IT’S NOT JUST RACISM THAT BREED POLICE BRUTALITY
It’s not only racism that’s behind the recently documented cascade of violent police abuse cases in the United States. There’s a kind of attitudinal fascism that’s at work in police departments across the country as well. Cops don’t violently abuse you just because you are black or brown (although that sure as hell is a factor). Cops are prone to use unnecessary excessive force because they function in a culture of authoritarian brutality. They have the gun. They have the badge. They have the legal “authority” to do just about whatever they want to do.
Sure, there are rules (and laws) that proscribe certain police actions, but rules don’t always get in the way of what cops do. The rules – the “police policy guidelines” as the bureaucratic jargon describes them – are not always adhered to, obviously.
Is it that all cops are inherently bad guys? Of course not. Many – I would hope most – do their job responsibly. And it is a tough job; no dispute there. They face risks all the time. But that’s why it’s imperative that they follow the rules when it comes to the use of excessive force.
You don’t shoot to kill a kid with a toy gun until you investigate carefully. You don’t break a guy’s neck just because you think he’s some kind of trouble-maker. You don’t choke a guy to death just because you don’t like the guy. You don’t pull out your gun and shoot a guy in the back (and kill him) just because he’s darting away from you.
As if we needed any more evidence about the recent spate of caught-on-camera brutality by police in this country, none other than the United Nations in mid-May condemned the United States for its violent belligerence. The report by the United Nations Human Rights Council excoriated the police and the government, citing the recent killings of African American men and boys and its institutionalized social and political violence against indigenous people.
Every day, it seems, we’re getting more and more evidence of violent and brutal repression by police. On May 6 of this year the city of Chicago passed a law to eventually provide monetary reparations to survivors of “racially motivated police torture committed between 1972 and 1991.” Cops were found to have systematically used torture – including electric shock, beatings and chocking in order to get crime suspects “to talk.” And, as detailed in a well-documented book by Beth Ritchie, “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America’s Prison Nation,” it is clear that “police officers can be killers but they can also be rapists.” There have been hundreds of cases of cops stopping women and promising to “let them go free” if they submit to sexual assault. “To protect and to serve” indeed.
The statistics are mind-boggling. In this year alone in the United States more than 300 people (mostly black and Latino) have been killed by police. Some use the phrase “murdered by police.”
And there is a revealing disjuncture in how white Americans view police brutality and how African Americans (no wonder) look at that issue. A recent survey by the YouGov Poll showed that, by a margin of 41 to 34 per cent white Americans believe police treat blacks the same way they do whites. African Americans, by a margin of 76 to 13 per cent said they are treated unfairly by police. No surprise there.
But back to the point. Racism is a factor, but a Gestapo-like police culture of disregard for “the other” is equally at work.
I was a street reporter for 30 years in Los Angeles. I covered city hall and politics in general and a variety of other types of stories. But I spent a lot of years – as all reporters must – covering crime stories. Spending time watching cops and how they behave. Learning about how they are trained. Observing how they become socialized within a specific fascist-like culture, with an “us against them” point of view. And that’s a key element in all of this. Perspective. Attitude.
Police in this country divide the world into two camps: cops vs. everybody else. All of us who are not cops are not perceived as citizens, taxpayers, human beings. No, we are potential lawbreakers. We are bad guys just waiting to test the limits of a cop’s authority. We are scum; whether we wear a suit and tie or whether we wear ridiculously baggy hip-hugging pants with our boxer shorts exposed, we are the bad guys. That’s how cops look at us.
I remember being on a story several years ago in a relatively wealthy neighborhood of Los Angeles, a place with manicured lawns and swimming pools. Three or four cop cars with flashing lights had parked in front of an elegant house. An African American gentleman drives up in his brand new BMW. (It turned out, he was a medical doctor and he lived in the neighborhood.) He got out of his car and asked a fresh-faced LAPD cop, “What’s going on here?” The cop barked at the man: “Get back in the goddamned car!” The gentleman refused. The cop shouted: “Who the hell do you think you are?” I was watching this a few feet away, my press pass clearly visible so the cop didn’t bother me. I was waiting for the man’s answer. He yelled back at the cop: “I’m the man who pays your salary.”
I immediately said to myself, “Wrong answer.”
Sure enough, the young cop pulled out his gun, cussed at the guy, made him assume the position over the hood of the car, clasped the handcuffs on him and shoved him into the patrol car. A minor incident, I concede, but a clear example of the attitude of the cops toward scum citizens. Cops do not consider themselves “public servants.” They consider themselves the rightful keepers of order in a crime-ridden universe and whatever they do is justified.
I’ve observed cops in London, up close. They certainly are not perfect, but they are generally mindful of the fact that they are, indeed, public servants. (And they don’t routinely carry guns.)I saw a constable politely ask pedestrians watching a political demonstration to step back onto the sidewalk. “Please, sir, take a few steps back, would you?”
I’ve seen LAPD cops in similar situations holler at pedestrians: “Get back on the fuckin’ sidewalk, damn it.” A small thing. Maybe. But it points out a different perspective that comes from a different culture. Police in Britain evolved from a legacy different from that of cops in the USA. (But don’t praise British police in front of your Irish friends.)
I’ve seen cops operate in Spain, up close. Generally, they are not polite. They’ve been nurtured by a cultural legacy that emerged from Franco’s infamous Guardia Civil.
But this is all just anecdotal, you say. But there’s plenty of hard evidence to back up the fact that violent police abuse is rampant and obviously damaging to a democratic republic.When taken to extremes that militaristic, authoritarian attitude by cops in the United States leads to the use of excessive force. And it can lead to the death of innocent, unarmed individuals. Oh, and if you’re black or brown the likelihood of something such as that happening is increased. It’s racism and a kind of fascism. All a cop has to say is: “I feared for my safety.” Then he believes he’s justified in becoming judge, jury and – regrettably – executioner. Often because of a suspected misdemeanor infraction. Spitting on the sidewalk shouldn’t be a capital crime that merits execution on the spot.
Unwarranted beatings and shootings by police have gone on desde el año del caldo. The difference between then and now is that cameras are ubiquitous. Look over your shoulder as you walk down the streets of L.A. or Chicago or New York. You’ll see closed circuit cameras everywhere. And, of course, practically everyone now has a cell phone that includes a video camera. We’re just getting more documentation of an ongoing behavior, that’s all.
And cameras can make a difference, on several levels. As we’ve seen in the last few months, cameras can capture abuse police behavior. (But wait till you see the police brass spin what the camera reveals: who are you going to believe, me or your own two eyes?)
There’s a move now to have cops wear body cameras. That can help. And there’s evidence of that. A few years ago the Oakland Police Department was forced to make all officers wear cameras on their uniforms. (The cameras are about the size of computer thumb drive.) Statistically, the Oakland Police historically had a huge number of annual “excessive use of force” complaints. After five years of having cops wear body cameras, something very interesting happened. Guess what? The statistics showed that the number of complaints (and presumably the actual number of incidents) of excessive use of force went way down.
Cameras and other technological innovations may help reduce the level of police abuse. I’m not too sure about that, but it might help. At least cops might think twice about what they do, knowing it’s on Candid Camera.
But the real solution to police abuse has to do with changing the culture of the cops. The training has to change so that Constitutional behavior prevails. But the culture and the attitudes have to change inside the station house. And that’s difficult to accomplish. But it certainly needs changing. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.
Let’s say a rookie cop comes onto the force with the very best intentions. He (or she) wants to contribute to the common good. Genuinely wants to help people. Wants to be a “good cop.” It won’t be easy for that earnest, sincere cop. The clubby socialization process begins right away at the station house. You gotta go along to get along.
Time after time, cops who report “bad cop” behavior to their superiors quickly find out that they are ostracized by their fellow cops. It prevents them from moving up the ranks. They are considered “rats” by their colleagues. Soon, they become like the other cops, going out of their way to show how tough they are in dealing with the scum citizens on the street. That goes for black cops and Latino cops who become eager to prove they are just as “tough” as the other cops. Soon they adopt the mantra of “No cop speaks ill of another cop.” No matter how egregious the behavior of the abusive or dishonest cop. Tough to break that cycle.
I’ve said it before in this space. One idea might help. Make a college degree a requirement for becoming a cop. Right now, all you need is decent health, no criminal record and a G.E.D. to become a well-paid police officer in a big city. Hey, I realize a college degree – in and of itself – is no guarantee that you’ll get a better candidate, but it couldn’t hurt. (I know lots of pendejos who have college degrees.) But you’d be drawing from a different pool of candidates – candidates with some smarts, maybe some maturity and maybe a better perspective than the perspective of a junkyard dog.
There are other approaches to changing the pit bull culture of the cops. They should all be explored. Otherwise, we’re going to keep watching video after video of African Americans and Latinos (and others) being unjustly beaten and shot by those who are sworn to “serve and protect.”
Luís Torres is working on a book about the legacy of celebrated East Los Angeles calculus teacher Jaime Escalante. Torres is the author of the book “Doña Julia’s Children.”
Book covers and LAPD Academy photo are used under the “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other photos are in the public domain or are copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, inc.