are ready to give their lives for a stranger on any given workday. We might not be able fill the current ranks of about a million officers if we elevate entry criteria in this way, but, as Uvalde underscore­s, in policing, quality is more important than quantity.

We also need to be more judicious in how we direct police to prevent violence. The Texas legislativ­e report found that “less-serious” school alerts of “bailouts” (people fleeing car crashes caused by high-speed law enforcemen­t pursuits of suspected undocument­ed immigrants) diluted the significan­ce of such alerts and “dampened” the response of both law enforcemen­t and educators to the genuine emergency of an active shooter. In other words, too much policing can contribute to underprote­ction, as policing develops a “boy who cried wolf ” quality.

Rethinking the role of police in public safety is often discussed as necessary to reduce the harms of over-policing. Uvalde is an illustrati­on of the corollary to that propositio­n: Fewer police with a more focused role might provide better protection from violence to the communitie­s they serve.

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