Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes: The Necessity Of Police Accountability In The Wake Of Tragedy

In the wake of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, respectively, the American public and its institutions have once more entered into the necessary and painful conversation about police brutality, especially as it relates to the treatment of African American men and women. In 2015, police officers killed 102 unarmed black men (nearly two weekly), and 285 African Americans, overall. As of July 7, police have killed 509 men and women, 123 of whom were black. That this is an epidemic is undeniable. That this is an epidemic that has persisted for far too long is not up for debate. In 1892, statistically the worst year for the lynching of black Americans in this nation's history, 161 men and women fell prey to this racial violence. Police killings surpassed this in 2015, and are on track to do so again this year. Even counting the killing of only unarmed African Americans, the yearly average of people slain (roughly 39) lines up neatly with the number of lynchings under Jim Crow, before its abolition in 1965.

When faced with these statistics, many white Americans default to denial (some will point out that technically more white Americans than black Americans are killed by police, failing to acknowledge that relative to the size of these populations within the United States, the rate of African Americans killed is over two times higher). They ignore the information presented, and make a beeline to defend American police officers. Countering the message of the activists of Black Lives Matter, many will chant "Blue Lives Matter," as though criticism of law enforcement somehow entails a devaluation of their safety. Putting aside the fact that it has never been safer to be a police officer in America (the death toll of the officers killed in Dallas -- five -- is the highest number of police casualties in a single day since September 11th), the BLM movement has not called for the killing of police officers. That we are at a point where we confuse pleas for accountability with demands for some sort of slaughter simply demonstrates how muddled our understanding of the role and powers of our law enforcement has become.

Unfortunately, police are not helping. In the wake of Eric Garner's death two years ago and the killing of two police officers that followed, officers in the NYPD turned their backs on New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio during one of their comrade's funeral. Repeatedly, concerned Americans have seen police chiefs refuse to acknowledge the possibility for racism and abuse of power in their departments. They have witnessed the silencing of witnesses and protestors, by officers dressed for the battlefield. They have witnessed the callous, unselfconscious circling of the wagons. If police are hoping that this will restore American faith in their ability to do their jobs, they are sorely mistaken. Rather, that departments take the killings of black men as an opportunity to stonewall press and politicians only reinforces that this arm of the American legal system has major issues, that there is something rotten in Denmark.

You would be hard pressed to find American citizens who will tell you that all police are evil, that the entire profession is a den of violence and racial bias. The reason that Gallup reported that U.S. confidence in its police forces is the lowest it has been in 22 years is not that there is a sense that police are uniformly worthless or brutal. It is that in those instances where individual officers or departments display cruelty, bias, and brutality, these institutions seem completely unconcerned with examining the role these tragedies play in the nature of law enforcement, much less making any marked change.

Welcome to the so-called "Blue Wall of Silence", the tendency for police officers to defend their own, no matter the circumstances. Welcome to the unwillingness to sanction officers who may have violated their place in society in any way that demonstrates an awareness of the severity of their actions. Welcome to American law enforcement's self-righteous tendency to shoot first, ask questions later, and then shoot itself in the foot when the time for real discussion comes around.

On July 6, Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg had words with a police officer who called into his show to defend the slaughter of Alton Sterling, addressing this very issue. "Until you guys start taking responsibility for your own, people in the street are going to be upset instead," Rosenberg argued. "How about, police officers get out in front of it themselves, and you guys are the first ones on the front lines? That's what should happen! Instead of you struggling to say, 'Well, I don't know, it could be...' They murdered that man. We just saw it."

Rosenberg is absolutely correct. If police are interested in restoring American faith, they need to start taking steps to earn it. Departments need to make a concerted effort to emphasize de-escalation techniques, to educate their officers about racial bias, and to do outreach to the communities that police officers have wronged. On a segment for Comedy Central's The Daily Show, host Trevor Noah directed viewer attention to a situation in which police did just this. When Las Vegas law enforcement became aware of the potential for bias and brutality in 2011, they -- through acknowledgement and training -- were able to decrease the number of police shootings in the city by 36 percent.

Because not only will departments that fail to self-examine continue to lose the faith of the citizens they are sworn to protect, they will only further increase the likelihood that they find themselves with more blood on their hands. Writing for Vox, former police officer Redditt Hudson, suggested that in any given police department, 15 percent of officers will make an effort to act consistently correctly and professionally; 15 percent will act however they please, enacting their own prejudices to the detriment of their communities; and the remaining 70 percent will succumb to whatever the culture of their force trends towards. That means that law enforcement that doesn't self-police is only deepening the racial issues present among officers, police that don't speak out against the officers who abuse their position are only encouraging other officers to act similarly. They are facilitating the violence that they should be defending citizens from. And while it may be heartening to see the disciplining or dismissal of officers who engage in such unabashed racism as Snapchatting photos of themselves using images of African Americans as target practice, the predominant form of racism in departments will always be far more subtle and insidious, flaring up in instances of horrible bloodshed.

The sum of this culture of inter-departmental bias is what savaged and swallowed Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and now Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. By choosing to cover their asses instead of doing the necessary and difficult work of reorganizing and revolutionizing their protocols, police departments have left voids in countless families, and are all but guaranteeing the deaths of hundreds more. Instead of seeing their own failures and responding with the sort of action that might constitute "Never Again," American police are offering defensive, dishonest, and unconvincing excuses that amount to little more than a terrifying, "Until Next Time."

Both Trevor Noah and his predecessor Jon Stewart worked hard to do away with the notion that you have to be either anti-black or anti-cop. The heroism of both officers and protestors in Dallas illustrates that these two communities are not inherently at odds with one another and, should, truly be looking for the same thing. Rather than trying to explain why the body cameras failed, or why the video doesn't tell the whole story; rather than dredging up a victim's background, legal history, or Facebook hand gestures; rather than confiscating legally recorded footage of arrests, intimidating witnesses, throwing innocent mothers into detention after they've watched their loves killed before their eyes; rather than acting like there is somehow something that We the People just will never understand about effective policing or the nature of our own rights, why don't American police effectively carry out the promises they swore to uphold? The power of that badge only comes from the faith and the trust of the people, and trust needs to be earned.

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