“To protect and serve,” — the simple definition of what the police do. At least, what they’re supposed to do. Unfortunately, the ugly truth has been that the police have been doing the exact opposite. Today, even the most routine of interactions have inspired fear in the minds of the communities they serve.
This fear isn’t unfounded, especially for minorities. The tragic deaths of Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and now George Floyd, serve as grim reminders of how even the simplest reactions with the law enforcement can end horribly. So it begs the question, how did we end up here with a police force that we can’t trust to protect us?
Origins of Policing: Revisiting the Role of the Police
To answer that question, it helps to revisit the origins of the police force as a concept. Thereby allowing us to gain an understanding of what the goals of a police force should be.
Interestingly, this idea of a police force isn’t as old as many of us would assume to be. For much of human history, the rest of the world did not have such a concept in any form. In advanced civilizations like Ancient Greece and Rome, crime was seen as a private matter. Even with serious offences like murder, justice was the victim’s family seeking vengeance.
It wasn’t until the 29th of September 1829 with the establishment of the London Metropolitan Police Force that the modern police force we know was born. It was founded by then Home Secretary of the UK, Robert Peele and was based on 9 principles known as Peelian principles. These went well beyond simply maintaining order and arresting criminals and are as shown below.
The Peelian principles went well beyond simply maintaining order and arresting criminals. At its core, they emphasized the need for public cooperation. Encouraging the police to earn the respect and approval of the communities they serve. Leaving the use of force being an option of last resort after all others have been exhausted.
Looking at the case of George Floyd, the actions taken by the Minneapolis PD officers were in direct violation of the founding principles of the very idea of a modern uniformed police force.
The officers were called after it was suspected Floyd tried to use a forged $20 bill. Their report states he tried to resist arrest. But videos captured by bystanders show he cooperated peacefully. Yet, he was still restrained with unnecessary force, with Officer Derek Chauvin forcing his knee on Floyd’s neck.
Robert Peel’s ideas of a Police Force was built upon the memories of the deadly 1780 Gordon Riots. Despite a 50 year gap between the events, it was hard to forget when the military killed 300– 700 civilians.
Now with deadly protests erupting across the US, a President threatening to send the military against civilians, the big question is, “When did it all go so wrong? How did we get back to square one?”
The Ugly History of Racism in Policing
Unfortunately, the sad truth is that the US strayed away from the Peelian principles centuries ago. The earliest instances of policing in the US were the slave patrols. Consisting of groups of armed white men, as the name suggested, they were tasked with hunting runaway slaves. Despite slavery being outlawed after the American Civil War, this practice would continue.
The Southern states would then go onto criminalize all expressions of black freedom and repress their rights. Taking their twisted criminal records, academics in the Northern states further perpetuated the racist myth that African Americans were criminals. Just like that, the US became a state silently governed by white supremacy.
For centuries, this meant countless incidents of lynching and race riots where white supremacists attacked innocent African Americans. However, this ugly stain of racism on American history has been poorly documented. It wasn’t until HBO’s Watchmen premiered last year that the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre entered history textbooks. But this was merely one of the many ugly riots where white supremacists attacked African Americans.
In many of these incidents, “when police officers had the choice to protect black people from white mob violence, they chose to either aid and abet white mobs or to disarm black people or to arrest them,” shared, Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, Khalil Muhammad.
In response, many cities set up civil rights commissions to address the issue. For years, reports were released calling for more police accountability. Yet, every time, these calls fell on deaf ears.
“And then what historians would agree happened is that, in so many cities, the police became the proxy for what the white community wants…….. It’s the police that is called out, for example, when blacks try to integrate white neighborhoods,” states historian Heather Ann Thompson.
Communist Paranoia & Racism: a Cocktail of Hate
Fast forward to the 1950s and we see a shift in policing. The Cold War anti-communist paranoia saw a change for the worse in the mindset of law enforcement. It was a time when domestic rights activists were increasingly seen as foreign enemies. This was when an already racist mindset began to be militarized.
To quote Joy Rohde, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, “militarization is a mindset … is a tendency to see the world through the lens of national security, a tendency to exaggerate existing threats.”
Pair this mindset of seeing enemies everywhere with deeply ingrained racism and we’re seeing the consequences today. We now have police trained for aggression and chooses to shoot first. In his popular piece, Officer A. Cab goes in-depth to offer an honest inside look into this mindset.
Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop
I was a police officer for nearly ten years and I was a bastard. We all were.
With this mindset of aggression, the police would go onto unfairly target minorities. It would only intensify with practices such as the infamous Stop and Frisk. But as bad as things were getting in the 1950s, the next decade would see this mindset of aggression being fed with deadly weapons.
Guns! Guns! Guns! The War on Drugs
In 1981, the US Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act. Police departments now had access to military intelligence, infrastructure, and weaponry. This was part of the Reagan administration’s push to intensify the war on drugs. In the coming years, Police Departments across the US would receive more money and equipment from the federal government.
As a result, there was an explosion of anti-narcotics task forces across the US. A crucial component of them being SWAT teams, which were increasingly receiving military training and equipment. Further, a study conducted by Professors Peter Kraska and Victor Kappeler found that the use of SWAT teams by Police Departments across the US had grown tenfold between the early 1980s and late 1990s.
By the 1990s, it was estimated that Police Departments in Wisconsin alone had received 10,000 pieces of equipment from the military. Yet, despite all this, the typical officer on patrol was still relatively unarmed. Most would carry only pistols with only a handful carrying a shotgun in their cars.
But this would change with the 1997 North Hollywood shootout. Two bank robbers wore body armour that protected them from weapons by patrol officers who were the first responders. The incident would spur calls to equip patrol officers with better weaponry. Today, all LAPD patrol vehicles carry AR-15 assault rifles, have bulletproof doors, and officers are authorized to use deadlier .45 ACP calibre semiautomatic pistols.
The Patriots Rise: A Surveillance State is Born
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, just 1 month later, the US Congress passed the Patriot Act. It gave law enforcement unprecedented powers. This included permission to search a home or business without the owner’s or the occupant’s consent or knowledge if they were suspected of terrorism.
The Patriot Act also opened the door to widespread surveillance. It was a direct violation of the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. But there were no objections in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack. With it, the erosion of any limits on the powers of law enforcement would begin.
Another crucial juncture was in 2005 with the increased application of Qualified Immunity by the courts. In simple terms, this legal doctrine shields government officials from being sued for their actions. That is unless it’s “clearly established” they violated federal law or constitutional rights. In practice, this exception is nearly impossible to prove. Hence, a report by Reuters described it as “a nearly failsafe tool to let police brutality go unpunished.”
Racism and Police Brutality in the Spotlight
Many of us would like to think that racism is an ugly relic of a bygone era. However, the uncomfortable truth is that it’s still very much alive. The only thing that’s changed in recent years is social media, which is being used to document instances of these injustices.
The clearest example of the racist response to policing was documented only a few months ago. During the final weeks of April, protests had erupted across the US. It should be noted this wasn’t a uniquely American phenomenon. Such protests took place all across the world in Chile, the UK, Brazil, Germany and elsewhere. But in the US, there was a notable difference.
Yet, a uniquely American phenomenon of these lockdown protests was the response by its police force. As protestors, many of whom were white, carrying guns, stormed local governments and screamed at the faces of law enforcement, there was only silence.
This is in stark contrast to the law enforcement response to the George Floyd protests. Yet, as dark as things may seem, we still have hope. As people took to the streets across the US protesting police brutality, there were a few instances where it looked like officers were listening to their communities.
One of the first examples of this was seen in Genesee County, Michigan when Sheriff Chris Swanson took off his riot gear and walked alongside his community. His was one among other instances of solidarity seen by officers in several other cities.
Unfortunately, these instances have been criticized as mere PR stunts. In Buffao, New York, officers also kneeled to show their support. The very next day, they were back on the streets, clad in riot gear, and shoved an innocent 75 year old pedestrian onto the pavement.
The officers involved in the above incident were suspended. But soon after, 57 officers resigned in protest of their suspension. This was followed by law enforcement organizations in Florida announcing they wanted to hire these 57 officers and others being investigated for police brutality.
Granted there are honest police officers and violent ones who are corrupt. But as we’ve seen several times before, the institution has failed to hold its worst accountable. Hence, it’s only natural the public are cautious when trusting the police.
The coronavirus pandemic is still very real
Unlike with the lockdown protests, this time around, several people are being arrested as well. At the time of writing, over 10,000 people have been arrested for protesting against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Mind you the threat of the coronavirus is still very real. That’s why health experts worry of a surge of cases in the coming weeks due to these arrests.
While acknowledging the protestors had a compelling cause, Ashish Jha, Professor of Global Health at Harvard said, “I’ve definitely been worried about people getting arrested, being put in police vans that are very enclosed with lots of potential arrestees, and going to jail cells with no social distancing and not wearing masks.”
Big Tech has made this problem a LOT harder to fix
The Police Force, which Robert Peel originally envisioned was one that served its community. The Peelian principles emphasized the need to have public support while using force only as a last resort. Sadly, 191 years later, these principles have been forgotten.
But by revisiting the past, we now know where we need to go. As we take to the streets and our digital platforms, decrying the injustices of a militarized police force prone to brutality, Robert Peel’s ideals serve as a guide towards where we need to go.
However, getting there is no easy task and big tech has made it harder than ever. The industry has developed a vast surveillance infrastructure that the police are now using to monitor and oppress. The most obvious example of this being the pervasive use of facial recognition.
Facial Recognition & The Surveillance State. Big Tech’s New Export.
The Police have begun heavily relying on facial recognition. The technology is very deeply flawed. But tech companies…
In doing so, tech companies have packaged aggressive policing as a product for export. Given the US is a global superpower, it has vast cultural influence. As a result, we’re seeing this phenomenon with greater intensity in other parts of the world. A few being Hong Kong, India, and Israel.
Sadly, America’s problem with police brutality isn’t a uniquely American problem anymore.