These are my last words for the foreseeable future on the series of shooting by the police of Black men and it’s not because I don’t have more to say. Actually it’s more that this is a topic that first fills me with blind, irrational anger, followed by nauseated disgust and finally fatalistic pessimism. It’s unhealthy to allow any one subject become so pervasive it becomes all-encompassing, so I have to let this go and move on.
This is going to be long, but I hope it makes sense.
There’s a degree of certain cognitive dissonance associated with the killings of Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford II among the other recent examples of cop-vs-civilian citizens.
Only the most angry of anarchists could boldly state there is no need for the police. Time and again it has been demonstrated the police are the only organization between order and chaos. Whether it’s some thoughtless neighbors blasting their music too loud in the wee hours or an old woman who’s fallen down and can’t get up or a child doesn’t arrive home after school or some guy has just rear-ended your brand new Chevy, there needs to be the person who comes along and makes a crazy world sane again for a while.
Most of us were brought up to respect police as figures of authority worthy of respect equal to that of doctors, lawyers, clergy and politicians. They were the Good Guys protecting us all from the Bad Guys.
Of course, the reality is never that black and white and the cracks in the facade become even more acute when the reality is Black and White.
I don’t know if Akai Gurley was a good man who didn’t deserve to die in a darkened staircase or a bad man who would have likely met with a bad end sooner or later. But what I do know is when something happens and keeps happening and it’s always reasoned away and waved off as merely “an accident” that isn’t an explanation as much as it is denial.
It didn’t surprise me when Darren Wilson walked. Mike Brown was viewed as a threat. It didn’t surprise me when Daniel Pantaleo walked. Eric Garner was a physically unhealthy man who refused to be taken into custody without resisting. It didn’t surprise me when the cops who blew away John Crawford II in a Wal-Mart walked because he had no business walking around with a realistic looking BB gun.
Neither did Tamir Rice so it won’t surprise me if Officer Timothy Loehmann walks despite being judged unfit for duty by a small town police force but apparently OK for the Cleveland cop shop.
That same dysfunctional Cleveland cop shop following a U.S. Justice Department investigation into acts of excessive force recently agreed to a consent decree which will doubtlessly lead to possibly hundreds of officers fired and forced into retirement. Getting bad cops off the street is a help to good cops, but you’ll rarely hear them say it out loud.
I have communicated with several ex-cops and those who aspired to be cops and they comment regularly on a discussion board I patronize on several officer related shooting threads as well as high-profile non-police involved deaths such as the Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride cases. They offer insights and perspectives on police procedure, protocol and perspectives civilians are on the outside of peering in. They offer a valuable contribution in the ongoing process of building bridges and not walls between the police and the community.
However, when it comes to matters of police misconduct, corruption and brutality, their default setting seems to be to close ranks with their brethren in blue and fall back to the now familiar stance of “us vs them” and if you aren’t one of us, you must be one of them.
Frank Serpico was one of “us” until he broke the cop code of silence and testified about corruption in the NYPD. Hollywood made Serpico the flawed hero in a movie starring Al Pacino, but the NYPD still regards him as a snitch, a rat, and a villain.
Serpico says police brutality now is as bad as police corruption was back in his day and for many of the same reasons: a permissive culture that looks the other way, closes ranks, protects bad cops and persecutes good cops trying to do their jobs the right way.
And today the Blue Wall of Silence endures in towns and cities across America. Whistleblowers in police departments — or as I like to call them, “lamp lighters,” after Paul Revere — are still turned into permanent pariahs. The complaint I continue to hear is that when they try to bring injustice to light they are told by government officials: “We can’t afford a scandal; it would undermine public confidence in our police.” That confidence, I dare say, is already seriously undermined.
Things might have improved in some areas. The days when I served and you could get away with anything, when cops were better at accounting than at law enforcement — keeping meticulous records of the people they were shaking down, stealing drugs and money from dealers on a regular basis — all that no longer exists as systematically as it once did, though it certainly does in some places. Times have changed. It’s harder to be a venal cop these days.
But an even more serious problem — police violence — has probably grown worse, and it’s out of control for the same reason that graft once was: a lack of accountability.
I tried to be an honest cop in a force full of bribe-takers. But as I found out the hard way, police departments are useless at investigating themselves—and that’s exactly the problem facing ordinary people across the country —including perhaps, Ferguson, Missouri, which has been a lightning rod for discontent even though the circumstances under which an African-American youth, Michael Brown, was shot remain unclear.
Today the combination of an excess of deadly force and near-total lack of accountability is more dangerous than ever: Most cops today can pull out their weapons and fire without fear that anything will happen to them, even if they shoot someone wrongfully. All a police officer has to say is that he believes his life was in danger, and he’s typically absolved. What do you think that does to their psychology as they patrol the streets—this sense of invulnerability? The famous old saying still applies: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (And we still don’t know how many of these incidents occur each year; even though Congress enacted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act 20 years ago, requiring the Justice Department to produce an annual report on “the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers,” the reports were never issued.)
It wasn’t any surprise to me that, after Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, officers instinctively lined up behind Darren Wilson, the cop who allegedly killed Brown. Officer Wilson may well have had cause to fire if Brown was attacking him, as some reports suggest, but it is also possible we will never know the full truth—whether, for example, it was really necessary for Wilson to shoot Brown at least six times, killing rather than just wounding him. As they always do, the police unions closed ranks also behind the officer in question. And the district attorney (who is often totally in bed with the police and needs their votes) and city power structure can almost always be counted on to stand behind the unions.
In some ways, matters have gotten even worse. The gulf between the police and the communities they serve has grown wider. Mind you, I don’t want to say that police shouldn’t protect themselves and have access to the best equipment. Police officers have the right to defend themselves with maximum force, in cases where, say, they are taking on a barricaded felon armed with an assault weapon. But when you are dealing every day with civilians walking the streets, and you bring in armored vehicles and automatic weapons, it’s all out of proportion. It makes you feel like you’re dealing with some kind of subversive enemy. The automatic weapons and bulletproof vest may protect the officer, but they also insulate him from the very society he’s sworn to protect. All that firepower and armor puts an even greater wall between the police and society, and solidifies that “us-versus-them” feeling.
At 77, Frank Serpico is an old man and old men are susceptible to being scoffed at as behind the times and out of the loop. Even the film was made over four decades ago. Yet, Serpico says he loved being a cop. He just wishes he could have been allowed to be the honest cop he wanted to be and not the threat he became because he refused to be a dishonest one.
I honestly do not believe most cops are racist, but in all honesty, there are racists who are cops. Their default setting is to side with the cops because they were cops that is no less understandable than mine is to side with a Brown, Garner, Gurley, Rice, Martin, Ferrell, Grant, Bell or Diallo because I look like them.
I’ve said before nobody needs the protection of the police more than the Black community. If Black people are disproportionately killed by the police, and more specifically, by White police officers that is in no small part due to the disproportionate numbers of Blacks committing crimes and incarcerated for those crimes. But that’s a much more complicated problem than finger-pointing idiots like Rudy Giuliani or Charles Barkley can resolve with their simplistic solutions.
Serpico doesn’t have all the answers to society’s ills either, but he does have some suggestions deserving of being included in any discussion of the bloody schism between cops and communities of color.
|1. Strengthen the selection process and psychological screening process for police recruits. Police departments are simply a microcosm of the greater society. If your screening standards encourage corrupt and forceful tendencies, you will end up with a larger concentration of these types of individuals;
2. Provide ongoing, examples-based training and simulations. Not only telling but showing police officers how they are expected to behave and react is critical;
3. Require community involvement from police officers so they know the districts and the individuals they are policing. This will encourage empathy and understanding;
4. Enforce the laws against everyone, including police officers. When police officers do wrong, use those individuals as examples of what not to do – so that others know that this behavior will not be tolerated. And tell the police unions and detective endowment associations they need to keep their noses out of the justice system;
5. Support the good guys. Honest cops who tell the truth and behave in exemplary fashion should be honored, promoted and held up as strong positive examples of what it means to be a cop;
6. Last but not least, police cannot police themselves. Develop permanent, independent boards to review incidents of police corruption and brutality—and then fund them well and support them publicly. Only this can change a culture that has existed since the beginnings of the modern police department.
If Number One of Serpico’s reforms had been in place in Cleveland, Timothy Loehmann might have remained a washed-out small-town cop and never moved on to become a big-city cop and Tamir Rice might still be alive instead of shot down in less than three seconds when Loehmann encountered him.
If Number Two of Serpico’s reforms had been in place in New York, Peter Liang might have been paired off with a more experienced veteran officer instead of another rookie like himself.
If Number Six of Serpico’s reforms had been in place in New York and Ferguson, Missouri, the grand jury decisions not to indict Pantaleno and Wilson might be less subject to suspicions of prosecutors manipulating the results.
There will never be a solution to the problem of police brutality and community hostility until all sides involved own up to their own vested interests, sacred cows and protected turf. Any meaningful progress means giving up, compromising, hammering out and forging a new deal between polarized enemies.
I don’t want to view the police as an occupying force. I need them to tell my noisy neighbors to turn that racket down as much as anyone else does. At the current state of things, I’m far less concerned about ISIS or Ebola taking me out than I am Officer Friendly doing me in because he didn’t like a gesture I made during a traffic stop.
Don’t tell me being a cop is a tough, thankless gig. Who doesn’t know that? Any cop who was expecting applause should have never cut their hair, formed a rock band and learned how to play Van Halen’s “Eruption.” Most cops never pull their guns to shoot anybody. When they do most times they’re justified and every time they have to kill someone they don’t have to be probed like a visit to the proctologist.
That doesn’t give cops a license to kill and a badge does not bestow extra rights the rest of us don’t get.
It is not playing the Race Card to wonder why there are so many encounters between unarmed Black men and armed White cops end up fatal for the Black men. If the shoe were on the other foot and White cops were being mowed down by Black assailants would there any puzzlement of what the hell is going on?
The agitation of a New Black Panthers plotting acts of murder and revenge against persons and property deserves condemnation by any responsible citizen, but so does Patrick Lynch of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association when he calls Pantaleo “a model police officer.”
The demagoguery has to end. The distrust has to end. The polarization and politicking has to end. I want to say it can end if all sides resolve to find a way to come together and force it to end. Yet while I try to be hopeful because it doesn’t make much sense to be anything else or you might as well not get up out of bed, I can’t say I’m optimistic.
Reconciliation is possible but not if our differences remain irreconcilable. We can wait for the next Akai Gurley or Eric Garner or Mike Brown or Tamir Rice to come along and do this now familiar dance over again; five steps back and no steps forward, but if police reform is impossible a revolution against the police is inevitable.
The odds are excellent we won’t have to wait too long to find out.