The Weekly Abolitionist: Chris Burbank and the Myth of “Good Cops”

Last week, Radley Balko published an interesting piece on the question “After Ferguson, how should police respond to protests?”  He contrasted the militarized approach seen in Ferguson and in the Battle of Seattle with less reactionary and more cooperative forms of policing. One police chief Balko praised was Chris Burbank of Salt Lake City, my hometown. In particular, Balko emphasized the manner in which Chief Burbank evicted Occupy protesters from Pioneer Park. His department gave protesters advance notice and did not bring riot gear or other military equipment to the eviction, thus avoiding much of the violence and conflict seen in other police crackdowns on Occupy.

Last year, as part of a series on the police reform movement in Utah, Balko published a profile piece praising Chief Burbank. Balko summarizes Burbank’s approach as follows:

Unconventional has been Burbank’s modus operandi since he was appointed chief of police in 2006. Be it the drug war, immigration, or the handling of protests, Burbank’s mantra to his officers is the same: Use the minimum amount of force necessary to resolve the situation. Or as Burbank puts it, “It’s not can I do it, but should I do it?”

His comparatively peaceful approach is not the only thing that makes Chief Burbank more likable than the average cop. He also attempts friendly relations with groups often at odds with abusive police officers. Transgender individuals face brutal repression and violence from police across the country, but Chief Burbank attended and spoke at Utah’s Transgender Day of Remembrance service last year, mourning trans people who had been killed. This year he spoke at Salt Lake City’s SlutWalk, a protest against mistreatment of sexual assault survivors. Several years ago both Burbank and myself were attendees at the ACLU of Utah’s annual Bill of Rights Celebration. If you want to find an image of a “good cop,” Chris Burbank is probably one of the best examples you’ll find. When an incredibly astute critic of police abuse like Radley Balko praises a police officer, that officer is probably above average.

So it’s pretty telling when Burbank and his subordinates behave in the same destructive ways as any other cops. And they do that all too often. Last week, Salt Lake City police officers shot and killed an unarmed man, 20 year old Dillon Taylor. His brother, Jerrail Taylor, witnessed the killing and described it to the Salt Lake Tribune:

“We’re walking out of the 7-Eleven with a drink, when the cops show up and start harassing us with guns,” Jerrail Taylor told The Salt Lake Tribune Tuesday night. South Salt Lake police, who are investigating the shooting, said Salt Lake City police were answering a 911 call reporting a man there was waving a handgun; Dillon Taylor purportedly matched the description of the armed man.

Dillon Taylor was wearing headphones and didn’t respond to the three officers until they surrounded him, Jerrail Taylor said.

“He couldn’t hear them, so he just kept walking. Then … they had guns pointed at his face. That’s when he turned off the music,” he said. “I saw them point guns at my brother’s face, and I knew what was going to happen.”

One officer told Dillon Taylor to get on the ground, while another told him to put his hands on his head.

“He got confused, he went to pull up his pants to get on the ground, and they shot him,” Jerrail Taylor said.

Witnesses said they heard two shots. Taylor died at the scene; his brother and cousin were detained for questioning.

So Chief Burbank’s subordinates surrounded a man and pointed guns at him, then shot him when he attempted to pull up his pants. And they almost certainly won’t face the kinds of criminal charges we would expect if a private citizen committed this sort of shooting.

This June, Salt Lake City Police Officer Brett Olsen entered a fenced yard without a warrant and shot a dog named Geist. After massive public outcry over this shooting, Chief Burbank criticized the public for much of their anger. Or, as J.D. Tucille of Reason put it, “Police Chief Chris Burbank stepped in front of a camera — and acted pissy that anybody would dare criticize his officers.” The SLCPD eventually concluded that Olsen “acted within policy.”

In 2011, attorney Andrew McCullough represented two escort services in a lawsuit challenging a Utah law that allowed police officers to arrest suspected sex workers for touching themselves, exposing themselves, or acting in any lewd manner. McCullough argued that this criminalized perfectly legal expressive activity routinely engaged in by strippers as part of their job, and thus violated the First Amendment. Chief Burbank had lobbied for the law and continued to defend it during this suit. His argument for the law was based on the idea that officers were being asked to behave inappropriately when they conducted undercover operations to catch sex workers. In other words, because he wanted it to be easier for his employees to identify and coerce sex workers for their choices of what to do with their bodies, he supported an overly broad law that could threaten legal businesses and free expression.

What can we learn from all this? What I take from it is that even the better police officers still respond to the structural incentives associated with policing. Police are granted a monopoly on legal force, and along with that are given privileges to use force we would consider criminal if carried out by a mere mundane. Police officers are also rewarded for enforcing vice laws, and they thus have incentives to seek expansive powers for enforcing such laws. Moreover, they are a concentrated and too often revered interest group that can easily influence legislative bodies in order to claim these expansive powers. Burbank’s actions show that even cops who emphasize treating the public with respect and preserving civil liberties will respond to the perverse incentives embedded in policing itself. They will almost inevitably find themselves helping killer cops escape accountability and seeking more power to coerce people who pose no threat. Given these perverse incentives, I think we should take the advice of Anthony Gregory and abolish the police.

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