Following the most recent example of police brutality at a high school in South Carolina, it is abundantly clear that law enforcement agencies across the country must re-evaluate and re-educate their officers. Too often we’ve seen officers use excessive force to bully, bruise, wound and kill citizens without probable cause.
Far too often, we’ve seen police resort to lethal force against unarmed men, women and children.
In Cleveland, we saw a police officer shoot and kill a 12-year-old boy within 2 seconds of his arrival on the scene. The boy’s crime? He was playing with a toy gun. We saw cops shoot a young man in an Ohio Walmart for daring to hold a BB-gun he intended to buy. We saw a Texas highway patrol officer unnecessarily brutalize and arrest a young woman who was standing up for her rights after being stopped for failure to signal a lane change. She was arrested and ultimately killed just because the officer didn’t like her attitude.
We saw an officer stop an unarmed driver for a broken taillight then shoot him multiple times in the back as he tried to run from the scene. We’ve seen a video of an officer “ground and pound” a middle-aged woman on the shoulder of a freeway. And we’ve seen police shoot and kill unarmed citizens who were mentally ill without any attempt to use non-lethal force.
This phenomenon is not limited to any single region of the United States, nor any level of law enforcement. We’ve seen the same kind of brutality from small town cops, sheriffs and sheriff deputies, big city cops and state patrol officers. In addition, we’ve seen racial profiling by city police departments; from Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s gang in Maricopa County, Arizona; and from officers in the Border Patrol. Though they may or may not brutalize or kill the subjects of their harassment, at minimum they make the detainees’ lives unnecessarily difficult.
These same kinds of incidents don’t happen in other advanced nations. While officers in the US shoot people armed with clubs and knives, officers in the UK and Canada use night sticks and training to subdue similarly armed individuals. While officers in the US shoot and/or imprison the mentally ill, in other nations officers subdue them and get them help.
What is the answer?
Certainly not all of the law enforcement officers in the US are out-of-control bullies. But there are plenty. And, rather than try to eliminate the bad apples within their ranks, the good officers, their unions, the prosecutors, “law and order” politicians and uncaring citizens go out of their way to blindly protect them.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The chiefs of departments can change their hiring and training procedures. I once was witness to the inner workings of two city police departments separated only by a river. One department was awash in corruption and bullies. The other was virtually free of such problems. The difference? The first department focused on hiring the biggest and baddest candidates – candidates who had previously served in small town departments. Most of them had simply passed an 8-week training program consisting primarily of classroom work, military-style drilling and many hours on the shooting range. The chief of the second department chose, instead, candidates with college degrees and a philosophy of service.
Certainly, dash cams and body cams will help. But they are not the only answer. It’s time that all departments take a long, hard look at themselves – at their military-style weapons, uniforms, vehicles and protocols; at their military-style “I’ve got your back” attitudes; at their militaristic training; and at their hiring programs. They need to remember that they are not another arm of the military. And they need to reinstate the motto: “To serve and protect.”
If law enforcement officers want the public – especially minorities – to respect them, they’re going to have to earn that respect. Not just a few…but all of the officers.