Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mythology and the acceptance of police brutality

By Frank Moraes

I’ve been thinking a lot about the mythology of American policing and how it allows our criminal justice system to stay so messed up. And over at Vox, Redditt Hudson wrote an article that touches on this issue, I’m a Black Ex-Cop, and This Is the Real Truth About Race and Policing. He worked for five years for the St Louis Police Department, and since then, he seems to work in criminal justice reform. So he’s not exactly your typical police officer. But still, he’s been in the field. And I think he has a good take on American policing. In particular, he seems to be able to distinguish between the reality and the myth of the police. And that is refreshing indeed.

Fundamentally, I think it is the mythology of policing that is so dangerous. It is what allows police to think that they live in a world that is especially dangerous. And that leads to officers like Michael Brelo to jump up on the hood of a car and fire 15 more shots — past the 122 already fired — at an unarmed couple in their car. And it is what leads to judges thinking the whole thing was a-okay. Because, you know, Brelo was “fearing for his life.” This isn’t a story of the real world: a civil servant doing a (at worst) modestly dangerous job. This is a story of Odysseus struggling to make his way in a world of the Sirens and Cyclops.

The standard line whenever a police officer does something unconscionable is, “While the vast majority of police officers are dedicated professionals, this officer blah, blah, blah…” Every time we talk about misbehavior of an officer, we are expected to preface it with this disclaimer. But Hudson’s accounting sounds far more reasonable. No, it isn’t the “vast majority” of police officers. It is instead:

On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.

Clearly, this isn’t based upon a study. It is just Hudson’s impression. But regardless what the number are, this is the makeup. There are a relatively small number of “good” and “bad” officers and then there are a whole bunch in the middle that go with the flow. This is why certain departments become hotbeds of racism and why a strong administrative effort to clean up a department really can work. But if you asked me, I would say that it is more like 5% of the officers who will always do the right thing. Let’s call them the Eagle Scouts. Clearly, the probability distribution of police officers abusing their power will be heavily tilted away from the Eagle Scouts — that is, there are more “bad” than “good” officers.

Another thing that Hudson noted is that racism against African Americans is not just something that white officers do. He sees the problem as being fundamentally one of abuse of authority. So the racism is systemic: it is acceptable to abuse black and brown people. So officers, regardless of what race they identify with, will abuse black and brown people because they know they can get away with that. They know they can’t go out and abuse students at Stanford.

How the mythology plays into this is in how it allows the officers in that big middle group to justify abusing their power — although it is probably a potent justification for the people who were attracted to police work because of the power. I’m sure that the officers who killed Freddie Gray thought that somehow what they were doing was justified because they have such dangerous jobs and because all the world is evil and all that other garbage that we allow them to go on thinking.

I remember something that Jim Hogshire said in his excellent book, You Are Going to Prison. He was talking about prison rape and how it was accepted by the prison authorities — part of the mechanism of control. He noted that if a warden wanted prison rape stopped today it would stop today. Well, that’s what I think about police brutality. The reason it continues on is because of us. We don’t want to give up our mythology of policing. Maybe it would help if we just got explicit about it, “While most police officers are demigods who exist in a dangerous but magical world…”

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)


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