At an age when remembering names gets increasingly difficult, I cannot recall all the victims of the many notorious instances of white police, abusing, suffocating, wounding, or killing black men and women. Gratuitous, excessive abuse of blacks is commonplace, but perhaps the most outrageous instance occurred in Kenosha, WI, when police chained Jacob Blake to his hospital bed; in critical condition, with damaged organs and spine, from seven bullet wounds, police seemingly feared that he could still escape and elude them. The choice is between thinking Kenosha police slow-footed or sadistic.
(Although I emphasize police shooting of blacks—police shoot proportionately more blacks than whites—police are simply reckless of human life, especially in pursuit. In Salt Lake City, a distraught mother called for medical intervention to help deal with her 13-year-old autistic son. A “trained” police officer responded, tried to forcibly restrain the boy, who got free and fled, and shot him several times. The boy is hospitalized in serious condition, and police are telling the usual story, unsupported by them and contradicted by his mother, that the boy had a weapon and threatened others.)
Two questions are why police outrages against blacks are more frequent and why police do not learn from the media that their misconduct has dire consequences for their communities. One answer to both is that they are reacting to and resisting pressures to change their conduct in ways contrary to personal and political beliefs, motivations for becoming police, accustomed practices, and community expectations. They do not become police to be social workers.
Mitt Romney might say, “police are people, too.” Agreed: still, the questions remain: what kind of people, what kind of backgrounds, what kind of attitudes and values. I am no sociologist, yet I know that almost no police come from rich, college-educated families in wealthy communities like Darien, Winnetka, or Malibu, or go to the Ivies, the Seven Sisters, or Stanford. They come from lower-middle- or low-income families, with little family history of higher education or professional occupation. Most are born and raised in white urban enclaves, or towns or cities in rural areas, of conservative politics and various bigotries against racial, religious, or ethnic minorities. When they become police, they do not check their predispositions at the door.
In these respects, police share this profile with Trump’s base and many of his other supporters. A sign of kinship is the NYPD union’s unprecedented endorsement of the Republican presidential candidate. Police belief in “law and order” is not surprising or inappropriate, but, in the context of race-based policing, the union endorsement means that a majority of police are racist, that policing is political, and that it will be practiced accordingly. Police unions and chiefs downplay publicized episodes of outrageous police misconduct with an abridged version of the adage about “a few bad apples.” They omit the rest of it: “spoil the barrel.” Police unions are barrels, members are rotten apples, and their political stance allies them with politicians who tolerate or encourage those likely to perpetrate more abuses and killings, especially of those protesting misconduct. By contrast with their killing of Jacob Blake, police gave a “pass” to armed, white Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and wounded several protestors in Kenosha—clear evidence of police racist propensities. Everywhere, police will continue to give preferential treatment to “law and order,” pro-police groups and individuals—paramilitary groups, organized vigilantes, and “lone wolves”—and permit right-wing violence when anti-racist protesters gather or march. Yet people are people, too, and police are becoming their enemy.
Such police prejudices reflect the prejudices of the white majorities who control most communities. Of course, police fight crime, guard buildings, prevent violence, control quarrels, catch speeders, stop drunk drivers, etc. The large racial disparities in charges, especially misdemeanors, reflect society’s racism in using the legal establishment—police, prosecutors, and judges—to keep blacks docile, down, and debt-ridden. So actual police misconduct—physical and verbal abuse, harassment, excessive force, injury and death, etc.—is a function of race. To privilege whites for being white and punish blacks for being black, states laws protect police conduct otherwise liable to legal action. Different legal standards for police admit, tolerate, even encourage race-based misconduct and enable them to operate with impunity because of immunity.
What state governments leave undone, Internal Affairs (IA) divisions of police departments get done. Police departments rely on IA divisions to obstruct citizen complaints about police misconduct, make a muddle of investigations, and issue reports of results ignoring, or diminishing the seriousness or soundness of, the complaints. I take IA in the Las Cruces Police Department as typical.
The approach begins by handling complaints about citizens and complaints about police differently. Police accept an anonymous citizen-on-citizen complaint for investigation and assume the complainant is truthful. But IA requires a signed statement for citizen-on-police complaint which implies that the citizen is likely to be untruthful. The complaint form warns the citizen about possible prosecution for false charges as determined by the police and requires willingness to take a polygraph test as administered by police—a threatening advisory meant to deter citizen complaints.
IA assumes the officer’s honesty, gives the officer opportunities at self-exoneration, and protects his or her response from informed scrutiny. IA gives the citizen’s complaint to the accused officer for rebuttal, allows days to prepare for an interview, and requires no signed acknowledgement of a warning about perjury or agreement about a polygraph. It gives the citizen no chance to address the officer’s rebuttal and expose self-protective dishonesty. Meanwhile, police unions or chiefs offer false narratives about the episode or make discrediting comments about the complainant.
In the end, IA validates few citizen complaints and issues final, often vague or evasive reports. Except in the most extreme episodes, IA lives up to its name by doing its best to keep citizen complaints internal affairs, hidden from scrutiny. The last things which the police want are transparency and accountability. A city law office often helps them to resist requests for public information by redacting or withholding documents.
In Las Cruces, the mayor has long resisted or eroded police reform for reasons of his own, but a majority of Councilors may be willing to take police misconduct seriously. So far, Council’s only decisions have been to hire a Police Auditor and a group of police experts to review LCPD performance. The problems are that an auditor is no better than the data which IA provides and such groups have ratified double standards, and police policies and practices, which have allowed police misconduct everywhere forever. They euphemize the facts and fiddle with problems lest they lose contracts from cities and support from police unions. So long as reform is delayed or denied, so long city government—mayor, councilors, and staff—remains complicit in police misconduct.