George Pyle: Police will rise to the level expected of them

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) Aaron James is arrested by Cottonwood Heights Police during a march Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. James was among eight people arrested by Cottonwood Heights Police. He is the father Zane James, a 19-year-old white man who was shot and killed by a Cottonwood Heights Police officer in 2018 as he fled the scene of a robbery. His parents, Tiffany and Aaron James, alleged in a lawsuit filed against the police department last year that their son didn't pose a threat and shouldn't have been shot.

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

— Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

Police officers are not robots. They are human beings.

And it is likely to take up all of a human being’s higher brain functions — even if highly trained and experienced — to apply these humane laws of automation to real-life situations.

For example, it will be hard to resolve the obvious conflict inherent in just the first law when an officer is in a situation, as must often happen, where he is in the presence of two human beings, one apparently intent on harming the other.

If the officer can’t harm any human, and he can’t stand by and watch as a human comes to harm, and the only obvious way to stop the bad guy from harming the good guy is to harm the bad guy, well, 404, File Not Found.

That’s why we like it when police officers — or robots — find a way to obey all the laws by stopping one human from harming another or from harming the officer — or robot — without injuring anyone. In popular culture, a well-placed punch is better than a gunshot. The Lone Ranger was inhumanly adept at shooting the bad guy in the hand rather than the chest. Matt Dillon was known to stare down a villain rather than shoot him — though the knowledge that he could shoot you made the marshal’s steely-eyed gaze that much more effective.

And it can’t be a coincidence that a tool police officers are supposed to use to neutralize a bad guy without killing anyone rhymes with the Star Fleet weapon that can be set to stun. Though just about any time there is a news article about a Taser, it’s either because it did kill someone or proved ineffective and lethal force was resorted to.

Police officers aren’t robots. But, like everyone else, they are programmed. That is why training and certifications are so important for doctors, welders, lawyers, auto mechanics, barbers and journalists.

It is why we’ve been worried, since Homer recited the Iliad, about “Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang,” comic books, movies, TV shows and video games having a harmful effect on young minds. Including those who grow up to be police officers or, worse, become police officers without having grown up.

It is why an old friend of mine who was a retired Navy officer got a little steamed whenever he heard someone say that what youthful offenders need is a turn in a military-style boot camp. The purpose of boot camp, Capt. McAlexander noted, is to erase your previous personality so that, over the next year or two or 20, the military can create for you a new one. Only doing boot camp, without the follow-on, just creates youthful offenders who can run faster and jump higher and may now know how to shoot you.

So it is with police officers. They are not robots or blank slates, but they, like all human beings, will do as they are trained, as they are rewarded, as they are recognized.

If it seems, from TV shows and news coverage, that the purpose of a police force is to shoot bad guys, rough up undesirables, make sure that darker people do not encroach on paler people’s domains, then we should not be surprised when that’s what they do.

Just this week, the Oval Office occupant tweeted more balderdash about how he was going to stop an Obama-era trend that encouraged poor people (i.e., Black folks) from living in middle-class (white folks) neighborhoods.

In other words, the definition of an orderly society is to protect June Cleaver from having to encounter Eldridge Cleaver. (Which was made ridiculous as far back as 1980, when Barbara Billingsley demonstrated her fluency in jive.)

Hereabouts in the last few months, police officers have stood by, and knelt with, those protesting police violence. They have also been responsible for escalating otherwise nonviolent, if raucous, demonstrations into violent confrontations. And turning a blind eye to heavily armed white people who are apparently there because they don’t trust the cops to be thuggish enough.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has made a move in the right direction with her new police standards. Cottonwood Heights, where officers appear to have set for themselves a standard of preemptive brutality, should follow her lead.

Police officers are like anyone else. They will rise to the level expected of them.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, seldom does more than what is expected of him.


Twitter, @debatestate