An America of Lower Standards Can’t Expect Excellence in Policing

By failing to demand the best, we’ll keep getting the worst, and society at large will pay the price.

AP/Gerald Herbert
Protesters march at Memphis over the death of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police. AP/Gerald Herbert

America is once again reeling from the death of an innocent citizen at the hands of police and calling for everything from reforms to the abolition of law enforcement. The country is failing, however, to address the larger problem: By ceasing to demand excellence in ourselves and each other, we’re not getting the best.

On January 7, a 29-year-old motorist, Tyre Nichols, was beaten to death during a traffic stop at Memphis, Tennessee; five policemen have been charged. All involved are Black; so is the city’s police chief, Cerelyn J. Davis, and most officers under her command.

This meets the criteria of being “diverse,” which in the current parlance refers to superficial characteristics: race, gender, color, creed. While there is much to be said for sharing ties to a community,  prospective officers were last year also required to live in the city, which cut the applicant pool further.

In February, Memphis launched an effort to recruit 300 new police officers, Tennessee Lookout reported, “and streamline processes by removing barriers.” If candidates failed the background review, they could reapply in a year, though the disqualifications in their background would remain. 

The implication is that someone who’s not good enough to have a badge and a gun today may be good enough tomorrow. We can’t know if lowering these bars resulted in these or other rogue policemen being in uniform, but we do know their behavior was ignored.

Four of the five indicted for Nichols’s death, USA Today reports, “were suspended or received written reprimands … with only one charged officer avoiding internal discipline during his tenure.” American society seems to be in a race to loosen requirements and excuse poor behavior, removing obstacles that have always served to winnow out those who can’t pass muster.

“After years of lowering standards for applicants,” the chairman of Do No Harm, Stanley Goldfarb, wrote in Newsweek last July, “medical schools are more diverse than ever before. Yet new studies show that many students are struggling, putting their future patients and careers at risk.”

A high school teacher, Dr. Manuel Rustin, wrote on Medium that boosting student grades was simple. “Give them all A’s,” he said, to ensure “equity.” The idea is catching on, with EdSource suggesting getting rid of grades to help “first-year students get acclimated to college.”

Cheat codes like these are antithetical to a functioning society. A woman in charge of training female recruits at Parris Island, Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano, told the Marine Corps Times in 2017, “When individuals start out at the recruiting station and they see that women are held to lower standards and have a much lower fitness requirement to max out the PFT, that causes cultural reverberations down the line.”

Ms. Germano told the Times that “longstanding tradition of having two-tiered fitness requirements for men and women aims to ensure fairness, but a growing chorus of critics say it creates a double standard and implies that female Marines are not as physically capable as men.”

Fire departments have also sought broader representation, with the Fire Department of New York dropping its physical test to recruit more women, but when a child is choking on smoke in a burning building, he or she cares nothing about whether the person who bursts through the blaze “looks like them,” only that they’re capable of extracting them to safety.

Marshal Candido Rondon, the first leader of Brazil’s Indian Protection Service and the explorer of the River of Doubt with President Theodore Roosevelt, had a stark admonition for the men on his expeditions who might run up against hostile locals.

“Die if you must,” Rondon said, “but never kill.” Men unwilling to lay down their lives were not hired. Rondon preferred to face the Amazon’s dangers with a few men he could trust rather than a dozen whose lack of discipline would court disaster.

Being a police officer, firefighter, doctor, or soldier is hard, so the road to becoming one should be hard, recognizing that few people of any given background can do those jobs. By failing to demand the best, we’ll keep getting the worst, and society at large will pay the price.

The New York Sun

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