By JOE AUCIELLO
“In my career, my only training in the Constitution was how to get around it,” (Sue Rahr, former sheriff, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, and member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing).
Drivers on their way to work, zipping by one of the predominantly Black neighborhoods in any major city, might not notice the presence of parked police cars and aggressive cops questioning small groups of Black youth. After all, scenes like this are an everyday occurrence, just part of the landscape. It could be—and certainly is—Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles, etc.
If any passers-by do notice, they may not really understand what they see. In fact, they are observing criminals at work, but not those who always appear to be suspects. Stop and search, frisk and harass—these are crimes routinely committed by the police. It is the improper use of force, intimidation, and assertion of state authority predominantly directed against Black people, usually young men. This is standard procedure, what the police do to keep minority youth in their place.
That’s how the law works in this part of town. In a predominantly Black neighborhood, there is no “presumption of innocence.” The police eye sees suspects everywhere, so the police act on a presumption of guilt. Throughout the nation, communities that are poor and Black typically experience a distinct and special type of justice. Critics condemn “racial profiling”; the cops praise “good police work.”
In a more well-to-do neighborhood, this kind of misconduct would be correctly described as “illegal search and seizure”—the violation of a person’s presumption of innocence. Since people of means have ready access to the courts, this police offense is less likely to occur, and any instance of it would more likely result in lawsuits and punishment of the guilty cops.
In minority communities the police not only violate human rights with impunity, they can also get the results they want without having to break the law. Sometimes, for instance, they bend the law beyond recognition in a practice known as a “pretextual stop.” This occurs when police find a legitimate but minor excuse to stop someone—on the sidewalk or in a car—and then use that pretext to escalate to a more thorough but unwarranted investigation.
So, a busted rear light on a vehicle becomes an opportunity to search for drugs, etc., typically resulting in questioning and arrests. Even when, for lack of evidence, the person—the “suspect”—is released, the police have committed an act of harassment. These practices are routine in neighborhoods the cops have marked as “high crime areas.”
Racially-defined justice is also a highly profitable operation. These stops and searches provide an opportunity to issue fines and collect fees to support the city budget—literally, a racist tax. This was the conclusion the Justice Department reached in its report on Ferguson, where the residents were seen as “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”
The Justice Department report went on to note: “City and police leadership [in Ferguson] pressure officers to write citations independent of any public safety need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget.”
With or without pretexts, though, police ignore the civil and human rights of minorities, especially the young, who are viewed as guilty by their race and age. They are treated as probable criminals who have not yet been caught. As a result, unwarranted police questioning can typically escalate to frisking, searches of individuals and cars, threats, arrests, and—as is now well known—even death.
The lead lawyer in a suit against the city of Ferguson, Alec Karakatsanis, has said, “There’s clear case law that police can’t illegally search you for no reason, but it happens 10,000 times a day” (The New York Times, March 8, 2015).
One young man, a resident of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood in Baltimore, gave this account of his encounters with police: “They trip you, choke you out, cuss you out, disrespect you…” Further, “the police tell him and his friends, while they are in their own neighborhood: ‘You’re not welcome around here. Keep moving. Get the eff off this corner” (The New York Times, May 3, 2015).
The protests in Baltimore have shown, by their ability to inspire marches and demonstrations in localities all over America, that biased and violent police abuse directed against Black people and other minorities is not some local or rare occurrence. The criminal actions of police against Black people, against young Black men in particular, are not unique to Ferguson, Washington or any other city or town. Only a powerful effort of self-deception can allow someone to believe that police violence is merely the occasional mistake of some “bad apples” or rogue officers.
But why does police brutality occur? Why do police, from departments all across the United States, continue to harass and even shoot Black people, including those who are unarmed? Shouldn’t the cops realize by now that their actions are likely to be recorded by any eyewitness with a cell phone and splashed all over the media? To commit these offenses in public would appear to defy logic and common sense. What is the explanation?
Conservative and even some liberal commentators are quick to point out the dangers inherent in police work, asserting that police violence is actually self-defense carried too far. This argument holds that cops only seem trigger-happy. As they make split-second decisions in potentially life-threatening circumstances, they are really acting on the instinct for self-preservation.
This familiar answer is a rationalization that fails to account for the racial difference in deaths at the hands of police. It’s as if killing Blacks at several times the rate of whites somehow “just happens” or is the acceptable cost of “public safety.”
Of course, even an excuse is not completely false. After all, any number of people armed with knives and guns actually do attack police. Yet, statistics consistently show that most on-duty fatalities result from traffic accidents.
In truth, the terrible pattern of cop violence is a sum of symptoms and underlying causes, all flowing from the social function of the police to protect a social system based on inequality and oppression.
Most efforts of social reformers are aimed only at the symptoms of police violence. These efforts include a reduction of the militarization of local law enforcement, changes in tactical training, increasing the use of cameras, and enlarging the authority of civilian review boards, etc.
Taken together, these reforms can be helpful in trimming the worst excesses of the police, but new methods alone cannot solve the old problems of brutality and racism. Reforms don’t address the underlying causes that allow police to act above the law. Even with better formal procedures in place, a young Black man fleeing the cops will likely be beaten if captured (what cops call a “foot tax”), perhaps maimed, or even shot and too often killed.
Before Baltimore police subjected Freddie Gray to the “rough ride” that killed him, that department had undergone decades of reform. For instance, a lawsuit from the 1980s spurred integration efforts favoring minorities and women. Nonetheless, according to the chairman of a group representing Baltimore’s Black officers, “This department is a very racist police department. The issues that you see manifesting themselves on the outside are the same problems we have been dealing with on the inside for years,” (The New York Times, May 10, 2015).
There is good reason to be skeptical of what can be accomplished by reform. Consider, first of all, that police are typically accountable only to themselves or to prosecutors and courts that work with and support them. Since most police violence takes place with no eye witnesses present, and therefore no publicity, the legal system typically accepts the accounts of the police instead of the victims. (The familiar videos that have been aired on television and the internet create a misleading impression by suggesting that many of these incidents are recorded. Not so. Police violence usually occurs when only the police and their victims are witnesses. The fact is not lost on even the newest patrolman).
So, police expect to get away with their crimes, and they have every reason for that assurance. For instance, Florida’s Broward County, the largest in the state, has seen 168 deaths from police shootings since 1980, with no charges ever filed against any officer. Is it coincidence, then, that in the last 15 years the number of deaths in the county from police shootings has tripled?
The freedom-to-fire granted to cops in Broward County is not exceptional. According to a lengthy investigation published on May 31 in The Washington Post, “So far, just three of the 385 fatal shootings [in 2015] have resulted in an officer being charged with a crime—less than one percent.” In these three cases where charges were filed, and only in these cases, “videos emerged showing the officers shooting a suspect during or after a foot chase.”
Further, and more importantly, The Post reports that “of thousands of fatal police shootings over the past decade, only 54 had produced criminal charges.” In the other cases, internal department investigations or state prosecutors found that police officers were justified when they killed.
Of course, it should be recalled that the initial police inquiry into the death of Eric Garner in New York contained no mention of a chokehold. Without video evidence, police use of deadly force would have been considered legitimate and necessary.
Recently in Cleveland a white police officer who, from the hood of a car, had fired 49 shots into the front windshield, was acquitted of manslaughter following the deaths of the car’s occupants, two unarmed Black men. Since 13 officers fired 137 rounds at the car, it could not be determined that the officer on trial had fired the fatal bullets. Further, the defense lawyers argued that this policeman was in fear for his life, the circumstance that legally allows the police to use deadly force.
The harsh, brutal, and sometimes fatal measures of the police flow directly from their social function. The role of the police and the courts is to protect a national state founded on class division, permanent inequality, and racial discrimination. Their role in protecting the state gives them a special status and the belief that “the police are above the law.” They are the billy club of the state.
In this sacred duty local police are joined by the National Guard and other branches of the military, by federal police agencies, and the security apparatus that taps the phones, stores the e-mails, and spies on American citizens.
The police are no more neutral or fair-minded than the government they ultimately serve or the laws they enforce. As attorney William M. Kunstler has observed, the law “is, in fundamental essence, nothing more than a method of control created by a socioeconomic system determined, at all costs, to perpetuate itself, by all and any means necessary, for as long as possible” (“The Emerging Police State,” Ocean Press, pp. 38-39).
Kunstler goes on to say that in the United States, “We steadfastly deny, or refuse to acknowledge, that the criminal justice system, insofar as blacks and other minority members are concerned, is merely a device to keep them at bay” (p. 41). What Kunstler wrote two decades ago is no less true today. It only remains to be added: To change the behavior of the police, change the nature of their role in society. Change the nature of the state.
Meanwhile, police violence against Black people will continue. A people excluded from the mainstream of society can only be held in check by force, including prison. Here is yet another sign, if any more are needed, that America’s “post-racial” society has yet to fully acknowledge the crime that is racial injustice.
Photo: A cop in McKinney, Texas, forces a teenage Black woman to the ground during raid at a swimming pool in June.