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Being a 'Rookie' Cop Is No Excuse for Deadly Policing

In the last week, two shooting deaths have been attributed to rookie cops. Pointing to inexperience is informative but dangerous.

by Natasha Lennard
Nov 24 2014, 11:00pm

Photo by John Minchillo/AP

Where do we find rookies? Sports teams have rookies, mistakes can be rookie, and of course, as we've been reminded in a banner week of officer involved shootings, police forces have rookies.

In the last week alone, two high-profile deadly shootings by police involved rookie officers. With less than 18 months on the job, NYPD officer Peter Liang shot dead Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old, in Brooklyn as the man entered a darkened stairwell in a housing project. Another rookie cop, this time in Cleveland, fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was carrying an "airsoft" pellet gun at a recreational center playground.

Media stories understandably point out that these cops were new to the force. It's arguably relevant information. Equally, news stories highlight when a police "veteran" is involved in instances of brutality or use of force. But, in sum, all we can surmise from the glut of police killing stories in recent weeks, months, and years is that cops old and new are responsible for deaths that quite simply should not have come to pass.

Anonymous crashes Cleveland City website in retaliation for police killing of 12-Year-Old. Read more here.

When we hear that a rookie cop has "accidentally" killed an unarmed man, as has been reported in the Gurley case, we might rightly move to blame insufficient police training. It is no excuse, however accurate, that Officer Liang was "nervous" as police sources have told journalists. Most nervous individuals are not endowed by the state with the position and weaponry to shoot dead innocent people on sight. "Rookie" should be no qualifier of culpability. The work done by applying the term — even if unintentionally — excuses the officer involved. 

The term rookie, as in newly-minted cop, has a cultural reference point that subtly undermines police accountability. The rookie is the bright eyed newbie in the hard-boiled crime thriller, a bumbling but lovable figure in cop comedies à la 21 Jump Street, the hardworking recent graduate not yet turned cynical or corrupt by years in uniform. Pop culture ushers audiences to the side of the rookie. It even sounds adorable.

Protest remembers teen killed by off-duty St. Louis cop ahead of Ferguson grand jury decision. Read more here.

Media storytelling alone could lead one to think that all police forces in America are comprised of rookies and veterans, and no one in between. Rarely does a cop appear in an article as just a cop. And that is a big problem within the discursive space through which police violence is addressed.

At base, it shouldn't matter whether officers are new or old to the force — they wear the uniform and carry the gun alike. Whether fresh out of the academy or not, all police are accorded the authority their uniform asserts in society. The responsibility should be uniform, too.

When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio deemed Gurley's death a "tragic mistake," he performed the work of injustice. It should not matter that officer Peter Liang did not mean to kill a man as he patrolled up and down darkened stairwells in a public housing project. The culpability rests with a system that sends armed, insufficiently trained officers to patrol the homes of New York's poor and black. 

"Rookie" is etymologically believed to be a corrupted version of the word "recruit." But rookie cops are long beyond the point of recruitment. The diminutive qualifier serves to suggest that they perhaps deserve less blame for misconduct than more experienced officers. The uniform is the same, though, and a gun is equally lethal, however long the cop has been holding it. 

Here's a first look at the Ferguson Police Department's internal code of conduct. Read more here.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

tamir rice
Police Shooting
Akai Gurley
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