There are some human beings, mostly men, who like to kill or would relish killing if given the opportunity. Although I am a pacifist and despise all wars, I understand why such individuals would make fine soldiers on the battlefield.
But they make lousy cops, because the job of a police officer is to protect and keep safe, not to kill. When they slip through the rigorous selection process of police departments and then slip up, they should not be protected, but rooted out. Knowing they will be protected if they kill makes these men even more trigger happy. It also makes them do what men who like to kill naturally do—seek the company of other men who like to kill. And thus a culture of violence against civilians develops. I imagine the arming of local police departments with military grade weaponry and armaments only encourages the formation of such a culture.
Let’s change perspectives now and consider that everyone makes mistakes. But adults must pay for their mistakes. Sometimes they make small mistakes and the pay is minimal and even salutary—learning a new skill or technique, taking a class, listening to your wife a little more carefully for a few weeks. The bigger the mistake, the bigger the payment. No one fires you the first time you give a customer the wrong change, but they do if you’re caught stealing. But when an institution decriminalizes mistakes—for example, if employees are not reminded when they turn in reports late or don’t get approvals for cost estimates—then people will continue to make the mistake and a culture of mistakes develops. Looking the other way about chokeholds is no different from winking when someone tells a little white lie to a customer, except for one thing—a chokehold can kill.
It’s clear that most police officers, like virtually all public school teachers, are competent professionals. Most know how to use restraint in their responses to the public. In the prominent recent cases of police officers reacting too quickly or going too far, the cops in question are quite young or have a history of excessive force with suspects. But because police departments, prosecutors and police unions rush to protect the police officer who kills a civilian no matter what the circumstances, those prone to make mistakes feel they have nothing to fear.
The creation of both the culture of violence against civilians and the culture of condoned mistakes certainly explain why police officers commit 3% of all homicides in the United States.
But why are the victims always African-American?
African-Americans are only about 14% of the population. Only 27% of gun owners are black. Compare either of those numbers to the 39 % of all Americans killed by police during an arrest who were unarmed. Estimates of how many unarmed African American die at the hands of armed white police officers range from two a day to six a day. And every high profile case, which means every case in which the police actions were so egregiously overwrought that it caught the attention of the news media, involves an African-American victim.
The culture of racism is the third pernicious culture that turns police departments full of mostly good cops into killing machines. I’ve been reading David Brion Davis’ scholarly three volume analysis of the idea of slavery in western culture, published over a period of about 50 years. One dynamic I have noticed is that as the ideas of representational government, the free market and social mobility crept into western thought in the 17th and 18th centuries, political thinkers began to justify slavery in a world of free agents by conceiving of black people as inferior and more animal-like. The more the ideas of democracy assumed central importance, the more virulent and widespread racist notions became. The supposed inferiority of Africans justified keeping people of dark color as slaves. These attitudes persisted after a nation emancipated slaves, growing even stronger where the former slave populations lived.
The poisonous legacy of racism persists in America. Blacks charged with the same or similar crime as whites receive harsher punishments. Whites demonize those who accept food stamps or welfare and associate poverty with blacks, even though the overwhelming number of people who receive food stamps or are on welfare are white. Politicians use racial code words to win elections. Stop-and-frisk policies and other aggressive policing techniques always focus on minority neighborhoods. The same prosecutor who can’t convict a white man of shooting down a black man (Trayvon Martin) is able to get a jury to send away a black woman 21 years (later overturned) for firing a gun in the air to warn her abusive husband to keep his distance.
Police violence against African-Americans is part of the institutional racism that has not just plagued, but destroyed much that is great about our country. Racism was the primary motive for people to move to the suburbs and into a wasteful car-centric lifestyle after World War II. Racism led to the decline of the cities in the last half of the 20th century. Racism was at the root of the original home schooling and private school movements in regions that were forced to desegregate their schools, movements now gone national and threaten to destroy our public school systems. Racism filled our nation’s prisons with non-violent offenders convicted of victimless crimes.
But we can’t see into the minds of men and so will never know whether racism had anything to do with the acts of the individual police officers who killed Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice and other innocent black men. The facts, however, prove that police, police unions and prosecutors condone mistakes and the “shoot first” mentality, even if these institutions and the people who run them proclaim they want cops to avoid violent mistakes and recklessly endangering the public. It is the unwillingness to prosecute and the tendency to close ranks and protect the offenders that allows institutional racism to turn deadly in a system supposedly run according to a fair and consistent application of the law.