‘To Protect and Serve’ – the often used motto to describe the multitude of police and sheriff’s departments across the country. But nowadays one wonders exactly who they are serving and protecting. The narrative law enforcement agencies have fed the public is that most police officers are good, they uphold the law and serve their communities valiantly and proudly and the few rotten apples should not be used to measure against the good cops. The public bought this narrative for the longest time. After all, the citizens of this country don’t want to think our tax dollars are funding corrupt and racist police departments. But no more.
This narrative is no longer true and is no longer representative of what a good police force is supposed to be. The new narrative should be, each cop should be measured individually on his or her own efforts. Just because he or she is a cop, we, the public, are not to assume that they are decent and good cops committed to serve his or her community until he or she proves it.
This past year, as black children and men were killed by white cops, some as young as 12, it became impossible to ignore the obvious, that being ‘black’ itself is a crime. Being black automatically makes you a suspect, being black makes you a target, without any benefit of the doubt or presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Being black is equated with being a natural born criminal.
Police brutality against blacks (and other minorities) is not a new thing. It’s been an ongoing cancer since the brutal Jim Crow days, the only thing that has changed is the 24 hour news cycle and proliferation of recording devices, in the form of smartphones. Any person with a smartphone can record anything that is happening at any given time and upload to Youtube or send it to the local news station and has the potential to go viral. One need not wait until the 5 am morning news or the morning paper to get delivered to receive breaking news.
Many proposals have been put forth by law enforcement experts and President Obama on how to curb police brutality and enforce accountability on the part of police officers. The most obvious solution is the bodycam, which will record every single interaction including audio when a police officer interacts with the public. Bodycams can only address the accountability issue, maybe having a bodycam on the person of a police officer will deter him or her from getting out of hand when dealing with a suspect and eliminate the he said/he said scenario, which usually the version by the cop will be believed, but it doesn’t address the root cause of police brutality and unaccountability.
To address the root cause of police brutality, society at large needs to remove the power from the badge. As a society, we need to realize anyone who can pass the police academy courses (which are not that difficult) can wear that uniform, get assigned a badge and firearm. And that person, regardless if he or she is qualified or how much experience on the police force can use that uniform, badge and firearm to bully civilians into submission by just flashing it and pointing it.
The United States is one of the few advanced nations that arms all of its police officers. By arming all police officers, police departments have neglected to train police recruits the real art of policing: assessing danger, assessing the mental state of suspects, making quick but sound decisions, using good judgement to de-escalate dangerous situations and using a weapon is the absolutely last resort when all others have failed. All of the above mentioned qualities in good police training is costly and time consuming and more importantly, many of those skills can’t really be ‘taught’, they have to be ‘learned’ with trial and error.
The screening and recruiting process for some police departments, as reported by Jake Halpern for The New Yorker, leaves a lot to be desired. Darren Wilson, Mike Brown’s murderer, said he joined the police force because he thought it was a ‘recession proof’ job. He didn’t really exhibit the qualities that would make him a good police officer. Darren Wilson didn’t even have a strong desire or passion for being in law enforcement, he just needed a job that had good benefits.
To be a cop that is good at walking the ‘beat’ requires streetsmarts (for the officer’s own protection), emotional intelligence (the ability to connect with people you don’t know at a human level), empathy for others at and a knack for deciphering what’s real and what’s bullshit. It’s definitely not for people who are robotic and inflexible in nature, who only know how to follow orders and do what’s told and little else.
The current police force as it stands attracts one main group of people. Poorly educated, disgruntled white men who are unhappy with the way things are and the direction society is evolving. White men who believe that society as they know it is ending due to shifting demographics and the election of a black president. They see as their way of life, the way they call the shots coming to an end. So, the only way they have any control over their lives is to become a police officer and reinforce institutionalized racism, to be given a badge to bully and intimidate people with and a gun to point it at people, legally, due to the powers afforded to those two objects.
Depending on your race and background, you are told either one of two things about the police: if you are white, you are told that the police are there to protect you and should you get yourself into any trouble, call the cops, they’ll come and save you and bring you to safety. If you are non-white, the police are a source of intimidation, fear, oppression and brutality. Both of these narratives originate from the opposite sides of the same coin and that is the time honored ‘badge’. When the police flash that badge, as a citizen you sit up and pay attention and give it the respect the authority of the badge demands (not necessarily the person holding it). We need to change that narrative. The badge is no longer all powerful. It’s no longer something that every citizen has to kowtow to once it’s whipped out.
The few people awaking to the fact that the badge is not all powerful, and the few that dare question it, such as Sandra Bland, do so at their own peril. She was given a $5000 bond for questioning why she was being pulled over for not signaling, she dared question the police officer, he trumped up her charges, issued a $5000 bond and she committed suicide in jail.
Also, who make it acceptable to be a so rude and belligerent when pulling over someone over and telling them their tail light is out or some other trifle matter? And who made it a law that you are not allowed to ‘talk-back’ to a police officer? On what authority do they have to charge anyone with ‘resist of arrest’ by just asking questions and asserting one’s rights? Every person, regardless of race, ethnicity or legal status has an absolute right to ask why they are being pulled over if the reason initially given by the police officer is insufficient, especially as Jake Halpern pointed out in his piece for the New New Yorker, cops in the North County of St. Louis don’t even have a basic grasp of their local laws and violations. They are arresting people for laws that don’t exist and would not hold up under probable cause.
Even if a cop pulls someone over due to justified suspicious behavior, what gives a cop the right to be bellicose and verbally assault the suspect? Do they not teach basic manners at the police academy? If they don’t, they ought to start. And what is up with throwing people to the ground or on the hood of the squad car or severing someone’s spine during transport after a routine arrest?
The consciousness of America has been awaked by the Black Lives Matter movement. People of all races will not sit by idly while police abuse and brutalize the most disadvantaged citizens because they can get away with it. The police, just like the people they arrest, need to be held accountable for their actions. And the age old crutch ‘I didn’t know he was not armed’, ‘His large size scared me’, ‘I didn’t know he was only ____ (insert age)’, all of these excuses will no longer fly. If law enforcement and the courts do not hold aggressive police officers accountable, we will.