When police actions go bad, we shout, “Reform the police.” “Defund the police.” But we should be looking at ourselves. We proclaim that we are the richest and most powerful country in the world, but we the people refuse to spend the money to make things better. We are more concerned with taxes than with the public welfare. It isn’t just on the police; it is also on us.
We should have police reforms. We should have better screening of those who become an officer. We should have a national database of problem cops who sometimes now go from one police force to another without information available about their past performance. We should have better training for the police especially on how to restrain potentially violent people. We need better discipline of the police. We need a reconsideration of qualified immunity. But many of these steps require funding, and we don’t want to provide it.
A seemingly simple reform would be to require body cams. Studies have shown police behave better if they know they are being videoed, but these cameras also help the police. Charges of abuse were lodged against an officer in a small Pennsylvania department recently, but he was wearing a body cam, and the video of the incident exonerated him. Both the police and the general public have a stake in police body cams.
At the police forum I recently attended, a police chief said that he welcomed body cams, but he pointed out that not only does it take money to get the equipment, it takes a computer technician to maintain, store, and review the results. The police chief did not have money for a technician to maintain his current computer equipment. He certainly had no money in his budget for the support needed for body cams even if he had money to obtain the cameras themselves. I repeat; that shortfall is on us, not on the police.
But something more is on us. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his son in Between the World and Me and says, “But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive moments.”
Coates is speaking to a sad reality. We are too often unable to fully see blacks as individuals; instead we see them as a member of group. The tendency then is to assume that the worst actions of one of them applies to all of them. This gets ingrained in the subconscious, including the subconscious of police officers. A split skull and much worse too often results.
We do something similar to the police. Although there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of interactions between the police and the rest of us each day, we see on the news, the internet, and social media the worst actions by individual officers; we don’t see the professional, useful, helpful encounters. We make all police officers responsible for those racist, brutal, incompetent police behaviors committed by some of them. And so we tend to lump all police together — the good ones and the bad ones. And the natural reaction is for police officers to hunker down in their tribe and separate themselves from the rest of us. This only exacerbates the problem.
The police may need to change attitudes and practices, but we also need to change our attitudes towards the police. We can’t just view police officers as the evil “other.” Recently I taught a seminar at an Ivy League university entitled “Race, Poverty, and Criminal Justice.” Not surprisingly in a course with that title, almost all of the liberal-minded students were anti-police. They would speak at length – and with too little data — of how bad the police and police departments are. I asked if any of them would consider becoming a police officer. They had looks of horror as if we were inside a chainsaw-massacre-movie. They not only could not imagine being an officer, they could not even imagine that a “normal” person would want to be one. The police were completely “other.”
That is a problem for all of us.