On Power and the Police

There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the United States without an opinion on the recent events involving police violence against black men. But I have growing concerns with the emerging narrative which paints the police as innocent (and powerless) victims of undue societal backlash. It is critical we understand that this is not, nor has ever been, the dynamic between the police and the general population, and it certainly has never been the dynamic between the police and people of color.

Often when the police are accused of misconduct, any investigation into the matter is the shrouded in mystery, with discipline and reprimand happening behind the closed doors of precinct offices and within police department hierarchies. This means that people die at the hands of the police, and we are left with doubts about whether or not those deaths were justified. But one thing is clear: In the conflicts that ensue between police and citizens (some unarmed), the police are the ones with both the guns, the trust of the public, and the preference of the law on their side. Here is an excerpt from the NYT article about the Darren Wilson case that makes this point:

Most states give officers wide discretion to use whatever force they reasonably believe is necessary to make an arrest or to protect themselves, a standard that hinges on the officers perceptions of danger during the encounter, legal scholars and criminologists say.

Rarely do deaths lead to murder or manslaughter charges. Research by Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University,reports that 41 officers were charged with either murder or manslaughter in shootings while on duty over a seven-year period ending in 2011. Over that same period, police departments reported 2,600 justifiable homicides to the F.B.I.

The police are trusted to use their judgement, and their versions of events are considered the most reliable. We imagine that they are morally superior to the people they police and wield their power with fairness and discipline. While many police officers do earn their respect, this kind of hero worship is unlikely to get us anywhere. Idealizing the police as infallible heroes is as nonsensical as believing that all politicians are high-minded public servants who earnestly represent their constituencies.

Police are people, meaning that to maintain justice, instead of relying on faith in their heroism, we should strive to create unbiased, just and well-designed systems that help them to do their job as effectively as possible, while bringing them to justice when they do not. By doing so we can help to change a long-standing rift between communities and police. This is not an issue that is going to be solved overnight, because it is not an issue that has cropped up overnight. Keeping that perspective in mind is vital.




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