Throughout much of 2014, the news has been dominated by the riots and protests generated over the death at the hands of a cop of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. These protests were exacerbated by the further deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Ezell Ford in Los Angeles. Add in the death of the young man with the pellet gun, and the memory of Trayvon Martin from
Florida a few years ago, and a lot of people in our country are questioning police brutality. Especially when Grand Juries seem to be unable to do anything as simple as just refer the matter to a courtroom. The police end up looking invincible and above the law.
My partner and I have had some brief discussions about this, which quickly end because it is so obvious that we are at polar opposites. I don’t trust most cops as far as I could pick one up and throw him, while my partner still seems to live under this fairy-tail umbrella of 1940’s propaganda that all cops hand out suckers and just want to help you get your cat out of a tree. Sometimes I think a lot of white people’s perception of how the police in this country work today was formed solely from watching old Dennis the Menace shows.
OK, that’s harsh and probably a bit over the top, but it’s why we don’t discuss it much. We have such different views. I’m not real sure how I formed mine, or why. I seem to be at odds with not only my partner, but likely most of my family as well.
I was part of the military establishment as a young man, my only negative experience with a cop was the ticket for a rolling stop around the corner from my house (I came to a full stop – this teen aged cop just had an agenda), but I think I do come from a much broader world view than my other half – having lived for a time on three of our continents. I still remember getting off ship at my very first port of call in 1979, in Spain, the city of Bilbao along the northern coast, and being completely flabbergasted at seeing the local police carrying assault rifles slung over their shoulders. It was my first exposure to the fact that the American Way was a bit different than what happens in other parts of the world.
The reality is that I am sure that most officers of the law want to do a good job and in fact would likely be horrified to think that someone thought of them as a “bad cop”.
The biggest problem I think stems from how our police are trained. Especially in the day since 9-11 when the Feds are handing out riot and assault gear like candy, local police are trained to provide maximum effect against “the terrorist.” And, the reality is that this anonymous terrorist has proved time and again to be just a kid from next door. The crazy people who shoot up schools and theaters turn out to be some ones next door neighbor who always appeared to be normal to those around him.
Yet, our police are trained to trust no one, to suspect that even the 88-year old granny walking across the street probably has an explosive cane or a .44 magnum tucked into her pantyhose. Our local law-enforcement people on the street have begun to police from a point of fear – where they fear the average citizen.
Toss in the ever present racism, which never went away – it just adopted nicer clothes and a better accent, and you can’t help but have these situations where the police end up making horrific mistakes and people, especially brown people, die.
While not yet approaching the level of the civil rights protests I recall from my childhood, the protests over these recent police acts are being sustained, and could grow to a point where society wakes up and some changes are made. I applaud our young people who devote time and energy to these protests. For so long I despaired that our current generation would never look up from their phone screens long enough to notice anything. Change only happens when people get passionate about something.
Our Grand Jury process needs an overhaul. They don’t work at all like a regular court process – the District Attorney is pretty much allowed to present whatever “evidence” he wants, without rebuttal, and with minimum standards of proof. Grand Juries are simply tools of a prosecutor and a holdover from medieval practices and should probably just go away. Let everything come to trial before a jury of peers.
Policemen have some protections that place a lot of their actions above the law, they are often given great leeway. I’m sure this evolved so that policemen don’t have to stop and think too long about whether or not they are violating someones rights while also trying to do their jobs, but perhaps we have gone a bit too far down that road.
There are too many cases where entire SWAT teams are being called out for routine events – in many cases simply because there is a SWAT team, they have all this equipment, and it needs to be used to be justified. It’s like swatting a fly with an atomic bomb and should stop.
Add in the fact that any involvement with the police can be very costly and it gets worse. Even if you think you don’t deserve that ticket you just got, in order to protest it, you have to take time off work, hire a lawyer, devote hours to a legal process that many of us barely understand and most of us just don’t think it’s worth our time. We pay the fine and move on. Most of the people who deal with police as a daily part of their lives simply don’t have the resources to fight back. Add in the training our police get today with the natural over-abundance of macho ego that a lot of cops carry around and people are afraid. We should not be afraid of the people we hire to protect us, but the simple truth of the matter is that it is a system spoiled by those few bad apples in the bunch.
Yet, the biggest problem we still have in this country is simply racism. It’s the giant bug under the rug that no one wants to talk about. Being born and raised in the south, with a bushel basket of redneck relatives, I know first hand that racism in many parts of our society is not really much better than the old Jim Crow days. Lynchings may have stopped, but there are plenty of people in the south, including some of my own family, who are at the very least uncomfortable in the presence of people of color. Some of my family and extended friends of theirs openly still use the “n” word. This simply isn’t healthy to our society – we can’t move backwards or tread water in one spot – America is increasingly brown, and we haven’t been “The Greatest” anything for a couple of decades.
I have no answers. But, I do know that if I have a choice, I will avoid cops. I’ll turn off a street early, I’ll go around a block, I’ll stop and wait and let them pass. I’d just as soon not interact with them at all. I don’t trust them and it’s their fault. For the most part, cops are the new school bullies, except there isn’t anyone to complain too and the stakes are a lot higher, especially if you are brown.