Political violence is increasing at the same time that a civic consensus on how to maintain order and protect the public is breaking down. The murder by police of George Floyd was only the “last straw” in a 400-year persecution of people of color in the US. Thanks to the wonder of cell phone video capability, the entire country has been roused to protest.
For at least 30 years, there has been a broad effort to reform police practice in cities across the country. The reform efforts, including officer sensitization, nonviolent conflict resolution, community engagement in the oversight of policing, and police engagement in communities, have had seemingly very little effect on the frequency of violent police actions, in particular against minorities and the mentally disturbed. Even the massive outpouring of protest in the wake of the George Floyd killing hasn’t deterred several killings by police since then.
The broad racial fear and resentment in our society is, of course, reflected in police behavior, i.e., “stop and frisk” or “driving (or anything else) while Black.” The ethic of policing as a protective function has given way to coercive one-way control techniques. As a result, there is an adversarial relationship in which citizens fear police and police fear citizens. Except for the shockingly casual killing of George Floyd, most of the killings that I have seen included vocal and physical behavior on the part of police officers which belied a high level of fear and panic before the shots rang out.
As a result, we now have a love/hate relationship in which we want the police to provide for our safety, but we hate the bullying and unnecessary use of force. It isn’t just a problem for Black people, although the onus is very disproportionately on them. I expect that very few of you have not had a chill run down your spine when you saw a police car close behind your vehicle. Even the appearance of a police officer walking down the street with their arms held out away from their sides because of all the hardware, including their gun, they have hanging off their belt is a bit scary. For a young Black man, it is horrifically scary.
The knowledge that police have limited liability for their behavior definitely adds to the perceived threat. This status needs to be changed, but there are enormous barriers to this happening. First, there is a long history of police being sued, rightly or wrongly, for their actions. The public has a right to redress if they are abused by police, but the police will be hesitant to act in a situation in which they might be held liable. In any case, the police now have a long-held assumption that they have free rein in the use of force and violence in pursuance of what they see as their duty. This prerogative is strongly backed up by their police unions, which make it extremely hard to take punitive actions against bad cops. A recent article in the Seattle Times looked at consequences for police for serious misconduct. Of the 400 officers fired in the last four years and sent to the state Criminal Justice Training Commission for decertification, only 52 were actually decertified. All the rest have gone on to get jobs in other jurisdictions. Many officers on the streets today with the power to kill have been repeatedly cited for serious misconduct and yet are still in a position to offend again (and the record shows that most do).
This apparent ability to act with impunity has not gone unnoticed by prospective abusers. Although it may be that most police officers are relatively well adjusted and not prone to violence, there is no doubt that a large number of them are people that joined the force to commit violence rather than to protect citizens. No doubt even the officers that joined with the best of intentions get calloused over time, and the general acceptance of using more force rather than less tends toward abuse. There is also the affinity of white supremacists to police culture today and a worrying alliance that seems to be forming between them.
We now have calls to defund the police as people rightly perceive that reform has not worked and we need to rebuild anew. In reaction, the police are selectively refraining from taking action to protect the public, just so people remain aware that they perform an important service. Now we have a massive reaction from the public to not defund the police. Obviously, the situation is much more nuanced, but the police are framing it as take us as we are or not at all.
We need much greater accountability for police behavior, much better training in de-escalation, removal of police from duties that are more properly given to social service workers, more involvement of communities in the policing of their own neighborhoods, and a marked decrease in the quantity, lethality, and use of military hardware. We know that police officers in many other countries patrol without guns. Officers that abuse or act on racial preconceptions must be barred from police work. The new image of the police officer needs to be that of a protector and friend of the vulnerable, not the opposite that we have today.