Policing in the US–specifically, police abuses and a resulting lack of accountability–has been a frequent topic of discussion over the past few years, with the Black Lives Matter movement at the forefront. The problems endemic to our policing institutions are myriad and will likely be difficult to correct.
Start with the basics: what are police for? Most people would say the purpose of police is law enforcement–that is, to take the laws duly enacted by legislative bodies and carry out their execution. This includes everything from parking and speeding tickets to robbery to rape and murder. We can think of this as a spectrum of offenses: the more severe the offense, the less controversial police actions tend to be. Police killing an active shooter doesn’t generally raise a lot of eyebrows, for instance, but when police shoot an unarmed man in the back over a broken taillight, the public takes notice.
We express anger at the lack of accountability–and the racist attitudes that seem inherent to such disproportionate applications of force. Perhaps it’s worth asking why police are pulling people over for such trivialities as malfunctioning vehicle lights to begin with. In a country where fully a third of murders go unsolved, pulling people over for minor traffic violations in order to ticket them for hundreds of dollars a pop seems perverse. Perhaps it would be different if police were obligated to protect the public, but the Supreme Court determined a while ago that they are not. If it is not the job of police to protect citizens, nor to solve serious crimes, but to generate revenue for their cities and countries, then they represent law enforcement only in the strictest, most mercenary sense. Those laws which bring money to a locality are worth enforcing–and all else is secondary.
Of course, we don’t use police solely as a source of ancillary tax revenue. We also use police to address social ills we’d rather not contend with ourselves, which is why a large number of those in our prisons suffer mental illnesses. Many would not be there if only they’d had competent treatment, but we spend our money on SWAT gear instead. Homelessness is another problem we use police to address, however ineffectively. Panhandlers are hassled, arrested, forced off the streets, if only for a short time to make citizens who don’t want to see them feel a little bit better. And when many homeless people are mentally ill, disabled, or addicted to drugs, what we have is another avenue in which police are utilized to keep our failure to care for others out of sight, out of mind.
On the occasions when police are called to an emergent situation, it is unsurprising when they fail to show discretion or mercy. Many black people do not trust the police because they have so frequently faced mistreatment, even deadly violence, at the hands of police for little or no reason at all. Police are rarely trusted to deescalate tense situations, and when police are trained to rush into volatile situations with guns drawn and fingers on the trigger, it’s no surprise how often tragedy strikes and someone ends up dead who didn’t need to.
This is, in many ways, part and parcel of an armed society, as well. When everyone has guns, it’s difficult for police to know who is a law-abiding citizen carrying a firearm, and who is a dangerous criminal prepared to blow them away. Thanks to a variety of troubling factors–poor training, low accountability, institutional racism–police are most likely to shoot based on socioeconomic status instead of a genuine threat.
These are problems that do not begin and end with police. They stem from “tough on crime” politicians and legislation that criminalize minorities and criminalize poverty. Laws designed to punish victimless offenses like drug use on behalf of some moral agenda contribute, as well, as do similarly-motivated laws against sex work. Thanks to Americans’ aversion to paying the taxes necessary to provide public services, cities and counties build revenue streams out of petty offenses. Even though citation quotas are illegal, many police forces use them anyway, either due to departmental pressures to meet budget targets or external financial needs of the community. These approaches necessarily victimize people at the margins of society–those least able to avoid falling into such enforcement traps, and least likely to escape through shrewd legal defense.
Police are not the enemy, but they are a lethal arm of government authority, and that lethality is wielded against the people far too often, especially people of color. No one should be shot to death for having a broken taillight, or holding a toy gun, or selling CDs outside a store. Out of context, such situations sound absurd–as they should. It is only in our racist society, where police are used as a blunt instrument to enforce a social order built on white supremacy and wealthy privilege, that these things seem altogether normal. They may indeed be normal, in the sense that they are so commonplace we do not find them unexpected or unusual. But this injustice should be a tremendous cause for alarm! And that alarm must be followed by action and reform.
There is another conception of police as peace officers–officials tasked with, as the name implies, upholding peace. Peace doesn’t include shooting defenseless people over minor traffic violations, hassling people for being poor or non-white, or locking people up because they are sick. Peace doesn’t extend to seeing your citizens as open checkbooks in need of shaking down at the point of a gun. To rethink law enforcement, we must ask: whose law and why, and what force, and how much? Our levels of police violence are extreme by Western standards, and they have built a rift between police and the communities they are meant to serve that may take a generation or more to heal.
That healing must start somewhere, and initiatives like Campaign Zero and other movements against police violence are great place to begin. The role of police must be dialed back to a more reasonable level: to protect the safety of the public, not to be an ongoing menace to it.