How do we fix the cops? That’s a tough question, and it’s not the only one we should be asking.
After peaceful protests over the death of yet another black man in police custody edged into riots in Baltimore, there’s plenty of commentary about how to reform the police — including an impassioned op-ed by Jason Ortiz on this site.
And police reform is necessary, don’t get me wrong. We’re making progress here and there on that front. This week the Public Safety and Security Committee approved a bill that would mandate more training for police about using excessive force, but without a section that would have required the use of body cameras.
This is disappointing: body cameras are a way to try and force cops to be accountable for their actions. They don’t always work, though. Eric Garner died when New York City police put him in a chokehold — the entire incident was caught on film, and his death was actually ruled a homicide. But a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer involved.
Better training in the use of excessive force may also help some, and we absolutely should do it. However, it seems like all the training in the world won’t change the culture of police departments, nor will it get rotten cops off the streets. Baltimore and Philadelphia, for example, are infamous for subjecting suspects to “rough rides” or “nickel rides,” in which they get banged up in the police van while being driven to the station. The whole idea is to mete out some extra punishment to the “bad guys.”
Outsiders looking in on the situation with the police in this country are often shocked by what they see, especially because deaths at the hands of police in other Western countries are so low. A thoughtful piece in the UK-based Economist’s “Democracy in America” blog suggests that the problem is that “. . . America’s police forces are largely made up of people who think of themselves as a ‘thin blue line’ against the bad guys.”
I keep hearing police talking about “bad guys,” as if this were TV where morality and crime are simple, the villains obvious, and the division between the criminals and the good people of the city is clear as day. And so we see a young Baltimore officer calling protesters and rioters “animals” on her Facebook page, just like a Ferguson cop called protesters there “animals” last year. We see “thin blue line” bumper stickers on cars, and we see police with military equipment. Training and body cameras alone can’t root out this kind of mentality.
But where does that sort of thinking come from? It doesn’t spring up from nowhere. Part of it comes from the influence of cop dramas in movies and TV, to be sure. But part of it comes from the society that surrounds the police. After all, a big part of the problem is that prosecutors rarely go after cops, grand juries are hesitant to indict them, and the white public is too willing to turn a blind eye.
In a very real sense the police and the system surrounding them are what white, middle-to-upper class, suburban America — the America that has the cultural, economic, and political power — has made them.
What that means is that the root cause of all the problems — which the sheltered, comfortable America I belong to is finally beginning to wake up to — can be found in our own mirrors.
Police get criticized for stereotyping and racially profiling people, but we created and benefit from systems that disenfranchise, disrespect, and disempower the poor and people of color. Police have too many weapons, we say, but we thwart any attempts to regulate firearms and we celebrate gun culture. Police use too much force, we sniff, but we gorge ourselves on violent entertainment and yawn at our country’s endless wars.
And we say that police react with fear, but we are nothing but afraid. We’re so afraid that we’ll shut a baseball game to spectators, we’ll turn a city into a ghost town for a manhunt, and we’ll start war after war to try and exorcise the memory of towers falling in New York. All of these things come from that same place of fear.
So we can try to fix things by legislating training and body cameras and walking away, expecting the police to try to turn this heavy, creaking ship around all by themselves. Or white America can look in the mirror and finally understand that until we stop seeing people of color with suspicion and fear that nothing will ever change.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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