Matthew Rozsa offers three suggestions to protect both the police and the communities that fear them and calls for both groups to demand that politicians enact them.
Believe it or not, Michael Brown and Eric Garner share one very important quality with the pair of NYPD officers who were brutally slain earlier this week:
Both of them live in a society that forces them to fear for their lives.
While the 2016 presidential election is nearly two years away, America mustn’t ignore the implications—positive as well as negative—of the fact that this potentially unifying factor exists between two communities that are currently so fiercely divided. There is an opportunity here to promote policies that can address both the individual concerns of each group and the underlying shared fear that their members carry every day.
On the one side there are the men and women of American law enforcement, the so-called “thin blue line” that protects ordinary citizens from crime and upholds the law. We take it for granted these days that our municipalities, counties, states, and federal government will provide us with their protection. It’s easy to forget that the first official American police department wasn’t established until Boston decided to do away with volunteers and fee-grabbers in 1838, and even then, it took another half century for the concept of guaranteed police protection to be institutionalized in every major American city. As the 21st century increasingly complicates every layer of our society, the need for a large and active police force is as strong as ever. The days are long gone when Jeffersonian idealism was enough to instill in all Americans a stirring belief in the importance of upholding the law, to say nothing of the communal unity necessary to punish lawbreakers without the use of a centrally organized force. If our laws are to be enforced—and regardless of what you may think of specific policies and statutes, it is axiomatic that no society can long endure when its laws aren’t being followed—then we need people like Wenjian Liu, Rafael Ramos, and Byron Dickson to devote their careers to law enforcement.
You may notice that, although there were only two victims of the NYPD assassinations, I added a third name to that list. Dickson was the Pennsylvania state trooper killed by a homegrown sniper, Eric Frein, due to the latter’s ideological opposition to police specifically and what he perceived to be an excessively powerful government in general. Although Frein was an anarchical survivalist and Ismaaiyl Brinsley—the main suspect in the killing of Liu and Ramos—appeared to have been exacting retribution for the death of Eric Garner, both were linked by a single bond: They saw individual police officers not as human beings trying to do a job, but as agents of oppression.
It is doubtful that any cop in America isn’t aware of the fact that people like Frein and Brinsley perceive them in this way. For a job that already holds the threat of serious injury or death every day, this knowledge has no doubt created a deep existential fear within the law enforcement community.
On the other side there are the men and women, disproportionately from racial minority backgrounds and the poor, who also live with a constant fear of losing their lives. Evidence abounds that racial profiling is a common practice throughout the country. Had Michael Brown and Eric Garner been anomalous cases of unfortunate police excess, it is unlikely that their deaths would have become causes celebre. Unfortunately, police racism has an ugly history that still conjures up images of Alabama troopers shooting fire hoses at civil rights protesters and LAPD officers beating Rodney King to within an inch of his life … and also, inevitably, being acquitted.
The pervasive sense among racial minorities today is that their lives are viewed as less valuable in the eyes of police and, by extension, of society as a whole. Even when they aren’t being literally gunned down or strangled to death, they are having their freedom literally stripped away from them. Just look at the statistics: Today America has more people in prison than any other country in the world—2.4 million, or 25% of all the world’s prisoners (despite America only representing 5% of the world population)—and African Americans and Hispanics make up more than half of that community. Racial minorities are far more likely to be convicted of a crime than whites facing the same charges and, during sentencing, are likely to receive longer and tougher penalties for their offenses.
While much of this is undoubtedly due to ingrained racist attitudes, there is a big business community that has a vested interest in maintaining this status quo. Since 1970, America’s prison population has increased by 700% despite an overall drop in crime, thanks to the privatization of America’s prison system. Whereas government run prisons would be under pressure to spend as little money as possible, corporations like CCA (the Correctional Corporation of America) and Wackenhut make millions each year by building new facilities, feeding inmates, and providing cheap labor to various industries. In addition, despite the overwhelming evidence that our war on drugs has failed, they also successfully lobby for stricter drug laws and harsher penalties to guarantee a steady stream of new inmates. Between that and the militarization of our police—i.e., defense contractors arming our law enforcement officials with unprecedented weaponry—one is left with the sense that the business of policing has worked to the detriment of the practice.
Now for the policies that can solve this. While there are many great ideas being propounded, I’d like to explore three:
- Mandatory body cameras for cops.
As Time Magazine reported in August, cities that have required law enforcement officials to wear body cameras have seen significant reductions in use-of-force incidents and complaints of police abuse by citizens. In the words of Police Foundation Executive Fellow, Chief Tony Farrar:
“The findings suggest that more than a 50% reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions, and nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the twelve months prior to the experiment.
- Strengthen gun regulations to protect cops.
When President Obama summoned the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Major County Sheriffs Association to the White House last year to discuss his proposed bill banning assault-style weapons and restricting high-capacity ammunition magazines, he found that while the latter organization disagreed with the gun control legislation (due mainly to sheriffs coming from rural areas with lower crime rates), the chiefs—who hailed from major cities that regularly deal with crime and, notably, lose the lives of their officers because of the availability of sophisticated firearms to civilians—were overwhelmingly supportive. As former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg—who was known for visiting the families of officers killed in the line of duty, and witnessed firsthand how often these weapons made the difference between life and death for these cops—bluntly put it:
“I don’t understand why the police officers across the country don’t stand up collectively and say, ‘We’re going to go on strike. We’re not going to protect you unless you, the public, through your legislature, do what’s required to keep us safe.”
- Ending the war on drugs.
As discussed earlier, the war on drugs costs trillions of dollars to achieve very little … which perhaps explains why five Nobel Prize-winning economists all say we should do away with it. More to the point, however, the war on drugs is responsible for such a disproportionate number of our crimes that it keeps our police occupied monitoring citizens’ lifestyle choices (unwise as those decisions may be) instead of focusing on more serious threats to their communities. What’s more, because of the aforementioned racial disparity in how drugs laws are applied, the ongoing war on drugs only exacerbates tensions between cops who are required to enforce those laws and the minority groups who—despite being less likely to use drugs than whites—are more likely to face the police over drug related issues.
It must be emphasized that I am under no illusions that these policies alone will completely solve the ongoing controversy over American law enforcement. That said, it is essential that our citizens—and in particular the racial minorities who rightly feel persecuted—establish a positive relationship with the men and women whose literal job is to make sure our social fabric remains intact. When Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren face off against Republicans like Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and Rand Paul, all of them will be asked how they plan on handling this crisis. Here are three good ways they can start.
We talk about the intersectionality of social issues in popular culture all the time. Want more stories like this? Sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter here.