A Follow-Up To Yesterday
Well, yesterday’s post certainly stirred up some defense of the police. I posted it to Facebook and almost immediately two people in particular took issue not so much with what I wrote, but with the principles of (a) criticizing police departments, and painting with such a broad brush; (b) including the issue of race (because, as we all know, it is only liberal racists who are racists by bringing up racism when there is in fact no racism because even conservatives like Martin Luther King). While I dealt with one bug-a-boo in particular – that police “risk their lives with every traffic stop or every domestic call” – I thought the broader criticism needed some repetition because the two people criticizing what I never said and would never say needed to be clear on the position I was taking.
First of all, I am not the least bit interested in the personal feelings of any given law enforcement officer when it comes to race. I was speaking of the entire culture and community of law enforcement, from the local three-cop town up to and including federal law enforcement in all its various guises. As institutions, law enforcement is what it has always been – a vehicle for maintaining not only the law, but through that the social status quo. Part of that status quo is our long history – nearly four hundred years – of white supremacy and the dehumanization of people of color. I know people don’t like hearing or reading about that; it makes them uncomfortable. It even makes them angry. That doesn’t make it any less the case. That I certainly include myself among those who benefit from our racist society is true enough. I recognize all the ways institutions in this country bend over backward for people like me: I’m white, I’m male, I’m middle-aged, and I’m upper-middle class if our latest economic statistics are true. I am one of those for whom this society maintains certain racial and class divides. That I reject those various privileges, speaking out against the unjust, corrupt, violent, and immoral actions of a society that actually benefits me doesn’t mean I don’t receive those benefits; they accrue regardless because they are built in to the system. It only means that, as an individual – and hardly one of much importance – I do what I can to make it clear that our society and its institutions, particularly the police, are designed to maintain white privilege and power.
Second, for some reason, my two particular interlocutors seemed to think that criticism of the police, and in particular of police racism meant that African-Americans are innocent little lambs who commit no crimes, including hate-crimes against whites. Not only did I not say that, I would never say that, and could never say that because it isn’t true. African-Americans are criminals at about the same rate as people of other races. The difference, however, is that most African-Americans are assumed to be criminals, particularly when they gather in large groups. You see a group of white youths walking down the street, you might give them a bit of stink-eye if they don’t let you pass. A group of African-American youths, however, and be honest – how many of you would or have crossed to the other side of the street? I know I have. I’m not proud of that.
All of this is to say there are bad, horrible people out there who do bad, horrible things, including attack people just because of their race. Nothing I wrote yesterday either denied that fact, or the need for police departments to apprehend people who commit such heinous crimes. My argument, in fact, was that their work would be better, would be more efficient – the number of open cases that will never be closed increases despite nearly a quarter century of steady decrease in crime – and more successful if, rather than act on particular assumption about the race, class, and gender of those who commit various crimes, they would actually work from evidence and pursue the evidence rather than “their gut”, their experience, or the default position – some black kid did it. The number of innocent people – innocent people of color – on Illinois’s death row was so high that former Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on executions. The state legislature was later embarrassed into revoking the death penalty all together, making any maximum sentence life without parole. Some of these men had spent decades fighting for their lives; the Supreme Court has already made it far more difficult to introduce exculpatory evidence years after the fact, including DNA evidence. Now, I’m going to guess that at least some of those men released by the State of Illinois had criminal records. Maybe one or two of them had been, and maybe still were, bad people. Some are, you know. Just bad, from their head to their toes. That in no way means they should forfeit their lives for crimes they did not commit. Racial bias in capital cases is a long-running sore, as is sentencing bias in cases of whites caught with powder cocaine versus African-Americans caught with crack.
Finally, the number of instances of police just screwing up – from using paramilitary entry tactics in the wrong home (some of which have included deaths of every age cohort, from the elderly to small children) to holding people because they might have the same name as a wanted criminal to a case in New York City several years ago where three cops opened fire on a suspect and managed to wound several bystanders without hitting the suspects at whom they are shooting; these are many, varied, and by and large involve people of color, particularly youths. Which is not an argument against the police. It is, rather, a demand that the police do a better damn job. Mistakes are always inevitable, of course. That doesn’t mean checks and balances in the system can’t reduce both their number and severity.
And remember, for every innocent person sent to prison for a crime they did not commit, that means there’s still some bad guy out there, committing crimes, threatening life and health and property.
A kind of postscript. Another bug-a-boo tossed my way was that I shouldn’t criticize unless I was actually a police officer. Such a position would render impossible any reform whatsoever. It is the right and duty of all of us, particularly those of us in positions of relative privilege and power, to demand better of our police forces. Their job is not to be judge, jury, and executioner. Their job is to apprehend those suspected of committing a crime. It is up to others to determine if (a) a crime has been committed; and (b) who is and is not responsible. The police, however, are so far off the rails on this basic social function, not least because they serve our larger social and cultural status quo, which includes maintaining the racial status quo, they are, functionally, outside any accountability whatsoever. Even the mild criticisms I’ve made are considered by many out of bounds, a kind of declaration of war against the police, and some odd desire to see no police at all and see people who commit crimes as not guilty of having done so.
The only way this is going to change is if more people make it clear that the entire culture of law enforcement, from the little village up to and including the federal government is broken; actually, it isn’t broken. What it is is functioning in such a way that it, rather than uphold the law and protect our communities, it upholds our social status quo and protects the privileged. That the abundant evidence this is so seems invisible to some, well, I can’t do much about that. Nor can I assuage the hurt feelings my criticisms have made. This isn’t personal, an attack on any police officer in particular, or even particular police department. Shoot, my nephew is a police officer, specifically a DeKalb County (IL) Sheriff’s Deputy. I don’t think he’s a bad person at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. As a police officer, however, I would be wary of seeing his lights suddenly appear in my rear window. Again, not because he’s a bad person. But because, as a police officer, he’s been trained to respond to any situation as potentially life threatening, which means he will always be ready to use lethal force.
It is precisely this place we must start to change the culture of policing in our society: while it is certainly possible any particular call or traffic stop might pose a hazard to the life and health of a police officer, the vast majority do not. We must make the exceptional just that – the exception rather than the expected norm. Perhaps, then, fewer people will be angry and feel the need to demand our police do their jobs better.