|Police motivations re: lack of accountability
||[Jul. 8th, 2016|04:18 pm]
[I wrote this just before the Dallas shootings hit the news. With what little we know, I cannot comment on that beyond the obvious: The shooters opened fire on police in the middle of a Black Lives Matter protest, jeopardizing everybody present and causing a potential setback to the movement. They could not possibly have been affiliated with the movement or the protest, which was described by the Dallas police as peaceful. I expect racists to use this tragedy, no matter how illogically, as ammunition in their continuing support of the oppressive and murderous status quo. Please don't let them get away with it. Now, back to your irregularly scheduled dose of perspective.]
It seems to me that there is a complication in the issues (hitting the spotlight once again) of police accountability, brutality, and racism. To turn back the clock to a telling example of the confusion: I was initially astonished at the gall of New York City's biggest police union when they vilified Mayor Bill de Blasio for speaking against police brutality, claiming that he had thereby attacked the police. In so doing, the union appeared to have equated the police with police brutality: A much stronger and more damning statement than anything that de Blasio himself had said. Where were the good cops in this? Or, hell, even the neutral ones? What sort of officers could possibly condone the statement that decrying police brutality is an attack on the police?
The horrifying, systemic violence by police in the U.S. is already established fact, and we know that something needs to be done about it. That's not what this essay is about. The mystifying issue here is how strongly police in general defend a system that continues to allow and encourage this. Police departments shun body cameras, despite their proven effectiveness in sharply reducing violence both by and against police. The officer who reported the torture of a suspect at the hands of two other officers was harassed out of his job, and had to move from Baltimore to a small town in Florida just to find a department willing to hire him.
It seems to me that the majority of police, who do not commit but still accept police brutality, are protecting the brutalizers and murderers in every way they can not because they like brutality, nor from a sense of brotherhood, but because accountability both makes them personally uncomfortable and clashes with the dominance that they enjoy over the public (especially oppressed minorities).
On comfort: Accountability is a trade-off. Most people enjoy a certain right to privacy most of the time. Officers interacting with the public have no such right: Regular recording of these interactions results in good behavior, where privacy results in abuse, torture, and killing. But this argument only appeals to people who are concerned with what brings the greatest good. An officer who is unconcerned with the greatest good will only be swayed by their personal convenience and comfort. Doing your job with someone looking over your shoulder (or a camera monitoring your behavior) the whole time is annoying, even if you're not planning on doing anything wrong. There's an extra cognitive load in every decision you make, considering whether the observer would approve. In this case, that's a wildly good thing, equivalent to "using your brain to be a good person". But to the 85% of officers who are otherwise unmotivated to be a good person (see the first link above), it's a pointless way to make their job more annoying.
On dominance: In Siderea's essay on the two moral modes, she explains that many people (such as Trump's supporters) enjoy and defend the privilege of people in their in-group to do whatever they want to people not in their in-group, with no fear of repurcussions. Just having that privilege, that status, is important to them, even if they never wind up exercising it: Just like 99% of white southerners didn't own slaves, but were still willing to fight and die for the right of white people to own black people. (Don't try to tell me it was about states' rights. The leaders of the Confederacy were explicitly clear that defending slavery was their motivation.)
U.S. police have, and enjoy, that privilege, to a degree not found elsewhere in the civilized world. Even if you're an old, white male, asking them to tone down their abuse of a black person will get you clubbed in the head. (This was a recent incident, so similar to hoards of other blatant uses of excessive force that I can no longer find a link.) They are the dominant party in every interaction with the public. They can and will enforce that dominance in whatever way they wish, regardless of legalities, because they are the only ones with enforcement capacity: Their victims typically have no legal recourse. Herein lies the fundamental misunderstanding committed by anyone who thinks that knowing the law will do them any good. When an officer pulls you over illegally, to ask, "Am I being detained?" is to challenge their dominance. It asserts, "I know you have no legal right to hold me here, so you have to let me go." They will not let that challenge stand. Any dog, or socially aware junior high school student, knows that you don't challenge the dominance of someone who can break you.
Police officers' dominance is enforced by their guns and by their lack of accountability. This is why violating the "blue wall" of silence is such a crime: Even if a good cop only does it in order to protect someone from a bad cop, all of the other officers are keenly aware that a bastion of their dominance has just been weakened.
The saving grace here is that police resistance to reform is not an insurmountable obstacle. Some juristictions have succeeded in introducing body cameras, so obviously it can be done. Once accountability measures are implemented, officers will gradually get used to them. A few rill resist and subvert these measures, but as soon as escaping scrutiny is not trivial, the vast majority will find it easier to just not wantonly abuse and kill people. A generation of enforced improved behavior will do a better job of changing police culture than any protest will.