Police violence can be stopped if it’s penalised

People's outrage after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson highlighted a problem that the US should discuss. (REUTERS/Jim Young)
People's outrage after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson highlighted a problem that the US should discuss. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

In 1971, I was running an after-school programme in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. One day, the Police Athletic League representative dropped off a pile of colouring books for the younger children. On the cover was a policeman walking hand-in-hand with a little girl. Clearly, or so I thought, he was helping her across the street. My assumption wasn’t shared by seven-year-old Tanya. The minute she was handed her book she shouted out “oh, oh, she’s in trouble. He’s taking her away to jail”.

I shouldn’t have been surprised having lived in Philly during the “Frank Rizzo years”, when the notoriously tough cop wore a billy club tucked into his tuxedo cummerbund. I knew of the “no holds barred” way police interacted with the African American community. This is why Tanya and the other little ones did not see the police role in the community as “protect and serve”.

Those children would be in their 50s now. As I watched the Michael Brown saga unfold, I wondered how they saw it.

The tragedy of Ferguson has certainly generated a national conversation about race, about the over-militarisation of local police departments, about the excessive use of force, and about the prosecutor’s abuse of the notoriously unfair grand jury system. What we have not yet discussed, is the culture of hostility and impunity that has come to define too much of our nation’s approach to policing.

The excerpts of testimony from the Ferguson grand jury reveals a glaring discrepancy. Not whether Michael had his hands up or down, whether he was charging or staggering, or whether Officer Darren Wilson gave fair warning before shooting. It was at the very beginning of the story. Wilson claims he told Michael: “Why don’t you guys walk on the sidewalk?”Michael’s friend, Dorian Johnson, claims that Wilson shouted “get the f*** on the sidewalk”. I know which account Tanya would believe.

Johnson’s recollection of the events of the day also appear to be more believable. I’ve see such displays of “in your face” police hostility before. They happen too often, and too often they accelerate into violence, ending in tragedy. That’s the heart of the problem and we must acknowledge it.

After New York city recently declined to charge police in the homicide of Eric Garner, The New York Times ran a string of pictures of young black men who had been victims in the last decade of what the paper called “fatal police encounters”. There are too many of these killings. Eugene Robinson, writing in The Washington Post, presents a tally suggesting over a thousand per year, with too many of them being African American males or young men with disabilities.

Reviewing the stories behind many of these killings, a pattern emerges of an “us versus them” mentality on the part of police officers, which escalates into the use of brute force and tragic death.

Race is a key factor here, but it is not only African American men who are victims of this pattern of behaviour. There was Ethan Saylor, a young man with Down syndrome, who didn’t understand why he had to leave the movie theatre after the film he was watching had finished. Instead of recognising Ethan’s disability and dealing with him accordingly, three off-duty Maryland policemen, working as security at the theatre, roughly wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him and watched as he suffocated to death. They too, were acquitted. Ethan’s story was not unlike that of Eric Garner who was killed when a New York City officer applied a banned stranglehold. The video of a handcuffed Garner on the ground, saying “I can’t breathe”, while officers watch him die, is sickening.

African Americans understand the injustice and horror of such situations because they have long experience of the racial element in an escalating conflict. A recent Washington Post poll found that while 58 per cent of whites agreed with the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson, 83 per cent of African Americans disagreed. And a New York Times poll showed that 45 per cent of African Americans believed that they had been treated badly by police because of their race.

Now I don’t doubt for a moment that many police officers feel at risk in many situations. And I also know many good policemen and women who are motivated by a strong commitment to community service and who save lives, rescue those in need and defend the innocent. For the sake of these officers and the communities they serve, the culture of policing must change.

A few years ago, when we were inundated by stories of paedophile clergy, a priest at my church took to the pulpit one Sunday and spoke from his heart. He decried the victimisation of so many innocent children and condemned those who had committed the horrible acts. He went on to denounce the bishops who had covered up the crimes for years. He said they had not only absolved criminal behaviour and continued to put other children at risk, they had made it possible for priests, as a group, to be viewed with suspicion. The same holds true for the police, so much so that little Tanya couldn’t even imagine a kind policeman.

This is the discussion we in the US must have. It’s not just about the weapons police use or making them wear cameras. It’s about the culture of hostility and impunity that has separated communities from the police. The problem doesn’t begin with the patrolman on the beat. It begins with his training. And it won’t change until those who lead them, hold officers accountable for bad behaviour and prosecutors indict those who use unreasonable force.

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

Published: December 6, 2014 04:00 AM

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