Police Violence in a Democracy
“Cop culture” values have become as much of a part of the nation’s psyche as baseball has become our national pastime. “Cop Culture” is defined as attitudes and behavior prevalent among the police force, often characterized by solidarity and resistance to change, and sometimes alleged to be discriminatory and intolerant.
A recent study by the National Institute of Justice revealed a whopping 84 percent of police officers report that they’ve seen colleagues use excessive force on civilians, and 61 percent admit they don’t always report “even serious criminal violations that involve abuse of authority by fellow officers.”
The immediate reaction to instances of police misconduct by government officials, of course, is usually the same. Responses by police spokespersons are typically framed as “a few bad apples” who are damaging the reputations of the good police work of others. This refrain still resonates with many Americans because they continue to maintain a default respect for the man in uniform. This despite the increasing frequency with which we hear of violent encounters with police.
But the immediate impact of the NIJ study moves us well beyond anecdote into the realm of concrete data. It shows why police misconduct is a systemic problem and not the result of a “few bad apples”. It says that police brutality is a pervasive problem which continues to be exacerbated by systemic failures to curb it. That’s not to say that every officer is ill-intentioned or abusive. But it is to suggest that the common assumption that police are generally using their authority in a trustworthy manner is not accurate and that it is a perception that merits serious reconsideration.
A more fundamental question that has emerged in recent years for all citizens is citizen/police confrontations. It is no accident that what races through the minds of many individuals is whether they are going to make it through a police confrontation alive much less with their health and freedoms intact. For a growing number of Americans, and what is especially true for minorities, these confrontations do not end well.
As an ideal democratic principle, people should have a right to have a voice in how they are policed. There are voices that have loudly argued that these principles stop being “democratic” when individuals are kicked, punched, tasered, shot, intimidated, harassed, brutalized, terrorized, wrongfully arrested, stripped, illegally searched or killed by a police officer.
When police officers are rarely held legally or financially accountable for violating constitutional rights or never forced to make amends when they fail to uphold their oath to serve and protect, then we arguably live in a police state rather than in a constitutional republic.
For the growing numbers of our disaffected minority population, it no longer matters whether you’re innocent or guilty of any wrongdoing. When individuals are confronted with police who shoot first and ask questions later, due process—the constitutional assurance of a fair trial before an impartial jury—means nothing.
Daily instances of police choosing to fatally resolve these encounters by using their guns on fellow citizens speaks volumes about what is wrong with policing in America today. Police officers are being dressed in the trappings of war. They are drilled in the deadly art of combat. They are trained to look upon every individual they interact with as an armed threat and every contact as a potential deadly-force encounter in the making.
As a country, we are faced with a systemic corruption that protects wrongdoing by trying to recast police violence in a noble light. But there is nothing noble about law enforcement that maims or kills defenseless individuals. There is nothing noble about police officers rendered largely immune from prosecution for wrongdoing.
There is no sense that true justice will ensue from juries who are reluctant to convict the few officers that are prosecuted for their deadly conduct.
These jury acquittals continue to entrench “cop culture” values because they provide an implicit nod which reinforces the pervasive attitude among law enforcement that the officer’s actions were justified. These acquittals additionally affirm the perception that security takes precedence over individual rights.
This is the inevitable fallout from teaching police officers to assume the worst-case scenario and react with fear to anything that poses the slightest threat (imagined or real). This is what comes from allowing police to view themselves as soldiers on a battlefield and those they’re supposed to serve as enemy combatants. This is the end result of a lopsided criminal justice system that fails to hold the government and its agents accountable for misconduct.
It’s the difference between police officers who rank their personal safety above everyone else’s and police officers who understand that their jobs are to serve and protect. It’s the difference between police who are trained to shoot to kill and police trained to resolve situations peacefully. Most of all, it’s the difference between police who believe the law is on their side and police who know that they will be held to account for their actions under the same law as everyone else.
Unfortunately, more and more police are being trained to view themselves as distinct from the citizenry, to view their authority as superior to the citizenry, and to view their lives as more precious than those of their citizen counterparts. Instead of being taught to see themselves as mediators and peacemakers whose lethal weapons are to be used as a last resort, they are being drilled into acting like gunmen with killer instincts. They shoot to kill rather than merely incapacitate. This then becomes no longer a debate over “good cops versus bad cops”.
In the 2014 analysis, "Coming Home to Roost: American Militarism, War Culture, and Police Brutality" published by The Hampton Institute, Colin Jenkins provides an in-depth look at the potential cultural roots of police violence in the United States. These cultural factors include "Objectification, Empathy Erosion, an Internalized Culture of War and Oppression, White Supremacy" and the development of an intensely hierarchical and class-based society.
Jenkins makes a connection between the proliferation of U.S. wars abroad and the soldier-to-police officer transition that has become common, bringing veterans of foreign wars home to patrol mostly poor and working-class communities of color. Using his own experience in the U.S. military, he provides some insight into the mentality that is shaped by combat training and how these mentalities are then turned on target populations, which include American citizens.
Some state legislatures are being forced to confront police misconduct through new legislation in order to stem the growing victimization of their citizens due to police misconduct. They see police violence as a systemic problem that is being fueled primarily by the militarization of our police departments and not just the result of a “few bad apples.”
Some of the proposals being considered are:
- Providing more training in nonviolent solutions. Without this training, police are more likely to view violence as a first resort.
- Establishing standards for what constitutes brutality: “Excess is in the eyes of the beholder,” explains William Terrill, a former police officer and Professor of Criminal Justice at Michigan State. “To one officer ‘objectively reasonable’ means that if you don’t give me your license, I get to use soft hands, and in another town the same resistance means I can pull you through the car window, [or] I can tase you.” The special deference police are widely given in American culture feeds this inconsistency of standards, producing something of a legal Wild West. While national legislation would likely only complicate matters further, local or state-wide ballot propositions should allow the public—not the police—to define reasonable use of force.
- Elevating consequences for misconduct: On a national level, upwards of 95 percent of police misconduct cases referred for federal prosecution are declined by prosecutors because, as reported in USA Today, juries “are conditioned to believe cops, and victims’ credibility is often challenged.” Failure to remedy this police/civilian double standard cultivates an abuse-friendly legal environment.
- Shifting settlements from taxpayers to officers: Those officers who are found guilty of brutality typically find the settlement to their victims paid from city coffers. Research from Human Rights Watch reveals that in some places, taxpayers “are paying three times for officers who repeatedly commit abuses: once to cover their salaries while they commit abuses; next to pay settlements or civil jury awards against officers; and a third time through payments into police ‘defense’ funds provided by the cities.” In larger cities, these settlements easily cost the public tens of millions of dollars annually while removing a substantial incentive against police misconduct.
- Penalizing officers for unfairly targeting minorities: “Simply put,” says University of Florida law professor Katheryn K. Russell, “the public face of a police brutality victim is a young man who is Black or Latino.” Current research is replete with examples that support this perception. Failure to address this issue communicates to police that minorities are a safe target for abuse.
- Stopping the increasingly militarization of police: During President Obama’s gun control push, he argued that “weapons of war have no place on our streets;” but as Radley Balko has amply documented in his 2013 book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, local police are often equipped with weapons powerful enough to conquer a small country. Police use of highly armed SWAT teams has risen by 1,500 percent in the last two decades. Many police departments have cultivated an “us vs. them” mentality toward the public they ostensibly serve. Although possession of these weapons does not cause misconduct, as the old saying goes, when you have a hammer everything begins to look like a nail.
- Mandating body cameras for all officers which remain on at all times: Keep police constantly on camera. A 2012 study in Rialto, Calif. found that when officers were required to wear cameras recording all their interactions with citizens, “public complaints against officers plunged 88|PERCENT| compared with the previous 12 months. Officers’ use of force fell by 60|PERCENT|.” The simple knowledge that they were being watched dramatically altered police behavior. Preventing officers from turning the camera off at any time discourages police misconduct. In the last couple of weeks, an incident was recorded by a Baltimore police officer caught planting evidence when he mistakenly thought his body camera had been turned off. Also, the policy of mandating body cameras for all officers should not be subject to collective bargaining with police unions. This is to prevent any of the mandating conditions of the policy from becoming diluted through negotiations.
Though police officers do not affect everyone equally, they do affect all of us. “Cop culture” values tends to dehumanize, or at least objectify suspected lawbreakers. Everyone who is not wealthy can be a target for police violence, and anyone who fights for a freer, fairer world places themselves within the “crosshairs”. Nothing is ever that black or white, but there are a few things that we can be sure of: America should not be a battlefield. Police officers are not soldiers. And “We, the People”, are not the enemy.