Summary: Seven big incidents during the past 30 days! This post looks not just at what’s happening, but at the likely consequences. Unless they respond effectively, this growing flood of videos will inevitably redefine the image of police in the minds of many America, with ugly results. Unfortunately they, like so many of our institutions, appear dysfunctional in this most vital sense.
“There are two fairly standard approaches to political power used by those who seek it. Some seek power with the assumption that the citizenry are the source of legitimacy and are to be treated with respect. Others concentrate on identifying whatever insecurities there are within the citizenry and on exploiting them.”
— John Ralston Saul’s Reflections of a Siamese twin: Canada at the end of the twentieth century (1997).
A busy month for America’s police
Video shows Philadelphia police officer threatening to have car towed unless driver for donates to police fundraiser., AP: incident occurred in August. Also see the NYT story.
“Video Suggests Suspect in San Antonio Shooting Had Hands Raised When Shot“, New York Times: on August 28. Also see the second video of the incident.
Retired tennis star James Blake tackled by officer, without warning, while standing outside hotel. He resembled suspect of credit card fraud (a nonviolent crime), ABC News: September 11.
Video shows 4 Stockton police officers tackling a 16-year-old boy to the ground for jaywalking (it’s an infraction in California, not even a misdemeanor), LA Times: on September 15. See the video: “9 cops detain 1 US teen for refusing to use sidewalk (VIDEO)“. This article describes the beating.
Ahmed Mohamed interrogated by 5 police for building a clock and saying it was a clock. Taken away in cuffs, fingerprinted, suspended from school for 3 days: on September 15. His parents were not allowed to be present during police interrogation (and no attorney).
Cop Beats Unarmed Woman with a baton, Pulls Gun On Witnesses, ThinkProgress: on September 18. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officer arresting woman on a bus for theft.
Policeman harasses and cuff man for suspiciously eating a hamburger in the parking lot of an apartment building (plus an illegal search), AlterNet: on September 19.
This is probably an incomplete list of incidents during these few weeks, showing the usual mix of brutal of small but telling incidents plus an execution.
Their response and the unavoidable consequences
“The criminal element is feeling empowered’ by anti-police sentiment.”
—- Police Chief Sam Doston of St Louis.
Challenges shape institutions, revealing their members’ true values and their collective ability to see the world and respond to changes. So far America’s law enforcement community has failed on all counts.
They’ve responded by drawing on their social capital — rallying supporters by appealing to the good deeds they do, and emphasizing the danger of their job (the 14th highest fatality rate; also see the BLS report). They imply that this casual brutality (rarely captured and disseminated on video) is an acceptable price for their service — although the example of other democracies shows otherwise.
Will police respond by making obvious reforms (e.g., national database of officers’ records, independent reviews of these incidents)? The next year or so will tell us much.
The lesson we learn if they choose to fight reforms? Their guild loyalty trumps their loyalty to us, the wider community. Perhaps they define “American” more narrowly than many of us do (this is not exclusively racism in action, having a large class component).
I believe that reforms are coming (see Reforms are coming to America’s police, either with them or over them. Which?). What are the likely consequences if they fail to reform? My guess…
(a) Their core white middle and upper class supporters will continue to cheer “our” thin blue line that protects us from the “underclass”.
(b) Their legitimacy in the “underclass” will continue to decline, even from its current low levels. In many areas they’ll be seen as an occupying army, which will reduce their ability to function — and probably increase the frequency and rate of violence used against them.
(c) This breaking of legitimacy of yet another key institution along factional or tribal lines will further weaken what has been one of America’s greatest strengths — our social cohesion. It’s dynamiting the Republic’s foundations; we can say little about the result except that it will be bad.
For More Information
Much can be learned by our institutions’ response to the most obvious problems: “When Cops Break Bad: Inside a Police Force Gone Wild” by Nick Pinto in Rolling Stone, 29 January 2015 — “Over the past five years, police in Albuquerque have shot and killed 28 people.”
“7 Rules for Recording Police” by Steve Silverman in Reason, 5 April 2012 — “Courts are expanding rights but cops are cracking down. Find out how to keep your footage, and yourself, out of trouble.” I also recommend Do not talk to the police (important advice in New America).
- Police grow more powerful; the Republic slides another step into darkness. Can cellphone cameras save us?
- Shootings by police show their evolution into “security services”; bad news for the Republic.
- No need for police reform, since only criminals have trouble with police!
- Myths and truth about police violence, & why change is coming.
- Are protests about police killings causing crime to rise?
For deeper understanding of these things I recommend Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2014) and John T. Whitehead’s A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (2013). Also see The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) by legal scholar Michelle Alexander.