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Law in Disorder

June 16, 2020

Since the killing of George Floyd by police on May 25, hundreds of thousands of Americans have been protesting in the streets.  Their immediate goal to have charges brought against the four police officers involved already has been met. Their wider concern to end the chronic cycle of police killing African-Americans (mostly male) under dubious circumstance is just beginning.

Reformers stress that unlawful police behavior is not a unique institutional phenomenon but a consequence of the racism that has infected American democracy since its inception. That makes for a two-fold approach to reform: changes that deal with the immediate crisis and longer-term measures that reshape American culture.

A change already being enacted by executive orders of governors or included in proposed legislation is to forbid police from using choke holds as they are always life-threatening. Another is the shifting of prosecution of police charged with maleficence from local prosecutors to the state’s attorney general. The rationale is that local prosecutors by the nature of their office have cordial relations with local police which may impair their impartiality when police are charged with criminal behavior. 

Another needed reform is having disciplinary records of individual police made public in a form now current for physicians and teachers. Although this public material would be restricted to outcomes, it would be quite useful to civilian review boards and others investigating an individual case or a departmental pattern.

A related benefit would require police seeking a position in another police department to include a disciplinary record in their applications. Falsifying such a document or denying its existence could be a criminal offense. Such accountability is a prime factor in creating transparency in what is now a blue curtain of silence.

Many existing reforms can be strengthened or enforced more vigorously. Body cameras and visible personal identification could be mandatory in practice as well as on paper.  Existing civilian oversight could be strengthened and the issuing of no-knock search warrants curtailed or eliminated.

The nature of police culture is a crucial concern. Rather than seeing themselves as guardians of community values, many police see themselves as warriors. A disturbing trend is the increased militarization of the police as if it were a virtual occupation army. This militarization has included purchase of tanks, armed transport, and advanced weapons designed for combat. The Defund the Police slogan usually does not mean abolishing the police but demilitarizing them with the saved funds used for social and economic services.

Creating a new police culture requires understanding that it is impossible to train all officers to respond effectively to every potential social confrontation.  Addressing this reality could begin at police academies. As part of their preparation, individual cadets could select an area such as homelessness, domestic abuse, mental health, or drug addiction for which they would receive specialized training. Established police could also volunteer for such training. In due course, each police precinct would have an officer specifically trained to deal with the complexities of these chronic social challenges.

A problem in many cities is the nature of the local police union. As in other occupations, self-serving and authoritarian leaders sometimes come to the fore. Rather than providing leadership that advances actual law and order, they prioritize retaining their power by placating even the whims and prejudices of their membership, however destructive. That dynamic will not change until the membership accepts the need for a new police culture. Essential for that change is that the public and other unions differentiate the average cop from rouge cops and self-serving bureaucrats. An indication of changing rank-and-file attitudes may be indicated by the number of police who have expressed their support of the protest movement.

The violence that has sometimes occurred during or after demonstrations has been condemned and discouraged by movement leaders as being a distraction from the cultural questions at hand. Mass media have pointed out that the violence is often linked to professional thieves, agents provocateurs, impoverished looters, and ideological extremists more interested in disrupting the government than dealing with police brutalities.

Far more significant than the presence of a handful of rioters is that “white” Americans of all ages, regions, creeds, education, and sexual orientation have been present in massive numbers from day one of the protests. This unprecedenedt mass refusal to identify with the racism endemic in too much of American society indicates real change not only may be at hand but already in progress.

Greek America’s most powerful national organizations have exhibited true leadership during this crisis. The statements issued by AHEPA have been exemplary.  Most significant was the decision by Archbishop Elipidophoros to walk side by side with Eric Adams, the African American president of Brooklyn, in a protest march in that borough. This action has renewed the inspiring example set by Archbishop Iakovos when the marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama.

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