/ 10 July 2016
Abuse of police power has grown of late, but it should not surprise us: cops are humans after all, and like all humans they need to be regulated stringently.
Wednesday this past week, a webpage on The Guardian was updated with news of Mr Philando Castile’s death. The St Paul Public School district cafeteria worker was described as respectful, kind, warm, and funny by those who knew him. He was traveling by car with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, that day when he was pulled over by two cops for a broken taillight. At the school, everyone believes he made a real difference; he taught kids to eat their vegetables, he remembered who had not drank milk, he was friendly and ensured that the cafeteria was a pleasant and calm environment. Mr Castile was reaching for his license and registration when a cop shot him four times and killed him. Ms Reynolds live streamed the entire ten-minute video to Facebook. They later handcuffed her, also for no reason.
Just one day earlier, the newspaper had logged another entry: the 32-year-old black man, Alton Sterling, who was shot dead for a similarly non-existent reason. His killing too was caught on video and went viral. The cops were white in both cases, their victims black and unarmed. While this may seem like purely an issue of race, the numbers also point to it being a case of police ruffianism, plain and simple. Over the course of a day, between Mr Sterling’s and Mr Castile’s deaths, three others were killed by the police. Five had been killed the day before Mr Sterling was shot, and six have been killed since Mr Castile’s death. Of these, seven carried firearms (which does not always imply an intent to shoot), three carried knives, four have been assigned an ‘unknown’ status regarding any weapons they may or may not have carried, one was unquestionably unarmed, and one is filed as having used his car against the police by driving it towards them — in which case it is natural to shoot at the tyres, not at the driver.
As of July 2016, The Guardian’s webpage dedicated to police killings reported in the US has more entries than festivals in a Hindu calendar. It is alarming that 569 people have been killed this year alone, as of the time of publishing this article. 569 people in 192 days. Pick a bunch of random entries and you will find most of them are black or Hispanic, a few are white, and nearly all are men. And almost every single case is marked as being ‘under investigation’.
There is no doubt that police killings are on the rise and it is a matter of concern. Looking at the videos of Messrs Sterling and Castile, the cops in each case look more like panicky, eighty-year-old nervous wrecks who accidentally pulled the trigger thanks to the sheer excitement of having a gun in their hands. As if they did it just because they could.
Extreme right wing publications like The Daily Wire work unusually hard to give readers a distorted picture of the statistics, claiming that reports of unreasonable killings by police are molehills presented as mountains. Their main argument is that more white people are killed than are black people. Vox reports in agreement that 52% of victims are white and 31% are black. However, only 13% of the population is black and 63% is white, which is what makes the count of black victims disproportionately high.
The Daily Wire goes on to quote political commentator, Heather Mac Donald, who once pointed out in a Hillsdale College publication that this is to be expected since crime rates are higher among black communities. Ms Mac Donald is a known secular conservative who has views in line with Donald Trump and problems with everything from teachers to immigration, and she omits a key context in her statement (and in her article which carries no citations whatsoever despite the numerous statistics presented). Black communities are more densely populated, warranting heavier policing and in turn more frequent arrests. For example, consider a recent Human Rights Watch report that showed that, although similar rates of drug use exists between blacks and whites, black people are arrested at a rate 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white people in proportion to their population.
There are other ridiculously unrelated statistics used to make a case justifying the nature of police killings including ‘blacks are more likely to kill cops than be killed by cops’, and ‘black and Hispanic police officers are more likely to fire a gun at blacks than white officers’ (once again, the fact that they fired a gun does not mean they killed someone).
The first problem is that police are not prosecuted for use of force, which means they often see no need to justify their actions or show any form of accountability. The second is that police in America are increasingly being given unusually free access to military gear that they will likely never need in a civilian environment. And when you give kids new toys, they will definitely play with them. ‘There’s a general sense that many law enforcement officers now see themselves as a soldier force more than a community force,’ says lawyer Mary Anne Franks of the University of Miami. ‘Our research has shown that law enforcement will show up and use it all the time even when it doesn’t call for it.’
In the face of increasingly damning evidence pointing to racial bias in arrests and unjustifiable attacks against civilians, Bill Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, explained that there has to be concern for cops, and that ‘because of the job, because of the uniform… [they’re] being targeted.’ At least Mr Johnson and his colleagues can take their uniforms off; black people cannot peel their skin off at will. Besides, as many excellent and noble cops as they may be, the order of society, for good or worse, is that when a considerable number of rotten cops make themselves shown, fingers are pointed at the entire police force. And nobody but the police can set themselves right.
A good place to start would be the beginning: around the early 1800s Sir Robert Peel, in the British parliament, passed the ‘Metropolitan Police Act’, giving rise to the police forces of today, present all over the world. The idea, besides setting up a professional police force, was to define the manner in which policing worked. Specifically, how it is not like a military company but rather works by consent. The UK government recently released an official statement of Sir Peel’s nine principles of policing. In brief —
- Prevent crime and disorder instead of legally punishing or militaristically repressing it.
- Secure public trust and respect because police power arises from the public’s approval of their existence.
- Coöperate with the public in protecting laws.
- Recognise that the more physical force used the less likely it is that public coöperation can be secured.
- Preserve public favour through impartial service and friendship regardless of an individual’s wealth or social standing.
- Use minimum physical force to secure coöperation after considerable persuasion, advice, and warning are all found to be in vain.
- Recognise that the police are merely the public who are paid to give full time attention to community safety and welfare.
- The police are an executive body who should never usurp the powers of the judiciary by judging guilt or innocence or avenging either individuals or the state.
- The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action.
It is remarkable how valid these rules are today, especially in an age when nearly half of them have been violated. The recent sniping against police in Dallas during a peaceful protest against police racism forced the movement to take several steps back. The attack was horrific, unwarranted and undid everything peaceful movements like Black lives matter have stood for. It hurt more than helped make a statement for police reform and gave a trump card to the likes of Rush Limbaugh who have labelled the movement as a ‘terrorist organisation’, and of course Ms Mac Donald who goes on about an alleged ongoing ‘war on cops’ — the number of cops dying in the line of duty has actually been decreasing as reported by the BBC recently, based on official FBI statistics.
While the push for police reforms and for bridging the gap between the public who are cops and the public who are various things other than cops is the need of the hour, and while it has seen an obstacle in the form of a Black Power extremist with a misguided zeal, the movement itself is not in threat. Police reforms will come even if they come late; they should be pressed for non-violently, which should have been obvious already, and in any case reforms should come before America becomes a military state from the inside out.
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