Saturday, July 9, 2016

How It Should Be

Police killed more civilians this week.

What happened? How many more times will it happen, how frequently, before people lose all trust in their police force?

I'm not going to condemn all police officers here. The policemen who did these things don't represent all police officers. The brave officers who lost their lives while protecting peaceful protesters in Dallas this week are a testament to that fact. However, every time something like this happens, I can't help but wrack my brain trying to figure out what could be different, what we'd need to change, to stop this from happening. This is not how it should be.

I am neither a police officer nor a black man. I was born and raised in rural Louisiana; I had fairly little experience with black people and police officers. I'm pointing this out because I want to make very clear the degree to which I am not an authority on this matter. All I have is speculation based on my limited knowledge and impressions and the accounts I've heard from both sides.

That said, the problem, like so many, seems to come from mutual disrespect.

The police have a difficult job. It's their responsibility to enforce the law, to be constantly alert, and to act with authority. They're fighting a war against crime; a war that will never be won. They are an entrenched, occupying force, and they're afraid. There are places where they are unpopular, unwanted, and unable to do their jobs without resistance. In some places, they see the worst humanity has to offer on a daily basis. They're outnumbered, underfunded, and and under extreme pressure to get results. Under that kind of stress, how indeed are they expected to maintain order?

Meanwhile, black people, even the ones who come from nice neighborhoods, are assumed to come from run-down neighborhoods rife with drug dealers and gang violence. At the very least, they're immediately suspected of being loud, violent, or prone to theft. If that's not the case, they have to prove otherwise. In short, guilty until proven innocent. And the people from those bad neighborhoods, surrounded by bad influences, they're kept isolated. Even if they want a different life, what can they do about it? Surrounded by poverty, crime, and gangs, what other reality do they have?

So, in the end, so far as I can tell, you have two groups that distrust each other. And they each seem to have good reason for their distrust. In many places, the police haven't done much to gain the trust of black people, and black people haven't done much to gain the trust of the police. It's a relationship that will take a long time and a lot of effort on both sides to mend. (Though, arguably, a relationship needs to have been whole at some point to be mended, and in some places the police have been used to systematically oppress minorities since the beginning.)

There's an important difference here, though, in that the police have the power in this relationship. We, as a country, give them this authority with the assumption that they will do good things with it. However, the deaths of (often unarmed) black men throws some serious doubt to that assumption. So, while both parties have some work to do, I believe the police have much greater power to bridge this divide if they choose to use it.

A good first step to regaining the people's trust would be to actually indict some of the officers who have shot and killed people without just cause. To many people, since the police are given the authority to enforce the law, they should be held to a higher standard, not given a position of immunity. Even if the death was an accident, there should be repercussions for murder. I'm not certain what those repercussions should be--we can debate the relative effectiveness of various punitive measures elsewhere--but each case of an unarmed person getting killed by a cop is either manslaughter or murder; the most severe crimes you can commit. It's difficult to reconcile the facts that a policeman can kill another human being without legal repercussions while others face mandatory minimum sentences for the crime of selling marijuana. This is not how it should be.

The best thing the police can do when one of their own takes an innocent life is to show that they don't condone those actions. If they can show solidarity with the families of the victims, mirror the outrage of the public, and deliver the offender to the criminal justice system they failed, it would serve several purposes:

1) It would show that the police do, in fact, hold themselves to a higher standard and deserve a position of respect and authority.

2) It would show that the police are not, in fact, aligned against the public. That they are, in fact, human like the rest of us and outraged by injustice.

3) It would show that we can trust the police to police themselves as much as they police the rest of us.

However, that never seems to be what happens. Instead, the cops rally behind their brother in arms. A line is drawn in the sand: you're either on the side of all cops, or you're against all cops. They build a wall between those of us who respect police officers and the work they do and those of us who wish to see justice done for lives taken unnecessarily. Many of us, I think, straddle that line; we want to do both.

Is it unreasonable to want the protections of a police force that enforces the rule of law while also wanting that police force to be held accountable for its failures? Do we have to choose a side? Is there no room for compromise here? I don't see why there shouldn't be.

The rule of law is not for the police to enforce alone. Law exists because we believe in it. Law is a collective endeavor. It exists because we, as a people, have willed it into being, and likewise those who enforce that law have authority because we, as a people, have willed it. As such, we need to remember that it shouldn't be Us. vs. Them. We need to work together. The police and the public need to work together. We need to look at what our laws are, why they are, and how they are to be enforced. We need the police and communities to be allied in their cause.

And, in that effort, the police need to be the ones to open up to the community. We need to change this system in which nearly every encounter we as citizens have with a police officer is adversarial. We need to get to know them.

I'm reminded of this scene from The Wire; one of the most moving parts in a series riddled with moving parts:

Seeing that, it reminds me that I've never met a Tucson police officer. As someone who has never had cause to meet one, that might seem fine... but I'm not sure it is. I don't know them. They are not people to me, because we've never had human interaction. Instead, they're a force. They're an Other. They're out to get me if I ever step out of line.

I would prefer if that weren't the case. That's not how it should be.

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