Retired Anaheim police Capt. Joe Vargas says pervasive videos of cop-citizen confrontations are eroding police morale, leading to fewer arrests and more crime.
“Police are demoralized,” Vargas said during a discussion about the rising crime rate on the “Inside OC with Rick Reiff” public affairs program. “That's an absolute fact... This is dangerous for our communities especially if you have cops who are ignoring crime simply because they don't want to expose themselves (to controversy).”
“Every officer has had to become an expert police apologist, to their families, friends, relatives and neighbors,” Vargas said. “They've had to get really good at explaining why cops do what they do and, quite frankly, it gets wearing after a while. It's no wonder that morale at agencies around the country is just tanking.”
Vargas did say that “a substantial number of officers” are undeterred by heightened public criticism: “If they see disorder, they see injustice taking place, they will respond because that's just the way they're cut.” But he said others “are becoming firefighters... 'If you call, I'll come,' but to expect me to get out of my car and do proactive work and expose myself to be the latest YouTube video that will be broadcast across the country with a false narrative, is just taxing to some people.”
Panelist Charis Kubrin, a UC Irvine criminologist, challenged some of Vargas' assertions.
She said cell-phone videos can support, as well as undermine, police versions of confrontations. And she said increased scrutiny may prod the police to do their jobs better:
“If what is happening across the country is encouraging departments to take a look at the procedures, policies, training and the way in which police officers are doing things, I think that's a positive.”
But Vargas said videos can give a distorted perception of even appropriate officer conduct: “There's no easy way to put handcuffs on somebody who doesn't want them put on. It requires the use of force and the use of what people perceive as violence.”
Kubrin said that while crime has risen recently across the country and state and in many local communities, the uptick follows several decades of falling crime. She also said that crime remains lower in California cities than cities nationwide.
She said academic studies, including her own, do not support the claims, often advanced by law enforcement, that crime is up in California because of measures undertaken by the state to ease prison overcrowding and decriminalize some drug and other offenses.
Vargas countered, “I actually don't believe any of these things have created more safe and livable communities. Let's face it, thousands of people are out of jail and even if a small percentage of them are still engaged in crime, that's people who are being victimized.”
He said it was “a tragedy” that animosity toward the police is often greatest in neighborhoods that need them the most:
“There's nothing sadder than families that have to bring their kids in as soon as the sun goes down because there's a fear of what's going on in the streets.”
But Kubrin said, “There is a longstanding, challenging relationship between the police and community members in many communities across the United States. Now with social media we are seeing the effects of that... That's coming to light and that's being now put on the front page for everybody to see.”
The crime episode, which has aired this week, can be viewed on YouTube.
The post-show “Open Mic” segment, which includes a discussion of civilian review of police, is here.
“Part Two” of the Vargus-Kubrin discussion is scheduled to begin airing on “Inside OC” the week of May 7 on PBS SoCal, KDOC-TV and Cox 3. All show times are listed here.