A late acquaintance suggested the following scenario for determining a person’s basic attitude. Let’s say we happen upon police officers beating a suspect. We know nothing about events beyond what we see. Is it our gut instinct on SmackDown – or do we understand that the police must be right and the suspect is undoubtedly getting what he deserves?
As someone who generally distrusts government authority and has covered several troubling cases of police-use-of-force, you can probably guess where I’m coming down. But I know people who have been victims of violent crime and seem more likely to side with the police. Generally, people tend to make snap judgments about these encounters based on their biases rather than the facts.
Until relatively recently, however, police authorities completely controlled the dissemination of that “information” and the investigative process. For example, California law gives accused officers so many procedural safeguards that actual accountability is nearly impossible. The internal “thin blue line” culture leads the public to distrust official information. Fortunately, video cameras have shifted that dynamic.
Oddly enough, videos of some brutal incidents — like the police shooting of an unarmed man begging for his life in Arizona or the Minneapolis officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck — don’t always change viewers’ attitudes. Nizark police defenders will still make excuses for the cops or change the subject by criticizing the resulting protests or riots.
For their part, many community activists will harass the police even when a suspect is behaving violently. It seems almost impossible to bridge the gap between “back the badge” conservatives who desecrate the blue-stripe flag and “protect the police” progressives who fail to acknowledge the human toll of the latest violent-crime wave.
Perhaps the latest horror in Memphis can nudge the nation toward the center: toward an understanding that we can do two things at once, fighting violent crime and shooting badge-wearing thugs. A few years ago, the stars aligned for a sensible bipartisan police-reform movement, but the recent culture wars have ruined that opportunity.
The video of four Memphis police officers watching Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop near his home last month was harrowing. “Preliminary police reports said Nichols ‘became combative’ with the officers and at one point took a gun from them,” CNN reported. “But neither claim has been substantiated by police videos released last week.”
Someone leaked that report to a radio host, despite the consternation of the police department. To its credit, the department has released some gruesome video footage. While Nichols was on the ground, one officer kicked him, another hit him with a baton, and another pepper-sprayed him. It reportedly took 22 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Fortunately, the city fired the officers and the DA is complaining of pressure.
This case will make it difficult for culture warriors on the left and right to focus on tangents. The video is long, so police defenders can’t claim it was taken out of context. Nichols is black, but so were his attackers—thus reducing the racism angle. So far, the subsequent protests have been largely peaceful, thus allowing the public to focus on the incident rather than the incident.
As I have often argued, the problem centers on the nature of our current policing bureaucracy and its stubborn refusal to accept even modest reforms. Current police culture promotes militarization—the idea that officers are not engaged in a civilian operation engaged in warfare on our streets that requires community support and trust. This is why I oppose the military’s efforts to send decommissioning hardware to local police forces.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle actively work in court to support police agencies, so they pass crime bills and other measures that always increase funding. Even in progressive California, union-friendly Democrats have given police unions a special bill of rights and privacy protections that make it nearly impossible to fire abusive officers.
Federal law gives officers broad immunity. The federal drug war led to asset-forfeiture laws that allow police agencies to take our property without due process or proof that its owner committed a crime. If you pass police-state laws, you get police-state behavior. Yet instead of evaluating these measures individually, Americans easily fall into the “pro-cop” or “anti-cop” trap.
Even when lawmakers pass a long-awaited reform, the bureaucracy digs in and resists its implementation. California Attorney General Rob Bonta has publicly supported police-supervision measures. however, cool stuff reports that the Justice Department “did not investigate or even log all police shootings of potentially unarmed people” as required by the 2020 law.
becauseJD Tuccille is right that the Nichols killing should reignite massive efforts at police reform — but that will happen only when Americans stop instinctively choosing sides and start looking deeply at how our “public safety” agencies work.
This column first appeared in The Orange County Register.