So, here we are again. Last night here in Dallas someone ambushed police officers who were providing security at a peaceful demonstration, killing five and wounding seven more.
This is a predictable reaction to repeated instances of police killing black men on what, at best, seems to often be the flimsiest of pretexts. It was inevitable that, at some point, some black people would decide to hit back. Predictable, but unfortunate. Shooting random police officers is definitely counter-productive if you want to try and reduce the violence in America’s cities.
The news media is full now of stories with the traditional ‘who, what, where, and how.’ Who shot who with what and when. The hard question, though, the question that must be asked if we want to break this cycle of violence, is ‘why.’ As with any seemingly senseless act of violence, you can’t prevent future acts if you don’t understand why they’re happening.
Let us be clear that the problem starts with policing. Not the police necessarily, the individual men and women wearing the uniform. I’m certainly not saying that the officers shot last night had it coming, or anything like that. I mean the institution of policing in the United States, how we do it, and what it’s for.
There are basically ways of looking at policing. First, policing can be about protecting the people in the area being policed, preventing crime, making those people’s lives safer and better. This is what policing is in many countries, and what we say it is here in the US–‘Protect and Serve’–but in many communities it really isn’t. It’s the other kind of policing: Police as an occupying force, which sees the people being policed not as a group to be protected, but as a group that other people must be protected from.
This is a huge difference in attitude, and it touches on every interaction between police and policed. And, unfortunately, for a variety of reasons going back decades, most of the people in the areas most conspicuously ‘occupied’ (vs. ‘protected’) have dark skin. Dark skin thus becomes a marker, an indicator that that person is a ‘them,’ one of the people who is not to be protected, but protected against. The cop on the street is likely to see a white person with a gun as an ‘us.’ Probably not a threat, and maybe even a potential ally (especially if the white person is well-dressed, driving a nice car or truck, or shows other signs of the proper tribal allegiance). A white concealed handgun license holder who is pulled over in a traffic stop is much more likely to be let off with a warning than to find himself face-down on the pavement with guns pointed at him.
A black person with a gun, though, is very likely to be classed on sight as a ‘them,’ an outsider, a threat. If the black person also doesn’t show the ‘proper’ middle class symbols in terms of clothes, car, and speech, that likelihood goes way up. A white person with a gun might be seen as a possible ally, but a black person with a gun will almost certainly be seen as an immediate threat, and treated accordingly. Recent shootings by police have highlighted this dramatically.
The black person, of course, knows all this, and knows how police have treated black people for, well, as long as there have been police in this country. He or she is also going to be nervous and fearful. Both sides, then, are coming into the encounter with fear and mistrust of the other. It doesn’t take much to escalate such a situation to violence.
This article is an excellent look at the problem of racism within police forces. The problem isn’t that all police are out to immediately shoot all minorities they encounter. The problem is that they are much more likely to treat a minority person as a threat, an other, and that they are likely to get away with mistreating that person. The presumption is that any minority person killed or injured by the police had it coming somehow. White America, protected and served by its police, sees them as heroes who wouldn’t hurt anyone without a really good reason. Occupied, brown, America, sees it differently.
As Hudson says in the above-linked article, the problem is institutional. He says that about 15% of police will always do the right thing, about 15% will abuse their authority whenever possible, and about 70% will go along with the environment they find themselves in. We can quibble over the exact proportions, but I see little to argue with in the general idea. Some cops are good, some are bad, and most are just people trying to get through a crappy day at work, like everyone else.
A good system could handle that, weed out the bad officers and encourage the good ones. Unfortunately, the system we have, the us-vs-them mentality of many police departments, protects the abusive cops. Police departments are tasked with policing themselves, and almost always find that they did nothing wrong. Even if the cops really did behave properly (not every shooting is a bad shooting), the questionable impartiality of the oversight process makes it hard for outsiders to trust it.
In short, then, the problem seems to be an ‘occupying force’ mentality that permeates many police departments, at least regarding certain areas of their city, which creates an atmosphere of racism, fear, and hostility. (You could argue that the racism came first, and I wouldn’t disagree.) Poor oversight, and a general attitude that the police are usually, if not always, in the right keeps bad cops from being punished, for the most part, which leads naturally to incredible frustration on the part of the people in Occupied America, who feel that the rest of the country doesn’t care what happens to them. (There is, unfortunately, some truth to this. White America doesn’t care about violence as long as it stays in ‘those’ neighborhoods. Only when white people in ‘good’ parts of town are killed do people get upset and start demanding that Something Be Done.) This leads to the sort of thing we had in Dallas last night, which will lead to even more fear and violence from the police, and so on.
Now that we have, I hope, some insight into the root of the problem, what can we do about it?
The obvious long-term solution is to fix the poverty and crime that keeps Occupied America occupied. That’s a difficult problem, though (particularly since White America doesn’t want those people in the workforce, competing for a piece of an ever-shrinking economic pie, but that’s another topic) and outside the scope of this particular essay.
In the more immediate term, we need some sort of impartial body–a group that can be seen as impartial–to investigate complaints against the police. I see this as an absolutely critical step. I think that people could handle a police officer being cleared of wrongdoing in a questionable shooting if the body that clears him is seen as trustworthy. Each state should set up its own review commission, with any current or former law enforcement officers barred from serving on it. The UK’s Independent Police Complaints Commission would make a good model.
An impartial review process, besides its primary goal of ensuring fair treatment by the police, would also be more fair for the police. It is unreasonable to expect them to impartially oversee themselves.
In addition to independent oversight, police departments themselves need an overhaul. The attitude that they are an occupying force there to contain certain neighborhoods, and protect the surrounding areas from those people, must be weeded out. The idea must be impressed on the police that they are there to protect and serve everyone.
Doing that will take time and money. The average police officer in the United States receives about 19 weeks of training. Police officers in Germany receive at least 130 weeks of training. That is a huge investment of time, effort, and money in each police officer, but it pays off for the Germans. The police there are highly trusted, even by minorities. They also shoot people at about only 1% the rate that US policemen do.
Of course, it wouldn’t do to take those new, highly trained, more thoughtful and understanding, police and throw them in dribs and drabs into the existing police culture. They would quickly be overwhelmed, absorbed into the prevailing culture or quitting in disgust. This is where it gets hard. While this new generation of police officers is being trained we must work on breaking up the culture of the existing departments, weeding out the bad officers and encouraging a less confrontational style of policing. It would probably be worthwhile to send some current officers through the new training process. (Or at least an abbreviated version.) This could be the first task of the new police oversight commissions; sifting through the officers’ records and recommending terminations, promotions, demotions, and retraining.
Even with that, it would probably be best to clump the new officers together as much as possible, to build a new culture. Reassign officers in existing precincts to free up space so that the new officers make up a majority in that neighborhood. We could even take the radical step of recruiting promising high school kids from occupied neighborhoods and on graduation sending them to a police academy and then back to serve and protect their old neighborhood. Who better to understand and help the people there? It might be necessary in some cases to completely disband a department and rebuild it from the ground up.
All of this, of course, would be met with absolutely ferocious resistance from the police. It would also cost a lot of money, and getting the new generation of highly trained police into the field would take years. (It would probably take years just to set up the training process, much less complete more than two years of training.) The oversight commissions, at least, would provide relatively immediate relief, if they could be created in the face of police resistance.
If we really want things to change, though, that’s what it’s going to take.
The question is, do we want things to change?