Braking when you see a police car, even if you were going the speed limit. Feeling uneasy when you walk, bags in hand, past the Target security guard, despite legitimately having paid for your groceries. Keeping your head down and trying not to look suspicious while walking with your friends to drinks and dinner, trying to walk sober, even though you know you are. The perpetual fear of doing something wrong and not knowing you’re doing it, and what would happen to you if you did.
If you’ve ever experienced any of those things, or some such variation of them, you have experienced the power of a police badge, the weight its presence brings to even the most innocent or harmless situations. In many, if not most, circumstances, the clout is appreciated, even necessary; citizens are thankful for the police who catch the rapists, the robbers, the predators.
But some situations—like the recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, when a local police officer shot to death unarmed teen Michael Brown, or the death of Eric Garner while in NYPD custody—have caused many Americans to call into question even the most basic underpinnings of U.S. law enforcement’s structure, like the type of training they receive or the implementation of regulations regarding use of force.
In North Alabama, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department requires their officers to receive eight hours of training every quarter, according to Deputy Jerome Heard, who works as a student resource officer at Monrovia Middle School in Huntsville, Alabama. He said the type of training updates he and his fellow officers receive varies: “It can be something called ‘verbal judo,’ learning what steps to take to make a situation better or de-escalate a situation, or active shooter training, or remedial training on handcuffing, hand-to-hand combat, or submission holds.”
The incidents in Ferguson have raised extensive questions about law enforcement training, especially when it comes to the details of that specific situation: Are police officers not trained to react better to confrontation than by shooting an unarmed individual multiple times? To what standards are the officers held when their actions or choices are deemed questionable by the public, by the body of people for whom they are appointed to serve?
The Ferguson situation has also sparked an international crusade against what many are calling racially biased police brutality. Brown was a black teen, and his shooter a white officer. The United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called for the U.S. to cease the excessive use of force used by police.
“The excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against racial and ethnic minorities is an ongoing issue of concern and particularly in light of the shooting of Michael Brown,” said Noureddine Amir, an expert from Algeria who serves as the vice chairman for CERD, in a news briefing. “This is not an isolated event and illustrates a bigger problem in the United States, such as racial bias among law enforcement officials, the lack of proper implementation of rules and regulations governing the use of force, and the inadequacy of training of law enforcement officials.”
But the problem is not confined to racial bounds: In August 2013 in Park Forest, Illinois, white 95-year-old World War II veteran John Wrana was killed in a confrontation with police after he refused to leave his assisted living center to go to the hospital. Also in August 2013, white 46-year-old John Geer was shot dead by police in Springfield, Virginia, while standing unarmed outside his home. In both cases, the same question is raised: Were the police trained to deal with these situations in a nonviolent manner, or at least in a manner that would not kill the victim? Neither “yes” nor “no” is a good answer.
Americans are looking for solutions—the New York Police Department commissioner Bill Bratton is convinced that police body cameras are an effective way to hold police accountable for their actions. In an appearance on left-wing news network MSNBC, Bratton predicted that officers nationwide will soon be wearing cameras to record their interactions with citizens.
“That’s the direction where American policing is going,” he said That’s where we’re going in the NYPD. We’re working very closely with the LAPD, who’s about a year ahead of us in putting cameras in place.”
Bratton’s statements come on the heels of the controversial death of Eric Garner while in custody of the NYPD. Garner, a black man, died after being placed in an illegal chokehold by a NYPD officer while being arrested for selling illegal cigarettes in July. A bystander filmed the incident on his smartphone, and the video of the unnecessary brutality went viral.
The Garner case is an example of some of the most blatant issues with municipal law enforcement in present-day America: Firstly, it reinforces the idea that officers may not be receiving adequate training. Would a more properly trained officer have been able to handle the decision differently? Secondly, did the policeman feel above the law when he placed Garner in an illegal chokehold? In what way does abuse of authority play into the situation? And thirdly, the Garner case calls to attention that, more and more, the responsibility to hold police accountable for their behavior is falling on the shoulders of the citizens they have sworn to protect, rather than those in positions of authority within the police forces.
High school students from Decatur, Georgia, have taken things digital with the invention of “Five-O,” a mobile app that allows users to chronicle their experiences with law enforcement personnel. Incident reports can then be shared with the online community and used to rate both individual police officers and various police departments as a whole. The app also includes sections on knowing your rights, populated with information from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Statistics and data regarding police brutality in the U.S. are hard to find; though a quick search of LexisNexis Academic brings up more newspaper articles on the subject from countries like Argentina and the U.K. than America. The Kansas City Star’s Mary Sanchez wrote that we need data about police abuse of power, and tried to explore the idea. Some argue that there isn’t a rise in police brutality in recent years, but rather a rise in smartphone and social media use, which allows information to spread quickly and go viral. Sanchez noted that in 1996, a report prepared for the Bureau of Justice Statistics was intended as a starting point for the never-gathered annual reports on excessive force.
It noted, “Regardless of viewpoint, everyone agrees that excessive force has an adverse impact on relationships between police and the communities they serve, and seemingly no one would agree that ignorance on this topic is bliss.”
And civilians aren’t the only ones put at a disadvantage by police brutality. The vast majority of officers respond to situations with care and diligence, and their reputations are heavily damaged by those few officers who go rogue. In some cases, this can put officers’ lives at risk, as they are themselves wrongly perceived as likely to respond to situations with undue force. Rather than building relationships with civilians and strengthening communities, tension hinders cooperation between those with badges and those who feel vulnerable to abuses of power. Overcoming this gridlock is critical to creating safe, prosperous neighborhoods where no one feels threatened—be it police or the public.
So for now, the debate is left to rage across the Internet, as people on websites like Debate.org take to typing to discuss whether police often abuse their authority (Response: ~83 percent say yes, ~18 percent say no). What do you think? Tweet us @litdarling or tell us in the comments.
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