Protesting Police Brutality: A Call for Real Reform

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The death of any innocent citizen at the hands of police officers is a moral travesty. Should officers’ use of deadly force be racially motivated, the ills of this already indefensible crime are compounded. In recent months, the issue of police brutality has been thrust into the national spotlight by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two African American victims of police brutality. Public outrage over these deaths, exacerbated by the subsequent decisions of grand juries not to indict the responsible police officers, has manifested itself in the form of nationwide mass demonstrations.

It is hard to disagree with the three primary messages of these protests. Firstly, black lives matter. There is no arguing with this. A black life is worth no less than any other human life, and the slightest suggestion to the contrary evokes disturbing images of the not-so-distant, violent racism of the 1960s.

Secondly, the justice system has failed to try and convict police officers who have killed black citizens. Proclaiming the martyrdom of these black men, protesters have denounced the justice system as impotent and unable to hold these officers accountable for their actions. Although reliable data are scarce and are complicated by the fact the use of lethal force is often justified, it is seemingly impossible to indict a police officer for an on-duty shooting. Politifact estimates that state prosecutors are successful in doing so only 3% of the time. In contrast, federal prosecutors successfully persuaded grand juries to charge alleged criminals in 99.993% (161,989 of 162,000) of cases in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available. This is admittedly comparing apples to oranges, at least to some extent. However, these data clearly show that prosecutors can nearly always obtain an indictment, except when police officers are involved. Police officers are not above the law and should be held to the same, if not higher, standards than the Americans they protect and serve. Sadly, those who abuse their power rarely face justice.

The largest and most worrisome takeaway from the protests, however, is that America’s police forces have clearly lost the trust of minority communities. Whether or not institutionalized racism exists, minorities perceive its presence. This alone is wholly unacceptable. In addition to creating a public policy nightmare—those who fear the police are unlikely to call for its help—this mistrust contradicts the core principles of democratic government. As Rousseau observed, government is foremost an “association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate.” When a large subset of this association no longer believes government is able or willing to defend and protect it, political instability is unavoidable.

The protests have successfully thrust these three clear messages into the national spotlight. There now exists a critical opportunity to implement meaningful reforms to the police as an institution. This chance must be seized immediately before the public inevitably and lamentably shifts its attention elsewhere. In order to accomplish as much as is possible in terms of reforming police practices, however, I would argue that reforms not be made essentially and explicitly in the name of race. I do not belittle or ignore the completely valid complaints of the black community. As stated above, I agree with its concerns and endorse its core beliefs. However, due to the growing calls for reform from the black community, civil libertarians, and young Americans, the protests can achieve greater reforms if the protesters adjust their strategies somewhat, thereby creating a more encompassing political coalition.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, calls to hold the police accountable for brutality will be far more successful if de-racialized. Doing so would help to garner broader support, even among those who deny the existence of institutionalized racism and oppression of minority groups in today’s day and age.

Although police brutality has emerged largely as a racial issue over the past several months, de-racialization should not be difficult. A simple leadership change would do much to increase protests’ bipartisan appeal. The presence of highly divisive figures at the helm such as Al Sharpton is counterproductive insofar as it discourages the participation of conservatives and moderates who would otherwise agree with the goals of protesters. Indeed, the Washington Post reported that dozens of protesters left a recent march against police brutality before Sharpton spoke.

In addition, there is no reason that protests should focus exclusively on black victims. Although it is quite probable that blacks are disproportionately brutalized (again, the lack of data makes this difficult to prove conclusively), ignoring other victims of police brutality damages the wider movement against police brutality. We seem to have forgotten entirely Cameron Redus, a white honors student killed by a campus police officer via a shot to the back. We neglect the story of Kang Wong, an 84-year-old Chinese-American who required hospitalization after being beaten by New York police officers for jaywalking. There is a disturbing disregard for the case of Andy Lopez, a thirteen-year-old Latino who was killed when a policeman mistook Lopez’s airsoft gun for an AK-47. Officers were not indicted in any of the above cases. Regardless of the race of the victim, therefore, police are often let off the hook for heinous crimes. Protesters outraged by police brutality should lament the suffering of victims of all races in order to gain more support outside of the black community who sympathize but currently feel excluded from the protests.

In addition to adopting these pragmatic considerations, protesters can also expand their ideological focus beyond calls for prosecution. The jailing of rogue officers will not, in and of itself, restore a healthy relationship between the police and minority communities. Instead, society must take numerous preemptive measures to change police culture and destroy the perception that police are unaccountable to the justice system.

As grand juries are reluctant to indict police officers on charges of murder, manslaughter, or battery, protestors should demand the creation of a new criminal charge called police brutality, which consists of any unreasonable use of physical force by an officer that leads to death or injury. By creating a uniquely tailored crime for police prosecution, the government could deliver a powerful message that officers should be held to extremely high standards and that any act of brutality, regardless of intent to kill, is utterly unacceptable.

Furthermore, protesters must continue to stress the need for body cameras on all police officers. While such advocacy was common in the immediate aftermath of Ferguson, these demands have waned. This is a common-sense reform that will not only protect the public by capturing irrefutable evidence of instances of brutality but will also help insulate officers from false allegations and senseless complaints.

Finally, protestors should also urge an end to police militarization, as it creates an army-like culture that both encourages excessive use of force and generates fear among the citizenry. Lawmakers should restrict or prohibit the sale of military surplus gear to local police departments. With the exception of SWAT teams, police officers have no need for grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms, and armored Humvees. Legislation forbidding police from purchasing such equipment will improve perceptions of the police (and encourage fiscal responsibility).

By emphasizing common-sense reforms and honoring the memories of brutality victims of all races, the de-racialization of protests and reform efforts will attract far more support and achieve more sweeping changes than if demonstrators restrict their focus to the relationship between police and black communities. Regardless of their successes, however, protests alone cannot fully restore minority faith in police departments. Legislative action is needed.

It is important also to remember that the overwhelming majority of police officers consists of trustworthy men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis because they truly wish to protect and serve their fellow citizens. Tales of police heroism—of police men and women going beyond even the high demands of public duty—are common, yet they rarely make as big a splash in the news since they represent the norm rather than the exception. Consider, for example, officers in Johnson City, Tennessee, who pooled their money to buy groceries and a hotel room for a homeless family rejected from a Salvation Army shelter. Recall the heartwarming video of a white officer who stopped his patrol to play football with a black child. Public recognition and commemoration of the actions of these exemplary officers are exactly what is needed to restore the balance of trust. By praising the good of the many police officers who serve us instead of exclusively condemning the minority of whom abuse their office, we will better appreciate the importance of having a police force that—on the whole—makes our country safe for its inhabitants.

Josh Zuckerman is a junior from Marietta, Georgia, and is majoring in the Politics Department. He is the Executive Editor for the Princeton Tory and can be reached at jrz@princeton.edu.

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