In my first and second blog posts in this series, I urged us to step back from focusing on individual police officers and instead to look at the larger system, which means getting a sense of the history of policing, both its origins (addressed in my first blog post) and the changes that occurred more recently (addressed in my second blog post). Now, I want to build on that by continuing to focus on the system and turning to the current challenges we face in creating change. Despite all of the attention to police violence over the past several years and despite changes made (like implicit bias training, the use of body cameras, and bans on chokeholds), George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people were still murdered by the police. Why does this keep happening?
There are several factors that spin into a vicious cycle, which reinforce policing’s role in “social control” and “racial control” discussed in my second blog post.
For one, given the history discussed in my second blog post, the police in the US have at their disposal overwhelming access to weapons, and they use them. As sociologist Alex S. Vitale explains in The End of Policing, “There is no question that American police use their weapons more than police in any other developed democracy (12). Furthermore, there is abundant evidence that police officers use force disproportionately against Black people. For example, the New York Times recently ran an investigative article with the headline “Minneapolis Police Use Force Against Black People at 7 Times the Rate of Whites.”
Why can’t measures be put into place to hold police accountable? This, without more systemic measures, is a challenge. For example, police unions have been, as the New York Times recently reported, “one of the most significant roadblocks to change.” To be clear, I am a proud faculty union member, and I generally support unions, but when they “derail efforts to increase accountability” that is a serious problem.
In tandem with the power of police unions, there emerged a “Blue Lives Matter” movement over the past several years to defend the police from accusations of racism, and supporters sought legislation to make killing a law enforcement officer a federal hate crime, shifting the narrative so that the focus becomes about protecting the police, not holding them accountable. As part of this movement, the image of an American flag in black and white with a blue line across it became a widespread symbol to support the police, from flags on front porches to stickers on cars to t-shirts. Some towns in 2016 painted a blue line down the middle of the street in front of police departments, especially in my state of New Jersey, to support “Blue Lives Matter” and to “support the police.” All of this made it even more challenging to address police violence.
In 2017, historian Matthew Guariglia wrote in a Washington Post article: “The ‘Blue Lives Matter’ movement and its corresponding legislation are just the latest chapter in the evolving notion of what it means to be a police officer, one that dates back over 150 years. The subsequent history shows that, at least for white officers, this strong sense of identity and camaraderie — of police-hood — often supersedes an ability to empathize with civilians of color.”
There is a police culture of resistance to accountability and of silence that makes it almost impossible for individual officers who want to see change to speak up, and new officers are encouraged to participate in this toxic culture. If they don’t, their future on the police force is at stake. Even when police chiefs want change, it is very difficult. Mayor of Atlanta Keisha Lance Bottoms echoed these challenges in her op-ed, “The Police Report To Me, But I Knew I Couldn’t Protect My Son.”
Derek Chauvin, the officer who has now been arrested for murdering George Floyd, had already faced 17 complaints of misconduct. That didn’t stop him from being out on patrol, from detaining and killing George Floyd, all for $20. Furthermore, two of the officers who witnessed the murder were rookies under the supervision of Derek Chauvin, who was the “training officer.” Not only was Derek Chauvin allowed to continue to serve as an officer, but he was also responsible for new officers. What kind of message does that send to rookies? If the murder of George Floyd had not been recorded by a brave young bystander, it seems likely that Derek Chauvin would still be a police officer out on patrol and the rookies would have learned that his violent behavior was acceptable and encouraged.
Even when officers leave a police department after killing someone, they can still be hired by another police department. For example, in 2014, officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, and he was still hired by another police department.
We also need to recognize that while police officers can find unarmed Black people threatening, they do not appear to be threatened by white people, including armed white people. Even if they might feel threatened, they do not act on it the way they often do with Black people. For example, in April, armed white protesters demanding that stay-at-home orders be lifted confronted the police in cities like Lansing, Michigan, where “Police allowed several hundred protesters to peacefully enter the capitol building around 1pm, where they crammed shoulder-to-shoulder near the entrance to legislative chambers.” Armed white people with no masks in a pandemic, inches from the police, are “allowed” to confront the police while unarmed Black protestors who want justice are tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets? Or worse? This disparity reinforces the history and purpose of the police I discussed earlier: the role of “social control” and “racial control.” The armed white protesters didn’t need to be “controlled” like Black protestors.
Vitale describes another group of people who don’t need to be “controlled” when he writes, “the criminal justice system excuses and ignores crimes of the rich that produce profound social harms while intensely criminalizing the behaviors of the poor and nonwhite, including those behaviors that produce few social harms” (107).
Finally, one reason that it is so difficult to challenge systemic racism within policing is the way in which the “good guy” police officer has been normalized in the overwhelming number of TV police procedurals over the past few decades. We have been taught to cheer for many of the police characters in these shows, and the shows often affirm a faith we want to have in the fairness of the criminal justice system. The organization Color of Change released a report a few months ago called “Normalizing Injustice,” where they studied hundreds of episodes from more than two dozen scripted crime shows.
The report concludes “that the crime TV genre—the main way that tens of millions of people learn to think about the criminal justice system—advanced debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about Black people, other people of color and women. These shows rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability. They made illegal, destructive and racist practices within the criminal justice system seem acceptable, justifiable and necessary—even heroic. The study found that the genre is also incredibly un-diverse in terms of creators, writers and showrunners: nearly all white.”
When we think about challenges to ending police violence, we might not often think about popular culture, but this study helps us understand how we got here. It explains how we can be so easily indoctrinated into a belief that focuses on the police as the “good guy” and in need of support and protection.
I focused most of this piece on the system because in my observations, that is often the thing that people, especially white people, have the hardest time seeing. We, as white people, have been conditioned to focus on individuals and not to see systems and not to see the racism built into systems. At the same time, we have been taught to believe that the police are inherently good and any problems are the result of a few “bad apples.”
However, if we can start to see the problem is systemic, then hopefully we can see the solution must be systemic as well, as I consider in my final blog post in this series.
-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer, which includes a four-part series “For Those Who Say, How Can We Defund the Police” and a new resource page on Policing & Racism.