Saturday, July 9, 2016

No meaningful consequences for bad cops puts good cops at risk

Lest anyone think I'm being anti-police in the text that follows, an important proviso is in order.

The vast majority of police officers, to the absolute best of my knowledge, carry out their duties with professionalism, compassion, and a genuine desire to make a positive difference in their respective communities. I grew up knowing several police officers who lived on my street, and I knew them all as honorable people. (I was friends with some of their sons and daughters, and so I had gotten to know them somewhat well over the span of multiple decades.)

My own direct experiences with law enforcement, either when I was (potentially) in the wrong or needed assistance, has almost always been at least courteous, and often friendly, even when I was in the process of being charged with a moving violation or parking infraction. (The one exception was an officer in Toronto who chose to act like a power-tripping jackass in response to an innocent and unassuming question from Yours Truly regarding a ticket he had just handed me. This, however, was just him having either a rotten personality or a bad day. No big deal.)

The police have a job to do that is as important as it is dangerous. Our society should show them the due respect and admiration they deserve. And for that very reason, however, the system they serve must dole out meaningful punishments to those who dishonor their badge and uniform with conduct that any reasonable person - including their fellow officers - would find reprehensible.

With the chaos in the United States that has erupted since the point-blank shooting death of Alton Sterling at the hands of policemen who already had him pinned down, an aftermath that has gone on to also include officers who were gunned down in Dallas while protecting protestors, it's easy for people to fall into all-or-nothing frames of mind.

"The police are anti-black racists!" 
"Black Lives Matter is an anti-police movement!"

The problem with that sort of simplistic thinking is that it creates a false binary – the police are certainly not some state-sanctioned branch of the Ku Klux Klan, and not all blacks are out to gun down officers.

However (and this is a huge however), no white person can presume to fully understand the persecution blacks have suffered historically and into the current era. While there are some whites who face dire economic circumstances and the diminished efficacy that goes with such a state of affairs, most of us go through life armed with what Utah Phillips (by way of his mentor, Ammon Hennacy) referred to as “the weapons of privilege”. As such, we become so acclimatized to our good fortune that we forget that this isn't the same experience for others, or perhaps we willingly enter into a state of denial regarding the ongoing reality of black oppression by the state because it threatens the North American version of the 'classless society' myth. (We prefer our oligarchy with egalitarian window dressing, thank you very much!)

At the same time, while I find the idea of targeting the police for violence or worse completely offensive, it cannot be denied that those in law enforcement stand on the more advantageous side of the power balance. In essence, they are the state, and so when they pull a gun, lift a club or give the taser a few test zaps before using it on another human, they do so with the full blessing of the establishment. Moreover, and partly because of this advantage, they should (ideally) be held to a higher standard than the average person, and face harsh consequences when they fall egregiously short of that standard.

Unfortunately, in so many instances where it appears excessive brute force has been used against blacks at a level we virtually never see used against non-blacks (peaceful anti-globalization protestors notwithstanding), there just never seems to be any kind of punishment for the offending officers other than a few weeks of paid vacation leave. Conversely, there never seems to be any resulting deterrent against repeats of said incidents. Exacerbating this situation is the sense of denial among mainstream law enforcement personnel when they hoist signs on social media emblazoned with #BlueLivesMatter, which has always struck me as a tone deaf response to the reality of unpunished state violence directed at a particular ethnic minority. It's as if they'd like us to simply forget the incidents (and resulting sense of grave injustice) that trigger such public unrest.

The upshot is that if I were a black man living in America, I would indeed feel like my people were being hunted by the police, and would have absolutely no reason to doubt that the system was complicit in its refusal to hand down any meaningful punishments to the very few 'bad apples' of law enforcement.

And so because of the very respect and admiration I feel for police officers who do their jobs with maximum dedication to doing right by their fellow citizens, and also because of a profound sense of heartbreak at the prospect of yet another black man being murdered by those who otherwise have no business wearing a badge and uniform, there needs to be real and meaningful consequences for those who are damaging the law enforcement brand (and thus putting their more professional brothers' and sisters' lives at risk) with such dangerously offensive misconduct.

As for the rank and file who truly care, perhaps there is an opportunity for healing the community the next time they pose for Twitter pics if, despite all that has happened, they let down their guard and hold signs simply affirming that #BlackLivesMatter.