Police Brutality (1/2) My Thoughts

The cover image of this post is the Whiskey Rebellion Flag. It’s the banner associated with American heritage which I most closely identify with, and fly at my own house. The Whiskey Rebellion flag is perfect for communicating that I am proud of my country, but I strongly protest the direction it’s going as well as many actions our government has taken over the years. Unlike the Confederate battle standard and Gadsden Flag, which might theoretically convey the same position, it hasn’t been co-opted by segregationist and/or right-wing groups as well as their respective ideological baggage. It’s still unclaimed and open to adoption by individualists like myself.

I’ve been waiting to bust that particular sentiment out for awhile and this post seemed as appropriate as any.

My Feelings on American Police Officers

I want to see reforms come to pass so that police officers don’t kill, maim or otherwise brutalize people. I want there to be transparency and accountability so that if it does happen, and hopefully that’s as little as possible, justice can be done. I think those who wear the badge should be held to a higher standard as a trade-off for their authority, just the same as anyone entrusted with a position of power. I’m not saying it’s all cops who abuse their position of trust to mistreat the public, but it shouldn’t be an inflammatory statement to say that police brutality is a problem when it does occur. Nor should it be controversial, given the enormous body of evidence at our disposal, to say that this injustice happens more often than it ought to. I don’t understand why the very same skepticism which many of us freely apply towards government politicians and corporate executives is then somehow considered un-American when it’s directed at police officers. It’s not ungrateful to demand that an organization which holds the monopoly on use of force in our day to day lives be held accountable to the public. That’s the only sensible position there is, the only stance in keeping with the checks and balances which our country is founded on.

Of course the police can keep us safe from criminals too, but even those suspected wrongdoers have the Constitutional right to a presumption of innocence as well as a fair trial. In other words, it’s not okay for them to be brutalized much less summarily executed on the street solely at a cop’s discretion. We do not have a functional Constitution, at least not a Bill of Rights, if those divine endowments can be thrown out the window anytime a cop “smells weed” or “got scared” or whatever excuse they give for escalating to lethal force. Do the police have a right to keep themselves safe? Yes. But that doesn’t mean immediately resorting to lethal or otherwise unnecessary force when there are other options available. This is especially pertinent in cases where (and this is surprisingly common) the suspect was neutralized and posed no immediate threat. I can appreciate field work must be stressful and, at times, terrifying. But, if you’ll forgive my bluntness for a second…that’s the job you signed up to do of your own free will. If you can’t do that job without resorting to force against cooperative suspects of non-violent offenses, it’s possible that police-work isn’t the career path for you. I’m not saying the police need to be punching bags I’m saying deescalation should be the first resort, then force must only be applied as necessary to get the suspect in handcuffs.

Finally, let’s not forget the fact that good-natured, law-abiding people have to interact with cops sometimes too (for traffic violations and false accusations, etc). To sweep police brutality under the rug means putting your wife, brother, friend, or daughter at risk of crossing paths with a stressed out cop who may be unhinged and/or looking for a thrill after a bad day. Once again, I can appreciate that it must be a very stressful job but that doesn’t give anyone the right to take their frustrations out on innocent civilians whose only “crime” is whatever a power-tripping authority figure chooses to take offense to that day. I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to suggest that perhaps psychological evaluations, therapy and (if necessary) anger management courses should be part of the application, training process and regular “check-ups” every so often in a policeman’s career.

I do think that “good cops” exist in that many officers probably don’t go out of their way looking to hurt people. But those same “good cops” ought to have the morals and courage to stand up against their peers who are corrupt or mistreating suspects and the general public. Be a Frank Serpico, not a Tou Thao (the man who stood by while George Floyd was murdered by his partners.) The same way we expect members of the military to swear an oath to defend the Constitution against all threats foreign and domestic, so too should we expect cops to protect and serve the people against threats from inside as well as outside the police force itself.

The Troutman Flag, created during the struggle for Texan Independence and another lesser used banner that symbolizes American defiance against real or perceived tyranny.

Why the Protests Were Necessary

Now, this is the first time I’ve ever actively tackled an ongoing, hot-button issue on my blog so I’m not sure exactly how much flak I may get in the comments. But let me preemptively say this: just because I’m focusing on instances of police wrongdoing in this post doesn’t mean I support the rioting and looting going on in reaction to it. I do support protests to bring awareness to this very serious issue and while I don’t condone, I can understand why some of those protesters turned violent. In many instances, (including the demonstrations in my own city, which I personally attended,) things did not turn violent on the side of the people until they were agitated by overreactions from the police. On top of the that, it’s important to note that people have been frustrated with lack of progress on this problem for decades–in some cases, they’ve tried peaceful protest like kneeling during NFL national anthems and gotten unwarranted hate for that too. Lastly, with the context of the endless COVID-19 shutdown, its resultant unprecedented levels of unemployment, and the lack of meaningful government bailout for the least fortunate among us, people have been pushed to their limit. Desperate people with nothing to lose, who’ve seen time and again that the system doesn’t care about them, are understandably (if not always justifiably) going to lash out in less than commendable ways. In short, these protests are a very nuanced subject far more complicated than “cops good, protesters bad” or vice versa; everything’s a shade of gray.

Now with this two-part essay, I wanted to compile some notable instances of police brutality for the sake of posterity and visibility. This action isn’t a declaration of hatred for all cops nor is it a blanket agreement with everything the protesters are doing. That said, cards on the table, cops scare me. I’ve had bad experiences with them before, where they either ignored me when I needed them because of my lifestyle or else mistreated me because it was convenient. I have friends who’ve had bad run-ins with police too, including one whose phone was confiscated indefinitely because he filmed the cops that had pulled over his friend at a traffic stop. I’ve read countless stories over the years of police mistreating innocent people such that I worry when I see one coming. So prevalent are many people’s sense of reverence for law enforcement that sometimes when I express these concerns, my more fortunate friends/family who’ve yet to suffer a run in with “bad cops” suddenly treat me like I’m an un-American persona non grata. I would like anyone reading who may share their sentiments to understand that, for better or worse, this is a serious problem with a wider scope than they currently appreciate. Calling attention to this shouldn’t make one a bad person any more than demanding a corrupt government magistrate be voted out the next election.

This is not solely a race issue. It could be any of us who have the misfortune of running into a cruel or careless officer that knows he can get away with abusing us. That said, this problem disproportionately affects the African American community, at least in cases where deadly force was improperly resorted to. So, yes, all lives matter and that was never a point in contention. But all lives don’t matter until black lives matter too. As things are right now, black people are understandably feeling as though their safety isn’t valued and this shouldn’t be a point of controversy considering the body of evidence to support their concerns. So please, some of you, let’s not quibble about the name of the movement and instead focus on their very reasonable demands for police reform that would benefit all of us. We all want the same thing, safety from those who are supposed to make us feel safe. Let us remember this and stop letting the powers that be divide us along racial lines to our collective detriment. Real progress on this, and many other issues, could finally be at hand if we just work together.

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