Transforming Us versus Them Policing into We the People Policing.
The 8:46 minute video is arresting.
A police officer in Minneapolis is seen kneeling on a black man’s neck and back, suffocating him to death while three other officers watch with astonishing indifference. The black man was never armed and is already subdued. “I can’t breathe,” he says. The police do nothing. In dying desperation, he calls for his mama. A viewer’s heart breaks watching it, millions of times over, until the nation’s body politic spasms into protest the way a human body suffers a seizure.
George Floyd was accused of passing a phony twenty-dollar bill. The piece of paper that said, “In God We Trust,” was inauthentic, a violation of the state’s monopoly on printing money. A cashier called the forces of the law to alert them. It was his duty. Yet our policing culture turned 911 into RIP.
A second video stuns.
Dozens of helmeted Buffalo, New York police officers march relentlessly forward in-step looking like the soldiers of an evil empire in countless dystopia movies. One makes contact with a gangly, elderly white man standing alone in front of them. The lone protester falls from his full height to the pavement, stiff-backed, cracking his skull. One officer bends to tend to him. His brother in blue waves him off. A pool of blood leaks from the man’s ear. Dozens of police, who swore an oath to preserve and protect the citizens of the American metropolis, stomp on without breaking step. They leave the man lying on the sidewalk as the blood oozes. He would be taken to a hospital and recover.
Who are these cruel and heartless people, armed with weapons and the force of the law?
They are our fathers, and brothers, and sons. Less often they are our mothers, and sisters, and daughters. Many are white. Some are black or brown. They are our neighbors and friends. They are us.
How is it possible that the people we know to be good, and true, and moral, people who are decent, and loving, and kind could do such inhuman things?
Yes, there are among us sadists who thrill in the evil joy of brutalizing others, and some wear a badge. But that is not the heart of the matter. The episodes are too frequent, too commonplace, too much a part of American life. The Bad Apple, theory of police brutality fails to explain it.
Police culture is the cause of police brutality in America.
Our police recognize three categories of people. “Citizens,” “Us,” and “Them.” Citizens are an amorphous pool of good but vulnerable human beings who the police have sworn to protect. They have no individual identity. It is a concept. The police are Us, the enforcers of the law, the defenders of what is right, and just, and moral. Them, is everyone who threatens the peace, the spreaders of chaos, the forces of evil.
How can the police tell the difference between Citizens and Them in a democratic society with so many people who look so different from one another, and who behave as they please across an impossible range of freedoms?
For too many it is easy. Anyone who comes into confrontation with the police becomes one of Them. That same person may have been a Citizen before the identity emerges. Once it does — a perpetrator, a black man, a counterfeiter, a crank, a Latino, a traffic violator, a wise guy not responding to an order fast enough, a subway fare beater, a punk, a protestor — imperceptibly and immediately, any of those identities can transform the Citizen into one of Them in the officer’s mind. That is when the trouble unfolds.
Them, are the enemy of law and order. Enemies must be defeated. Enemies are not defeated by empathy and compassion. Extraordinary measures are justified when combatting an enemy. In a battle against an enemy, deception is a vital weapon. Lying becomes a tactic, not something honest people do not do. Force is required. And the key to defeating an enemy is to destroy the will to resist. Overwhelming force is best. It intimidates the enemy into submission.
Social cues matter a lot. A handsome, mature, white man, dressed in a suit and tie, speaking in educated, respectful language is far more likely to retain his standing as a Citizen rather than one of Them longer than others. Training and temperament also matter. There are many thousands of police. Some are quick to judge a man or woman. Others are more reflective.
And of course, race is an essential determinant of identity in American life. Our Constitution — the Law of the Land — ensured that when it condoned slavery. It was a sin that dared not speak its name. Never does the word appear in the document meant to define how our government would protect our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, in accepting slavery the Constitution accepted a system of laws that allowed one group of people — whites — to use force to dominate another — blacks. And by extension, all those who are not white. And by extension over time, all of Them.
A legacy that began with the birth of our nation endures. Police are on the frontline of a conflict that continues, but We the People too are on the field of battle. We must have the courage to acknowledge our role.
We established a police force. We recruited its officers. We raised money for it. We armed it. We gave it marching orders. We authorized use of extraordinary powers. We declined to discipline it when it exceeded its mandate. We allowed the chain of command to evolve so haphazardly that we are often unsure who is in charge. The President? The Governor? The Mayor? The Chiefs? We the People have lost control of the police we created.
Many police union officials respond to today’s protests with unconstructive, combative anger. The current Us versus Them police culture requires it. Union leaders think Citizens should be grateful to the police for the protection they provide. But We the People have been slowly and steadily changing the rules for the police forces we created. We are in the process of rejecting the Us versus Them rules we helped write. Many who rose to the top by following the old ways are confused. They will struggle to be part of the solution.
The world is more nuanced and complex than any summary makes it sound. Many police departments have recognized the problem and have taken action to respond. Few have yet succeeded. Police in Minneapolis have condemned the action of the officers accused of murdering George Floyd, all of whom are under arrest. When Floyd was buried in Houston the local department escorted his casket and saluted it. These are important actions that offer hope.
Still, we are in crisis. Our law enforcement apparatus was built in the nineteenth century for a different America and armed in the twentieth with fearsome technology and firepower. In the twenty-first century, too much of it is no longer fit for purpose. Our nation has evolved painfully but powerfully into a multi-cultural democracy all of whose citizens insist on exercising the rights America has promised them, even if past custom ignored their betrayal for millions.
The problem must be fixed if our democracy is to thrive. We the People created the problem, and we alone can fix it. The energy of recent protests suggest we are ready to do so.
We must. We need a motivated, well-trained police force to protect our democracy just as a body needs a strong immune system to protect it in order to thrive.
New Yorkers who lived through the chaotic public management and rolling budget crisis of 1975 to 1992 know what a city feels like when the police are weak and disengaged. It would shock youngsters who have known New York only since its resurgence.
At its worst, murders happened six times a day on average. The slaughter was terrifyingly random. Drive by shootings were commonplace. Stray bullets killed children in their bedrooms. An Assistant District Attorney was struck down by accident while ordering lunch at a delicatessen counter. No one and no neighborhood was safe. The number of major crimes — shootings, rapes, muggings — were seven times more frequent than today. Stereos were stolen from parked vehicles so frequently that people taped signs inside their car windows that read: “No Radio” hoping to convince criminals that breaking in would yield no benefit. There was no notion the crime could be prevented. Someone aptly tagged the makeshift placards, urban flags of surrender.
Collective conscience suffered defeat. A constant state of anxiety permeated the air. People feared the streets, the subways, the parks, and the night. People feared each other. Movies like Death Wish and Joker do not exaggerate the dark mood of despair. No one who lived through those years wishes to relive them. Those who did not may struggle to fathom just how bad things can be when the police are defunded.
The power of the protests in response to George Floyd’s murder demonstrate We the People understand the urgency of the task before us. We recognize our democracy is at stake. The energy unleashed is critical, but spasms do not propel a body forward. That requires a brain and body working in unison so motion is directed towards a cause and a goal. A body politic requires leadership.
What do we need our leaders to do?
- Declare the status quo unacceptable.
- Acknowledge the importance of a highly motivated, well-trained police force.
- Identify Us versus Them police culture as the problem.
- Recognize We the People created the problem, and that it is up to all of us to work together with law enforcement officials to create a new culture for policing America.
- Hold our police departments and their chiefs relentlessly accountable for the change we must insist upon.
In 2015, The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a report that outlines 59 recommendations and 92 action items for law enforcement departments around the country to pursue. A follow-on implementation guide identified six themes, the first of which is Change the Culture of Policing. Our leaders should insist each department adopt a plan for implementing the task force’s recommendations. It is a place to start. None in New York State has done so. They will if We the People tell our leaders they must demand it.
It is up to all of us to convert Us versus Them policing into We the People policing.
Links & Sources
- Wikipedia entry for the Killing of George Floyd: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_George_Floyd
- NBC News Coverage of the Buffalo Police and 75-year-old man: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/75-year-old-man-shoved-ground-buffalo-police-suffered-brain-n1230421
- The U.S. Constitution: https://constitutionus.com/
- Michael O’Meara, head of New York State’s Police Benevolent Association: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0dyAUR1CUE
- IMDB entry for Death Wish: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071402/
- IMDB entry for Joker: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7286456/
- The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing: https://cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/taskforce/taskforce_finalreport.pdf
- The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing — Implementation Guide: https://noblenational.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/President-Barack-Obama-Task-Force-on-21st-Century-Policing-Implementation-Guide.pdf