What happens when police officers aren’t prosecuted
The city of Ferguson came to national and international attention after the killing of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a police officer in 2014. While this shooting did not bring about a prosecution of this officer, it did spark a systematic review of the police by the Department of Justice. The final report from the DOJ, issued in 2015, is a blistering condemnation of the police department of Ferguson. It found that officers routinely, and as a matter of culture, “expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority.” It went on to say that the police “are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence.” It elaborates that police should take civilian complaints of officer misbehavior more seriously. Clearly, this kind of action by the state violates our most sacred laws, and so DOJ rightly used litigation to control the behavior of police in Ferguson, including independent monitoring in the future.
In 1994, criminologist William Chambliss conducted a study called by doing ride-alongs with police officers in the Washington, D.C. rapid deployment unit. Some of the things that police officers said to Chambliss and his assistants during these ride-alongs were shocking. In one case, the police broke into the home of a young suspect without a warrant. When the researcher asked the officer about the constitutionality of this action, he responded: “This is Southeast [Washington] and the Supreme Court has little regard for little shit like busting in on someone who just committed a crime involving drugs… Who will argue for the juvenile in this case? No one can and no one will.” On another occasion, an officer said to a researcher: “This is the jungle… We rewrite the Constitution every day out here.”
These situations in Ferguson and Washington, separated by two decades and 800 miles, are not isolated incidents. Instead, they are emblematic of a larger problem. Criminologist John Crank was the first to describe police as being an institution which is “loosely coupling” with broader society. This imlplie the police don’t want to be interfered with or have their authority questioned. Since Crank wrote about this idea in 1994, it’s been supported by numerous others who study police culture.
We are starting to see much more evidence of police misconduct, in large part due to the increased prevalence of cell phone video recordings. It’s a mistake to think that these represent a new problem, though. Now is just the first time that we can see these events with our own eyes.
Our criminal justice system largely works to protect officers. For the most part, investigations into police misconduct are carried out by the same law enforcement agencies that are implicated. Even if a complaint is corroborated by the investigation, the decision about what the consequences should be are left up to the department, which is often biased toward its members. Police unions fight to prevent civilian review boards from overseeing officers in a meaningful way.
There is one aspect of policing which is probably at the core of our national conversation more than any other: when police officers kill. In these situations, officers argue they are legally justified not by the actual threat presented, but by their own fear. This is particularly problematic when we consider the implications of race. Throughout our history, people of color have been depicted in our culture as dangerous, criminal and brutish.
This racialized dynamic is also clearly present in this election. In 2015, Donald Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In 1996, Hillary Clinton also used coded racial language, talking about a new class of juvenile “superpredators,” who must be “brought to heel.” Though Clinton has said she regrets her words, the rhetoric of both of these politicians harkens back to the 1915 film Birth of a Nation and its depictions of Black men as subhuman, violent and threatening to white women. Our society conditions police officers, and people in general, to be afraid of people of color and then justifies their use of force based upon this fear.
We must make radical change to the way that the police operate in this country. We can no longer allow officers to violate the law with impunity. While the DOJ can step in and intervene in some cases, this is a systemic problem and it seems that these systematic reviews only come after there have been gross, well-documented violations.
Carrying out this change requires more than simply passing a new regulation law. It requires a fundamental change in police culture, and the way that they relate to the people of this country. Police can often identify so strongly as “the good guys” that they begin to believe that their ends justify their means and that any regulation merely gets in the way. But by single-mindedly going after those we define as “criminals,” the police actually become them.
Taylor Ford is a fourth-year sociology major who does not want to be a police officer when they grow up. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.