Opinion: Latest Incidences of Brutality Prove that the Police and Citizens Need to Make Cultural Changes
Submitted by Brian Manley
Every single cop is racist. Every.Single.One. That just sounds dumb.
I could go no further than the very next sentence to address that statement because it sits in the outer orbit of the most unreasonably absurd opening sentences I could think of. It’s profoundly flawed, misleading and yes, inflammatory. It’s patently false. But for someone clinging to their tattered, idealized understanding about the nature of our law enforcement and what it’s supposed to mean to its citizens, it’s an easy fill-in for the gap in understanding what’s happening. It makes sense in that it fits a narrative that also makes no apparent sense. And each act of abuse or killing of the unarmed potentiates a tighter, closer embrace of ideas in self defense we once held as radical.
I want to get two things out of the way right now. First, I’m not a formally trained journalist. There may be some errs in APA citation, AP stylistics or journalistic missteps and I’ll own that up front. It may not be formulaic, but it’s authentic … send me hate mail. The second is that we’re all operating under the same accepted truth that there is no guarantee of sameness under the law and that race matters. The data bears it out and anecdotal evidence supports this, though the consciousness of race does not automatically equivocate to active racism as a root cause for what we’re seeing. This is a baseline understanding I’m asking the reader to agree on.
Racism in police forces and its impact on police-civillian interaction within segments of the population isn’t a topic of debate for most reasonably aware people. We know it’s there, yet we hold profoundly varying images of what it looks like when it plays out real world. The idea that we’re going to root out every individual who holds racial biases is unrealistic. It’s often low-level, insidious and famously difficult to prove. Even people who work in close proximity to or in predominantly black industries like the NFL’s Riley Cooper, a sensational example for sure, or former Clipper’s owner Don Sterling, famously exemplify this. Then there are the Ohio officers recently suspended for after it was uncovered they’d been texting racially incendiary messages back and forth for years, all the while having been entrusted with protecting the public.
When I talk to the average cop, they’re affable depending on setting, and it quickly becomes clear this is joe/jane average, going to work to do a job like most people go to work to do a job and get back to their lives. I’ll concede I’m sure my ability to code-switch for relatability as well as the flecks of gray in my temple help, and not everyone is equally practiced in this. That shouldn’t matter, but it does. Employees have good days and bad ones – days when they give 100% and days they don’t. Some are jerks and that in and of itself is not against the law, but it merits a certain watchfulness. And if I’m being honest, I consider some of my own family members jerks. They’re a sampling of society and that’s just the way it is. People are people and I do not believe that a grounded, functionally healthy person starts the day hoping to kill even though that doesn’t exonerate them when there’s wrongdoing.
An underlying issue is that they are individuals who are collectively the enforcement tool of a dangerously flawed system of policing that begs for recalibrating. It obfuscates information, testimony and self-monitors in the same way the financial industry was trusted to before leading us into an economic meltdown. While cameras are proven to improve police behavior and decrease the incidence of reported misconduct, we’ve recently seen circumstances where that simply doesn’t matter. We need external oversight for the instances when wrongdoing is captured, presented and then disappears on the event horizon never to be considered again.
There’s this shared sense there’s a nebulously arranged network of behind-the-scenes leaders, none individually responsible enough to hold accountable, in much the same way corporations shield the individual in cases of environmental catastrophe or consumer deaths resulting in recalls. The end product passes through so many workers’ hands and is the result of such diverse individual specialization that indicting them all proves impossible. None of them by themselves contributed enough to make the product unsafe. Therein lies the collective frustration. The one clear face of the incident, the officer, who is both enabled by and indoctrinated into warrior police culture is often not held culpable. And it’s a culture that black cops fall into as well. In these instances it is difficult to isolate exactly what we’re feeling. We demand our pound of flesh but from the individual who would simply be replaced by another individual, effectively changing nothing. We must destroy the nest.
Absolutely fascinating about the gaping racial divide as it relates to interpreting the outcomes of some of our nation’s recent, more infamous cases of death by police is how regionally and geographically influenced the divisions tend to be. Coastal, more culturally diverse cities tend to see clear injustice where some of the more racially homogenous zones of the country’s interior see no impropriety. In fact, many vehemently defend officers they don’t know much the same way people defend their favorite sports team. That in and of itself it not surprising. It’s almost like there’s a standing template for that. One thing that needs to be understood though, or at least examined is more critically is the experiential reserves we all draw from when making our next logical leap towards conclusions. We’re limited by what we’ve been exposed to. Even if you were to somehow tease out and adjust for bigots/racist, the ill-informed or even those who just aren’t terribly astute, there’s still a predictable and identifiable division. In the case of Eric Garner, all of the ambiguity that existed in the Michael Brown case is removed by way of video evidence and that’s been the ember that’s igniting protests in NYC and around the country. Even George W. Bush says he’s confused by the failure to indict in this case. Dubya!
The #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag that’s exploded on and is currently trending across the internet and social media speaks to the different experiences and worlds we live in on this shared planet. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a growing nexus of white people sharing their personal accounts about their interactions with police. My interest was instantly piqued. Reading these felt like pulling back the curtains on an exclusive club you’ve heard rumors about, but couldn’t verify really existed. Even if some of the accounts are fabricated by internet trolls as some detractors suggest, the stories have some degree of truth to them, there’s value in them. And this is important. It’s very important. It’s a social climate gauge.
That you would have people who experience an alternate version of your shared reality chime in lends a credibility to the different outcomes blacks and whites navigate in a way no black or brown person could offer. We’ve only been who we’ve been our whole lives the way I as a man have only been a man. I’m reduced to only imagining experiencing life as a woman and I can only empathize as best I can. There are things I’ll never fully comprehend because I cannot experience them. It’s the sincere admission from a fellow, in-group member that their ‘normal’ could be someone else’s exception that speaks to the hearts of others also enjoying privilege. They enjoy it in a way I couldn’t. They shed light in a way that makes the unfathomable a bit more real, at least meriting consideration.
If in your experiences you’ve felt you’ve always been dealt with fairly by police, therefore trust them and buy into unquestioned deference to municipal authority (as some people do), then is there little wonder that you may be ill equipped to see into a world you’ve never experienced? If in your opinion and experience the only people you’ve seen dealt harsh treatment actually deserved it, that’s your preset. That’s your default position. If it’s an unfamiliar interaction happening to an unfamiliar people, you must consider the default setting that is foundational to all other thought. And often that thought is imbued with irrational emotion. That what they know of you is from the flickering screen of TV, that they are able to go days, weeks, months or years without interacting with anyone who may have experienced this bias against them, is there any wonder they are able to withhold basic empathy to the point they almost don’t seem human to anyone listening?
There are bad people. Some people are ignorant. I get that. Some people are both. And some of those very same people are police officers and they don’t trust you. Xenophobic fear of the unfamiliar is a real and evolutionarily functional thing. Protecting the familiar and positive bias towards it are a real thing. Our nation for the most part lives separately, worships separately and enjoys leisure separately. Some of these officers were unfamiliar with any brown faces before they came into the enforcement power and remain that way. They don’t know any real, fully fleshed out, three-dimensional people that are different from them. They know 2-dimensional imagery they’re fed from media they do trust and in a sense, are victims of the same misleading but reinforced imagery that most of us are. It’s no excuse, but I get it. I’m a big scary alien. They are fed fear all day long, not just imagery, but in the workplace and if you don’t think seeing something over an over matters, pay attention to your cravings the next times you see that pizza commercial for the third time in an hour. Is there any wonder that this, coupled with a ‘take no risk’, militaristic approach to policing is resulting in unprecedented police death tallies you’d expect to see from an occupying force? They are being TRAINED this way! We are a danger. But … the numbers don’t pan out. They just don’t support this level of force.
Firearm deaths for police officers in the U.S. reached a 126-year low in 2013. Of the 76 nationwide, in the line of duty police deaths in 2013, 49 were due to traffic accidents. Forty-nine. The remaining 27 diffused across the entire nation, died of felonious means. Still, this is the lowest number since at least 1961 when these tallies began tracking. Citizens aren’t the enemy. And it’s not just in the inner-city. In Utah, for example, the Salt Lake City Tribune recently reported that police in the state were the second-leading cause of homicide from 2010 to October 2014. Over that period, officers were responsible for more of the state’s homicides than gang members, drug dealers and child abusers. Let that sink in.
Estimates are police kill close to 1,000 U.S. citizens per year though only 461 were reported for 2013, largely because any disclosure of these numbers are completely voluntary. The FBI only gets what individual reporting police departments elect to share. To frame this, there have been 8 police killings in Germany in the past two years. Granted, there are more guns in the U.S., but Germany used a total of 85 police bullets in the entire year of 2011. Forty nine of those were warning shots and just 6 people were killed by officers. The U.S. by contrast uses more bullets per man. We shoot 50-year-old mentally ill women for wielding a hammer. We have a violent cultural problem. Let’s not lose sight that we pay the police. They’re our public servants. We pay them, and we have a problem because their first step in order of operations is to protect self, not citizen.
We have an incompetence problem and a truth problem as evidenced by the drive-up killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in which video records the incident in its entirety and clearly contradicts the officer’s account of the encounter. We have a cultural problem where even good men & women feel they must fall in line with the dominant culture of the force or be ostracized in an occupation where support from a colleague can mean the difference between life and death. We’re all familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment where we witness regular people so acquiesce to a pack-hunter mentality, even in a controlled setting, to the point they lose sight of acceptable experimental boundaries and it needed to be ended prematurely. We have an accountability problem. Prosecution won’t bring any of the victims back, but could serve as a deterrent for other officers that need to be reigned in in all their autonomy.
Unfortunately, due to the precedent set by a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that grants broad interpretative leeway with regards to appropriate use of force to officers stating that cases should be judged from the perspective of an officer and not in hindsight review. It’s why officers immediately declare they were afraid in that moment and why it’s nearly impossible to indict an officer even if prosecutors actually wanted to. In fact, in 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available, officers failed to be indicted by federal prosecutors in 80 of 81 cases. For civilians, a grand jury failed to indict in just 11 of over 162,000 cases. Let that sink in. If a grand jury doesn’t indict you, run, don’t walk, run to get a Powerball ticket that same day. Consider that free advice. You’re welcome.
Look, I’ll say the unpopular things that beg to be said. I don’t want to hear flaccid, flowery language and eloquent rhetoric from clergy or politicians or business leaders offering facile recommendations to pacify. I don’t. THERE’S BEEN TOO MUCH TALK. We don’t want another town hall meeting where no concrete direction or progressive outline for improvement is offered. We don’t want leaders, recognized, self-appointed or otherwise, to sit pat and remain silent and unwilling to risk on this topic the political capital they’ve in reserve for later because they have political ambitions. I was part of a protest response on December 4 in downtown Phoenix and I was encouraged by scheduled next moves. I’ll tell you what I saw and what I felt. There was anticipatory angst and searing anger. People were looking for direction and an outlet. People wanted to know what the next step is.
People don’t just want to feel better temporarily, not this time. They want resolution … Revolution. People grasped there’s a real and rare moment at hand where this whole thing can be titled at the fulcrum. They just don’t know how to do it. They don’t want the momentous groundswell of support misspent. What I want, what we want are real and actionable steps of progression from those who purport to be in the know, to augment what we’ve come to accept as the demonstrably fallible rule of law. We don’t want to witness the circular, congratulatory pats on the back that people whose political futures are intertwined give each other for press points and photo opps. We want a plan … even a little one. Even an imperfect one. There’s a challenge in there.
There’s a challenge for people in the community also. There are some things we need to get right. Let me tell you something. If there’s someone causing harm to your community and they endanger women or children or your brother, they need to be dealt with. That’s a coward and predator and doesn’t deserve the protection of or loyalty from the community. We need to own our own areas. We ought not tolerate harm against us from anyone, not from within, nor against those who don’t look like us. Blind loyalty still leaves you blind.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
– Martin Niemöller