As I went to bed last night I watched a video of Buffalo police knocking an elderly man to the ground unconscious and casually stepping over his motionless body as blood oozed out of his ear. When I woke up this morning the first thing I saw was video of Los Angeles police viciously beating peaceful protesters with batons and shooting projectiles at them in retaliation for simply speaking.
In the past few days I’ve watched police driving vehicles through crowds, open firing on journalists or people on their own property, and pushing over an elderly man with a cane who was simply walking down the sidewalk. A different elderly man. Yes, police have knocked down multiple elderly men.
Last week police in Louisville shot and killed a man named David McAtee who was simply operating his barbecue stand. Last weekend the police where I live, Columbus, Ohio, maced and knocked down a mother looking for her daughter, breaking her knee in four places. They also maced a sitting Congresswoman and other public officials.
Every day for the past ten days I’ve seen video of police indiscriminately beating, tear-gassing and macing protesters, almost always with no provocation and with no regard for the safety of anyone. In cities across the country, police have used curfews as a weapon. An excuse to arrest and brutalize protesters and, often, people with no connection to protests who are simply trying to go home. The videos, photos, and stories of people suffering from police violence or witnessing it first hand are too numerous to keep track of at this point.
Every officer involved in these unprovoked attacks on protestors or bystanders knows that there are dozens of smart phones pointed at them. They behave this way when they know people are watching. They think they have permission. Perversely, in many ways, they effectively do have permission. One can only imagine what they’re doing when they are confident no one is watching.
There will be some sort of response to this. And if history is any guide, those proposals will look a lot like this:
- Greater use of body cameras on police with stiffer penalties if they are deactivated;
- More “community policing” in which officers are embedded in the same areas, on foot, in an effort for them to forge a greater connection to the people they are tasked with serving;
- More and different kinds of police training;
- New or more powerful civilian review boards;
- Advocacy for the aggressive prosecution of rogue officers.
Almost all of these sorts of proposals will be ineffective. Indeed, in most cases, they’ll be counterproductive. Why?
- Body cameras and tightened body camera rules are pointless when police are, quite obviously, unafraid of being captured on video brutalizing people;
- Community policing initiatives have been utterly ineffective in doing anything they promise. They are used, primarily, as excuses for police chiefs to demand the hiring of even more police officers to fulfill community policing requirements, inflating head count and police budgets;
- Training has, clearly, done nothing to defuse police aggression and violence. If anything, training is used as an excuse whenever police violence occurs, with authorities claiming that it was simply poor training or a lack of training — as opposed to fundamentally unfit officers given permission and encouragement to act violently — that caused the violence;
- Civilian review boards are historically toothless and, as is the case with most bureaucracies, they quickly become captives of the police forces they are tasked with overseeing. In some cases, police handpick these boards themselves, further insulating themselves from scrutiny;
- Cops who commit crimes should be prosecuted, without question, but such prosecutions are rare, convictions are even rarer, and, at most, they single out one or two egregious cases and leave the vast majority of police violence unchecked. In so doing it allows police and their enablers to promote the “bad egg” theory, as if police violence is anomalous when, in fact, it is pervasive and systemic.
We know these things are ineffective because many of these reforms were implemented in Minneapolis. Indeed, in 2018 the city issued a report outlining its efforts at “mindfulness training,” crisis intervention training, implicit bias training, body camera usage and all manner of other things. They obviously made no difference. They did nothing to prevent a police officer from murdering George Floyd on camera while three other officers stood by and did nothing.
Beyond Minneapolis, any proposal that sounds like one you’ve heard in the past, be it in the wake of civil unrest in the 1960s, increases in the crime rate in the 1970s through the 1990s, or in the wake of high-profile police brutality cases of the last 20-30 years, has been tried and is, by definition, ineffective. If they had been effective, we would not be seeing the mass police-instigated violence we’ve witnessed over the past ten days. The problem is worse now than ever before. We’re seeing it right before our very eyes.
What hasn’t been tried: ratcheting back the size and power of police forces. Cutting their budgets. Demilitarizing them. Scaling back the vastly-expanded mission they have assumed in the “tough on crime” era in which poverty, mental illness, homelessness, addiction, and everything else has been criminalized. Doing away with the notion that they are the ground troops in wars on drugs, poverty, crime, or all manner of other things that should never have been cast as “wars” in the first place because doing so, by definition, turns the people that police are allegedly tasked with protecting into the enemy.
Rather than pouring even more resources into police departments via the acquisition of new technologies, the implementation of new training programs, and the hiring of even more police officers, we should be cutting police budgets and head counts and reallocating those resources to programs and resources people can access to solve problems in ways that do not involve police, courts, or prisons.
How many fewer police calls will there to deal with people endangering themselves or others due to mental illness if those people had resources to treat mental illness long before that call was made?
How many fewer crimes would be committed in service of addiction if there were accessible means of treating addiction long before a criminal act was perpetrated?
How many resources could cities fund if they were not buying military-grade vehicles, body armor, and riot gear?
How many programs could they fund if they were not paying violent officers their salaries while they go through an expensive administrative process that, more often than not, is simply going to put those officers right back on the street?
How many people could they serve if, instead of paying out millions in police brutality settlements for officers who have personal immunity, the brutality never occurred because officers knew damn well they’d be on the hook and their lives ruined — like anyone else’s life would be ruined — if they committed depraved acts of violence?
Back in 2008, Joe Biden gave a speech in which he said “show me your budget and I’ll show you what you value.” Our current municipal budgets show that cities value overwhelming police force. They show that they will willingly abide brutality in service of it. That they care little if at all about the underlying problems facing people that, if dealt with early, effectively, and humanely, would never require police intervention in the first place.
If we do not want to project those values into the world, we should not be subsidizing those values with our budgets. We should slash money and resources for police. We should disempower them in any way possible. Because, as we can plainly see, they are mad with that power right now. Absolutely mad.
(Featured Image: ColumbusPhotography via Wikimedia Commons)