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by Kitty Testa
A recent video featuring Black Lives Matter activist, Janaya Khan, advances a revolutionary notion: abolish the police. While most people’s immediate reaction to such a statement is to dismiss it as ludicrous on its face, it provides an interesting challenge to a generally accepted viewpoint. Ask your average person whether police help or harm society, and most will—without thinking—state that law enforcement is more beneficial than not, that police are generally good and trustworthy, and that without a police force we would be at the mercy of murderers and thugs.
But is that true?
Even to suggest that police are problematic is heretical to many flag-waving Americans. They love their cops—blue lives matter, and all that jazz. But most of these people have never found themselves on the wrong end of a Taser, and they sincerely believe that if you were hurt by a cop, you must have done something wrong.
It’s simply a fact that interactions with the police can go deadly wrong for innocent people. Philandro Castile is a perfect example of a police officer’s rush to judgment (Castile got the death penalty). Jeronimo Yanez, a police officer in St. Anthony, MN, pulled 32-year-old Castile over on July 6, 2016 for a broken tail light. Castile had a concealed carry permit, and like a good citizen, he notified Yanez that he was armed. Yanez opened fire, despite the fact that there was a four-year-old in the back seat. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, made the story national news by live-streaming the event on Facebook. Yanez was charged with second degree manslaughter in November, and pleaded not guilty to the charge last month.
Imagine, for a moment, how Yanez’s fate would have been different had Reynolds not live-streamed the killing. The case would have followed a predictable course: the officer claims the victim was armed and threatened him and the officer shot in self-defense. Charges would never be filed against the police officer. Game over, on to the next one.
People often wonder why police are not held accountable when they harm citizens. The motivation is largely economic. If the government charges the police officers, the victims will sue, and it will cost the government money. There is no gain in it for them, and they are incentivized to cover up misdeeds by cops.
For those who have been harmed by the police, or who have seen their loved ones tragically killed in a rush to judgment, the police are the enemy. They’re just as—if not more—frightening than the bad guys the police are allegedly protecting them from.
Yet it’s not just police shootings that make law enforcement problematic. The number of Americans in jail or prison has swelled dramatically in the last 35 years. In 1980, there were about a half of a million people incarcerated in the U.S. In 2013, that figure was over 2.2 million, with another 4.75 million on probation or parole. Nearly all of these incarcerations began with police contact. Many of the incarcerated are awaiting trial because they just can’t afford to make bond. Others are imprisoned for life because of the three-strikes law. Others, still, are wrongfully convicted. Over 2,000 convictions have been overturned in the last few decades and the total aggregated time served behind bars for those prisoners is 17.5 thousand years. Many convictions are the result of false confessions elicited by police officers using psychological tactics. But for those who do not have DNA or other hard evidence to prove their innocence, they’re just casualties of our justice system.
The police have become militarized in both hardware and tactics. In 1980 there were about 3,000 SWAT raids, yet now they number 80,000 per year, mostly targeting private homes. Many of the raids are for alleged drug violations. Some are raids in search of people who didn’t show up for court. Such aggressive law enforcement alienates the populace. Alienate them enough, and they’re going to start proposing ludicrous things like abolishing the police.
While abolishing the police is simply not feasible, we still desperately need reforms to make policing less hostile toward citizens. In 2014, Rep. Hank Johnson (D) introduced a bill to stop the Department of Defense from equipping local police forces with military hardware, but the bill did not become law. In 2015, President Obama issued an executive order to stop the practice after the uproar caused by heavily armed police in combat vehicles in Ferguson, MO during protests against the shooting of Michael Brown. But taking away their toys will not change policing as we know it.
The amount and quality of training that police officers receive also contributes to the character of modern policing. It takes an average of 19 weeks to complete training at a police academy. By contrast, it takes a minimum of eight months to complete cosmetology school and get a license to cut hair. Yet, the peace officer is often given a side arm, a club, a Taser, a squad car and a beat after what amounts to one semester of schooling. While many police departments offer additional training on the job, the brief stint at the police academy can’t possibly prepare an officer for the myriad of situations likely to occur when officers venture out into the community.
Drug prohibition also contributes to more policing, and more bad policing. Got Adderall? Better carry a prescription bottle or you’ll be spending a night in jail. Smell of pot coming from your window? Probable cause—Open up! Police! Is that a pipe in your pocket? Let me see your ID. Drug prohibition is the invitation that creates excessive contact between citizens and the police, and that contact can go awfully awry.
Law enforcement would be greatly improved if it developed a culture that weeded out the bad apples. In early September of 2015, the small community of Fox Lake, IL was shocked by the apparent murder of a local police sergeant, Joseph Gliniewicz, known affectionately as “G.I. Joe.” Because I live nearby, I was able to observe what can only be described as mass hysteria about the “cop killer” on the loose. The story made national headlines, with Fox News running with a narrative of a “war on cops.” Trees all along the roads were decked out in blue ribbons. The citizenry lined up to view his funeral procession. People mourned and cried. The local police forces maintained manhunts around the clock for several days. But it was all fake. G.I. Joe committed suicide because Fox Lake’s village manager was on to his misdeeds. Not only did he kill himself, but he attempted to frame three innocent people for his death. If police departments policed themselves, guys like Joseph Gliniewicz wouldn’t last on the job.
Black Lives Matter views all issues through a lens of race, and that is a shame. While minorities may be disproportionately victims of police misconduct, it’s not a private club. You don’t have to be poor or be a minority to have your civil rights trampled on by someone with a badge. We are all stake-holders in our justice system, and demanding reasonable reforms and positive changes to policing are goals that we should share, and work together to achieve.