Cop Culture Normalizes Police Violence

Police Brutality

This is a post long overdue. If anyone is masochistic enough to follow me on Twitter or my blog, then they’ve probably noticed my pieces on the police. I try to keep an eye to police misconduct as much as I can and I follow some great thinkers doing much better work than I on the matter such as Radley Balko from The Washington Post. The title is inspired by this article from Thoughts on Liberty, “Police Must Be Held to a Higher Standard in the Court Room.”

The analogy:

Just as rape culture normalizes sexual violence, cop culture normalizes police violence and reinforces the notion—to police and those judging their behavior—that a badge is a license to kill.

Now that I’ve thrown the most contentious part at you, I’m going to work backward to make my point.

First and foremost, the case I’ve been suck on is the Kelly Thomas case out of Fullerton, California. Essentially, back in the summer of 2011, a schizophrenic homeless man — or just better known as a “human being” — Kelly Thomas, was accosted by six members of the Fullerton Police Department. They ended up using Tasers on him multiple times, beating him and killing him. When the case broke, I recall seeing the video where Kelly pleaded and cried:

“Dad help me.”
“God help me.”
“Help me. Help me. Help me.”

It’s haunting and disturbing. If you want to see the 33-minute video check out the spoilers video below:

Here is what he looked like post-beating:

Kelly Thomas

A little over a week ago, two officers involved were charged with second-degree murder and felony involuntary manslaughter among other charges. They were both acquitted of all charges. Look at that picture. Yes, I was not one of the jurists, but this seems a clear-cut case of injustice. Did Kelly beat himself to death? Did he manufacture that video? Did he take the officers’ fists and pound his own face in with them? To top it off, one of the officers wants his job back. Thankfully, the Chief of Police of the Fullerton Police Department does not appear willing to oblige.

However, I do not plan to hinge my entire debate on one case, even if it is incredibly egregious.

Consider these other tidbits:

  • According to David Packman, the conviction and incarceration rates, as well as the average sentence length comparatively between law enforcement and the general public presents a noticeable disparity. For instance, even when convicted, police officers spend 29% less time behind bars than the rest of the public.
  • The police routinely rank highest among “confidence in institutions” in the United States, only behind the U.S. military and small businesses in this poll. The police have 57% confidence in them, with 26% of that being a “great deal” of confidence. This tells me there is a cultural problem of deference to authority and giving them the benefit of the doubt.
  • If there is a silver lining for Kelly Thomas, it is that his case generated a lot of publicity. Not so much for this unarmed man killed by police or this one.

To the former case, the officer involved will not be charged despite the following:

  • He ought not to have been on duty after the first two shootings cases.
  • He admitted to drinking multiple beers before going to work.
  • Despite that, the city waited five hours to give him a breath test.
  • Superintendent Garry McCarthy acknowledges the department had “no way of tracking officers’ shooting records.”
  • Chicago taxpayers covered the settlement of $4.1 milion. This happens in other cities, too.
  • It was also on video. He shot an unarmed man 16 fucking times.
  • Remember, not guilty.

More tidbits:

  • A 2007 study found only 19 out of 10,149 complaints of excessive force, sexual abuse and so on led to police suspension of a week or more.
  • This case out of North Carolina demonstrating further how ill-equipped officers are in dealing with the mentally ill. After two officers already had the boy on the ground, the officer who fatally shot him was reported to have said, “We don’t have time for this.”
  • The police as a “standing army,” from The American Conservative, “Even seemingly innocuous federal bureaucracies such as the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission had created their own tactical teams.”
  • How about
    ? It’s a video of the most disturbing stories I’ve heard yet.
  • Sorry, this one is probably worse. So, we’ll sexually assault you, then make you pay the bill for your own sexual assault. Beyond fucked up.
  • Anyone remember the Dorner situation? Remember those officers that fired hundreds of shots at innocent civilians?” No charges. They made a “reasonable mistake.”
  • Teenager stopped by NYC police for “stop and frisk” only to have his testicle ruptured. The state charges him with assaulting a police officer.
  • This, “Unarmed Man Is Charged With Wounding Bystanders Shot by Police Near Times Square”

Now you may be saying, “Well, officer safety. You can’t question split-second decisions by officers. They need to protect themselves.” Yet, in a list of the ten most dangerous jobs in America, police officer is not one of them. Sure, maybe that’s not convincing enough. How about this from Balko:

I’ve pointed out a number of times that the job of police officer has been getting progressively safer for a generation. Last year was the safest year for cops since the early 1960s. And it isn’t just because the police are carrying bigger guns or have better armor. Assaults on police officers have been dropping over the same period. Which means that not only are fewer cops getting killed on the job, people in general are less inclined to try to hurt them. Yes, working as a police officer is still more dangerous than, say, working as a journalist. (Or at least a journalist here in the U.S.) But a cop today is about as likely to be murdered on the job as someone who merely resides in about half of the country’s 75 largest cities.

Moreover, there is an inexcusable lack of adequate, quality data on officer-involved shootings, whether they were deemed justified or not, whether they resulted in injury or death and so on. Luckily, the Cato Institute is trying to rectify that with at least more accountability on police misconduct here.

I do not seek to generalize all officers as bad, but I also do not take solace in the “bad apple” theory where people tell us that the stories we see of bad cops is a result of bad apples, as bad apples exist in any profession. I disagree. Not because I think all cops are bad — that’s absurd, but because there is a real systematic issue here. There is money in the Drug War. There is military grade weaponry and armor and so on being given to police departments throughout the United States. SWAT teams are likewise popping up and instituting raids on some of the most benign of activities. There is accessibility to the poor neighborhoods and poor people. Some commentators, like Balko, talk about how all of this creates a psychological “us”vs. “them” mentality. I do not accept the bad apple theory. Or at the very least, the systematic issues creates the so-called bad apples and allows them to flourish.

Is this cops1 just a stupid picture or is it really the case? Is it just specific to Kelly Thomas and a few others? Are these the exception and not the rule? Is there really a cop culture that normalizes police violence? Has officer safety taken priority over protect and serve? Since federal money has poured into state and local police jurisdictions allowing for the predominant focus on the War on Drugs, has that eroded the idea of officers in the community? Do the police lack proper training for handling of those with mental illnesses?

In the case of Kelly Thomas, the defense argued that the officers involved were just doing their job as “peace officers.” Is that their job? Maybe, maybe I could see not charging the officers with second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter, but not even excessive force or violence? From Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, the lead prosecutor of the officers, told the Register, simply, “[i]t’s an uphill battle when you have police officers charged with committing crimes (for) excessive force-type conduct. It’s not just jurors, but (everyone) wants to support the police and give police as much … discretion as we can.”

There needs to be more data on officer-involved shootings and other complaints, as well as more accountability in general of their actions. In the age of smartphones, accountability has been ever-greater in holding authority’s feet to the fire or at least bringing attention to cases of misconduct. Cameras can only do so much, though. The juries have to stop giving police the benefit of the doubt and as the Register said, not allow police to appear on the periphery of the law.

There is so much to tackle here and I’ve had way too much coffee to feel satisfied with this as a “comprehensive overview.” I know I’m forgetting something I wanted to address or what have you, but I’m hoping this is a good launching pad into the discussion over police misconduct and the role of the police in the United States.

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