Police Violence Is An Institutional Problem

Last week, former Baltimore police officer Michael Wood began posting to Twitter numerous abuses he had witnessed while on the job.

He describes police slapping a woman for only bumping into him, police defecting in the homes of suspects (he described this as a “calling card” of a particular group of officers), and racial profiling of young blacks. He later went into greater detail in an interview with the Washington Post’s Radley Balko.

These abuses do not indicate a group of bad police officers, but a broader culture within police departments that has little regard for the individual rights of the people they are supposed to protect and is evidence of an “us-versus-them” mentality engrained into the minds of cops. And this cultural problem is hardly unique to Baltimore. We have seen a steady “militarization” of the police since the 1960s. Many police departments, through federal grants, are able to get fully automatic weapons, SWAT teams, armored vehicles and even tanks. Cops are increasingly looking like soldiers. Early American colonists grieved that British soldiers patrolled the streets and took residence in private homes, which contributed to the passage of the 3rd Amendment protecting against the quartering of soldiers. But that also represented a broader attitude that was skeptical of the appearance of a war zone in a populated civilian area.

Law-and-order conservatives frequently defend cops despite well-documented abuses and claim that the post-Ferguson environment has contributed to a growing disrespect of police officers, making their job more dangerous (being a cop has never been safer), and a growing national crime problem (despite the lack of actual evidence). They argue that abuses at the hands of police can be blamed on a small group of bad apples that should be fired, and that most police officers are good people who are just doing their jobs.

But the problem is not a handful of bad cops who abuse their power. Firing bad police officers would not be sufficient to solve the problem either. The problem is an institutional one within police culture that has separated police from the communities they are supposed to protect. Police tend to see people as an enemy to be defeated rather than citizens to serve.

Conservatives see the disrespect of the police as contributing to violence rather than the violence being a result of disrespect toward the people in these communities. They often criticize protestors and rioters in Ferguson and Baltimore, but what they fail to understand are the underlying factors that contribute to the unrest. Michael Brown was not the first unarmed man to be shot and killed by police, nor was Freddie Gray the first victim of police abuse in Baltimore. The unrest in these cities was the result of years of abuses that disproportionately affected minority neighborhoods. It was the culmination of years of ravaged communities at the hands of an unwinnable drug war, and a mentality that pits the police against citizens. The fact that so many of these victims are black adds yet another ugly layer to these incidents. And when people see police officers dressed in full SWAT gear, carrying automatic rifles, driving heavily armored vehicles and launching tear gas, their worst fears are confirmed: the police are there to do more harm than good.

As Connor Friedersdorf wrote this weekend in The Atlantic,

Today’s relationship between the Baltimore police department and the city’s black residents was determined by neither Obama Administration statements nor New York Times editorials nor liberal hashtag activists. Rather, it was determined by years of interactions between residents of black neighborhoods — the law-abiding majority and a criminal minority alike — and Baltimore police officers, including many who behaved like thugs (and many more forced into the impossible position of being asked to wage an unwinnable war on drugs). Law-and-order conservatives are happy to acknowledge Baltimore’s criminals but ignore the part of local police culture that is thuggish, brutal and lawless because it is incompatible with how they want people to think of authority.

The people of these cities were fed up; and yes, many of them did destroy property and loot businesses; but put into proper context, these events are far less horrific than the abuses these communities have lived through for years. And of course, desperate people tend to do desperate things.

If police are to restore the public’s faith in them, there must be an effort to change the violent, confrontational attitudes in law enforcement. Police officers who understand this problem must step up and lead the way toward reform. If nothing changes, there will be more Fergusons and Baltimores in our future.

The police culture of violence is no longer going unquestioned or unrecognized. People are beginning to wake up, people who have never experienced what the people of cities like Ferguson and Baltimore have experienced, and they are realizing that change must happen. And it starts with fixing what’s wrong with our police culture in America.