The video showing the murder of Walter Scott has re-ignited the debate over police abuse by showing the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed 52-year-old man who was running away from a cop. But this video is no less alarming than other videos showing the strangulation death of a man for selling untaxed cigarettes; the merciless beating of a woman by a cop on the side of a freeway; the shooting death of a young man shopping at Walmart; and many more.
Indeed, the video of Walter Scott’s murder is no more disturbing than the video of the shooting death of a 12-year-old for playing with a toy gun in Cleveland and the video showing the shooting death of a mentally ill young man by two officers in St. Louis. Although neither of them were shot in the back, they were killed without warning despite the fact that they posed no real threat to the officers or anyone else. It’s clear that the child was given no warning – no commands. He was gunned down within seconds of the squad car’s arrival. Likewise, the mentally ill young man was gunned down within seconds.
There was no attempt to de-escalate the situation. No attempt to use non-lethal means. The cops simply resorted to the most expedient and lethal option available to them. They were not charged. They were not reprimanded. They were not reassigned. Indeed, they likely would not have been subjected to any scrutiny had it not been for the videos. Given that understanding, imagine how many such incidents are never uncovered; never recorded; never publicized; never investigated.
To understand why, we have to look at the causes of which there are many.
First, too many cops have selected their profession for the power it gives them. They enjoy the power afforded them by the badge. They enjoy making ordinary civilians uncomfortable in their presence. They like giving orders.
Second, too many cops have a sense of relativism. They believe that their abusive behavior is justified by the fact that they are called upon to deal with “the bad guys.” If the bad guys are hurt by their response, so be it. They had it coming.
Third, studies have shown there is little difference in the psyche of cops and criminals. They both like to break rules.
Fourth, many police departments prioritize military service in their hiring practices. That may be admirable, but merely having worn another uniform and having been trained in the use of weaponry does not necessarily qualify someone to be a cop. Their duties are significantly different. Professional soldiers are accustomed to taking orders, and often those orders are to shoot first and ask questions later.
Fifth, our police forces have been unnecessarily militarized. Police officers now have body armor, helmets, shields, semi-automatic handguns, assault rifles, armored personnel carriers and more. In just a few decades, they have gone from the community cop on the beat to a paramilitary force – and if you have big boy toys the desire to use them is almost irresistible. In day-to-day encounters with the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect, cops too often reach for a gun, instead of a baton or taser.
Sixth, our police officers are poorly trained in dealing with the mentally disturbed or with criminals armed with less than lethal weaponry. That is why six cops unload their firearms into a 95-pound mentally ill woman armed with a kitchen knife when any moderately experienced martial arts student could disarm and control her using only their hands. Much of the training cops do receive comes from seminars sponsored by weapons manufacturers and taught by military contractors.
Seventh, cops are protected by police unions. I am a firm believer in the need for labor unions, but police unions have taken representation to a whole new level. In many cities, it is virtually impossible for a police chief to fire an abusive cop. The dismissal must first be approved by the union and often the chief is fired before the rogue cop. That is why, after shooting an unarmed Michael Brown, the first call Officer Wilson made was to his union rep who told him how to report the incident and what to say.
Eighth, few communities have civilian review boards. As a result, ordinary citizens have little input with regard to police behavior. Too often, the police are allowed to investigate themselves.
Ninth, the fact that cops so quickly resort to drawing their guns is, at least partially, the result of our insane gun laws. Police have to assume that everyone they confront is armed with a gun. They may fear that they will be outgunned. This is especially true if the responding officer is on his, or her, own.
Tenth, cops have intense loyalty toward each other – their “brothers and sisters in arms.” They are reluctant to interfere with another officer’s abuse, let alone to report or testify against a fellow officer.
Eleventh, most Americans naively believe that abusive cops are a tiny minority of the men and women in uniform. They don’t even want to think of the possibility that the problem is widespread. But, in reality, there are precincts and entire police departments that are corrupt. If I have personally witnessed cops on the take; if I have witnessed verbal and psychological abuse by cops; if I have seen African-Americans pulled over for driving while black; if I have watched and reported cops for beating individuals for no apparent reason; if I have seen cops rousting the homeless, trashing their meager possessions and dumping them outside the city limits; if I have witnessed a gang of cops macing, kicking and beating a man already handcuffed and lying on the ground – if I have seen these things without actually looking for them – then such abusive behavior is far more prevalent than most people can imagine.
Make no mistake, a few videos and the mandated use of body cameras will not put an end to police abuse. That will only happen when ordinary citizens demand better.