A little less than five years ago I published an article titled Policing: A larger Problem than Racism arguing that the problems and abuses of American law enforcement stem primarily from poor training and other dysfunctions rather than endemic racism. Adding the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breeona Taylor, George Floyd and (just yesterday) Rayshard Brooks to the 2014 list of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, and Romain Brisbon and of hundreds more people of color who have suffered violence and, too often, death at the hands of police, demands I reexamine my original thesis.
The steady pace of police killing blacks throughout the United States can no longer be attributed solely to bad policing, although that continues to be a major problem. I no longer believe that systemic abuse of blacks at the hands of the police can be resolved only by better training and organization. The police themselves are a product of their environment and until the racially toxic environment in which they live and work can be addressed, no amount of tinkering with training, regulations and organization will fix it, or our country.
In 2014, I argued that taking cops off foot patrol and putting them in cars combined with their militarization, had transformed the policeman from the familiar neighborhood cop to an occupier. In fact, it morphed into “dominating the battle space” of our own cities, to quote our President and his unfortunate Secretary of Defense. We seem to have taken the last several decades of U.S. military occupation of foreign countries and grafted it onto domestic law enforcement doctrine.
Police training and doctrine has crossed a deadly line turning a policeman into a soldier on occupation duty. Killing a black American citizen has become ‘neutralizing’ an enemy. The cop in the cruiser no longer knows anything or anyone in the neighborhood he patrols. His training socializes the cop into assuming that everyone with whom he deals is a potential insurgent waiting to kill him. To be fair to the cops, the criminal insanity of the Second Amendment zealots has brought Afghanistan to America; anybody can have a gun, so shooting first looks like preemptive self-defense.
The war zone atmosphere led to an interesting development, however. Literally hundreds of retired generals and admirals, distinguished people who had put their lives on the line for their country, rose up as one to shame the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense into offering a public mea culpa for their pusillanimous participation in Trump’s blasphemous photo op.
To repeat: I underestimated the role that endemic racism plays in this seemingly unending drama of cops mistreating and even killing blacks for no good reason and getting away with it. The cops are killing too many people. So far, five months into 2020, police have killed 88 blacks and 172 whites. In all of 2019, police killed 235 blacks and 370 whites (www.statista.com). Do the arithmetic: only 12% of Americans are black.
Those of us of a certain age who lived in places with segregated schools and then lived through successive civil rights campaigns, know better than others that white unease with blacks, consciously or subconsciously, permeates virtually our entire society. But, we believed it had been shelved away in some dark corner of our minds to disappear in our dotage.
Instead, the election of our first black President rekindled the hatred, fanned by race-baiting politicians who revived the not-so-dormant hatred of blacks among too many. Now, we have elected a President who has made hatred of the Other the defining theme of his Presidency and who has doubled down on pitting American against American to get reelected. This will not change until Americans accept that we are all Americans. Those who rant against immigration frequently use racist tropes. Welfare recipients are often seen as only people of color. We should ask ourselves how often we criminalize people of color rather than deal with crime.
We are all aware of the racism around us but saying “I’m not a racist” and doing nothing about it doesn’t get anyone off the hook.
Eradicating endemic hatreds requires time and a concentrated effort, and it lies beyond the scope of this article, but what do we do now, in the short term, to reduce the carnage?
Training alone has failed. Two of the cops arrested as accessories for failing to stop Derek Chauvin from squeezing the life out of George Floyd defended themselves by stating that they were rookies just out of training and could not contradict a superior officer.
But there may be one short-term fix. How does an occupying army differ from a police force? Simply, occupiers are foreign troops who have no empathy or understanding for the occupied. Let’s look at an interesting fact: cops in police forces that have a bad record policing black neighborhoods rarely live in those neighborhoods. Only 5.4 percent of Minneapolis policemen live inside city boundaries. By contrast about half of Camden, New Jersey’s police force – a city that improved community relations while reducing crime – live inside Camden city limits. Studies indicate that police officers residing inside the cities they police tend to behave more humanely. Amongst all the frantic calls for defunding, banning chokeholds, requiring body cameras, I suggest making police live inside the cities they patrol. It’s not a panacea and it may cost a bit more to pay for more expensive housing, but it will help weed out the open racist. It’s also cheaper than riots and lawsuits.