As the kids would say, “Shit’s fucked.” Yes, indeed.
But first things first: when it comes to trampling the civil rights of our country’s minority populations, it’s not just the cops. They’re the front line, the point of contact, sure. And they need a serious overhaul. But it’s also the prosecutors and judges, the entire legal system. It’s a simple, ugly fact that from bottom to top, our legal system fails black Americans. It has for generations. It has to change.
It’s been said over and over that “if you have ten bad cops and a thousand good cops, but the good cops don’t hold the bad cops accountable, then you have 1,010 bad cops.” This is…oversimplifying things. Because, for the good cops, it simply isn’t that easy.
Just hear me out here for a second. I promise you there’s a point to all this, and if we’re going to improve our legal system, we have to understand the hows and whys of some of this stuff. Okay? Cool.
A law enforcement officer in this country has a very dangerous job. Every time they pull over a speeder on a dark highway at 2am, they know there’s a chance (no matter how slim) that the person being pulled over is dangerous. Panicked. Drunk? Maybe. Armed? Possibly. Consider what it’s like responding to a domestic dispute call. Are you going to have to taze a guy? Is the husband swinging a baseball bat at his family, or worse? What about a bar fight? Knives, guns, all manner of dangerous implements might be brought to bear on the officer. Now, this is all a risk that a police officer accepts when they put on the badge. Most of them (I still have to believe that most of our cops are good. I have to. I’ve known enough cops in my lifetime to refuse to believe that they’re all secretly wearing a façade, hiding their true, violent, racist personas from me. If so, they’re very good at it) know that it’s an acceptable risk for maintaining the peace. Serving and protecting. So, if you’re that good cop, you also know that if and when you need backup, it’s going to be one of your brothers or sisters in blue who has you back. If you’re going into a crack house full of people who want you dead, you absolutely have to trust that the person going in with you will do whatever it takes to keep you safe.
So what if, later that week, you see the same cop who safeguarded your life, abusing a person of color? Obviously the right thing to do is to intervene. Best case, you need to step in to protect the person being assailed, and then report it to a superior. But…what happens when you need that cop to have your back again?
Again, I’m not saying it’s right. I’m saying that we have to understand how and why cops don’t police one another. So what do we do? How do we ensure that the good cops don’t let the bad ones get away with crimes against the citizens they are charged with protecting?
An idea that’s been recently circulated is one which I’m honestly surprised took this long to materialize: civilian oversight. When a cop is brought up on some sort of complaint, take it out of the hands of the police. Let a council of citizens determine if the officer was out of line. It would be like jury duty: you get a letter in the mail instructing you to show up to a disciplinary hearing. If the public thinks the complaint is unfounded, then life goes on. But if they find negligence, corruption, or any sort of overreach, then the officer must face punishment. It’s accountability, and removes a lot of the stigma of “ratting out” fellow officers. I know there are kinks in the idea, like where does the complaint originate? A citizen? That’s a good place to start. Make some sort of channel, a path towards justice, for citizens. There has to be someone for them to go to that isn’t the very cops they’re complaining about. And maybe an anonymous tip line or something for the police themselves. Rather than go straight to internal affairs, they submit an online complaint via a specific website. I don’t know all the details, I don’t have all the answers here, but we have to move in some sort of direction that will allow the cops to police themselves, and if not, allow the public to do it.
But aside from all that, there’s one very easy way to improve our nation’s law enforcement problem. It wouldn’t cost anything. It wouldn’t require an overhaul of the entire justice system (although we really need one of those anyway.) No, the best way to ensure that we have great law enforcement officers keeping the peace? Have better law enforcement officers. How do we get better officers? That’s where you come in. And I mean that literally. Join the force. Sign up for the police academy (according to those old Steve Guttenberg films, that place is HILARIOUS!). Get a degree in criminal justice. Get sworn in. Become a deputy, a patrolman. If good citizens join the police, the police will be made up of good citizens.
The problem has been that the good people aren’t signing up. Not in numbers that matter, anyway. Recruitment is down, everywhere. When the police department can’t find good recruits, well…it takes what it can get. It settles for guys who never went to college, never experienced a race or culture other than the one they were raised in. Thus, you get a squad of homophobic, misogynistic, racist bullies. You get people who have felt powerless their whole lives, and now they want some god damned respect. You get people with anger issues. You get bad cops.
So, how about it? Want to change the world? Want to clean up law enforcement? Your local department is probably hiring. And until all the other reforms kick in, it just might be the easiest way to start fixing things.