Fatal and Unmanly Slumbers

I feel nothing but pity for the five police officers killed last night in Dallas and I feel nothing but contempt for their killer. I also pity Philando Castile, who was, by all accounts, an honorable young man. We don’t know all the facts in that case, of course, but his girlfriend’s account of his killing makes far more sense than the story we’re hearing from the police so far.

The shooting of Alton Sterling is much less clear. I’ve watched the video and can’t make much sense of it. The angle at which the video was shot and the low resolution of the video make it impossible to determine what happened, as far as I can tell. Was he shot unnecessarily? I don’t know. Do I understand why many people are jumping to the conclusion that he was? Absolutely.

It is high time for all of us to stop pretending that the problem of police brutality is simply a matter of a “few bad apples.” According to an anonymous survey of about 900 police officers from across the country conducted by the Department of Justice back in 2000, 84% of the officers surveyed admitted having witnessed a fellow officer using excessive force. I think we can all agree that 84% doesn’t represent a few “isolated incidents” or a “few bad apples.” And please note, this is not a number generated by Black Lives Matter or the ACLU. This number is from the police officers themselves.

Can civilians expect justice when these incidents occur? Not usually. Here again, let’s look at the data provided by the police officers themselves: 61% of the officers surveyed admitted that they “do not always report serious criminal violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers.” Further, 67% believe that officers who report these incidents are given the “cold shoulder” by fellow officers. (Source: Police Attitudes Toward Abuse of Authority: Findings From a National Study.)

I’m not going to post links to every incident of cover-up, corruption, or police misconduct, but they’re out there if you care to look. My friends who are pleading for everyone to “calm down” and look for “reasonable” ways to solve these problems would do well to make some specific, concrete suggestions for how this can be done. For decades now, citizens have been searching for justice, only to be shut down by police departments, district attorneys, and judges who all seem to be looking out for one another rather than doing the right thing.

The criminal justice system is the “calm” and “reasonable” channel for seeking justice, but what exactly do we expect people to do when that system fails them? Shut up and take it? Here’s a passage from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense that I think speaks to the present situation:

But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.

This is not inflaming or exaggerating matters, but trying them by those feelings and affections which nature justifies, and without which, we should be incapable of discharging the social duties of life, or enjoying the felicities of it. I mean not to exhibit horror for the purpose of provoking revenge, but to awaken us from fatal and unmanly slumbers…

Many passages from The Declaration of Independence could be cited here as well, to the same effect. As colonies of Great Britain, we suffered injustices at the hands of the mother country and all attempts to address these grievances through the proper channels were denied. As a result, we turned to violence. This is the predictable course of events when people are denied justice. Unless real changes are made, we can only expect more.

Here are a few real, concrete things we can do turn things around.

  1. Stop passing so many damn laws. Police officers aren’t called “law enforcement” for nothing. Their job is to enforce the laws that our legislatures pass. Every law is enforced through violence or the threat of violence. When a new law is proposed, ask yourself if its enforcement is worth the injury or death of a police officer or civilian. (I suspect that most police officers hate enforcing many of these petty laws as much, or more, than we hate submitting to them.) As a rule of thumb, reject the idea of a “crime” unless there is a clear, direct victim. Vote for legislators accordingly.
  2. Don’t expect people to rat on their friends. It is unreasonable to expect fairness when police departments investigate themselves. It is equally unreasonable to expect district attorneys who work closely with police officers to be completely objective when investigating the people they reasonably view as colleagues. This is not because they’re bad; it’s because they’re human. Police misconduct should be investigated by independent prosecutors and independent review boards. Always.
  3. Use body cameras. Every police officer should be required to wear a body camera, for their protection as well as our own. Body cameras ought to be activated the moment the siren turns on and there should be an automatic investigation by an independent review board every time a camera is “accidentally” deactivated. We are constantly admonished that if we aren’t breaking the law, we have nothing to worry about. The same standard should apply to the officers who enforce those laws: if they aren’t doing anything wrong, then they have nothing to fear from a video recording of their actions. (There have already been many instances of good cops being exonerated from any wrongdoing by simply looking at the tape.)

If you disagree with any of my suggestions, feel free to tell me where I’ve gone wrong. More importantly, please offer some specific concrete suggestions of your own. More memes and good feels aren’t going to solve anything.