A late acquaintance offered the following scenario for determining a person’s underlying attitudes. Let’s say we happen to have police officers beating a suspect. We know nothing about the incident other than what we witness. Is our instinct to rage at the beating – or do we feel that the cops must be right and the suspect is undoubtedly getting what he deserves?
As someone who generally distrusts government authority and has reported several troubling incidents of police use of force, you can probably guess where I’d come from. But I know people who have been victims of violent crimes and they seem more likely to side with the police. Typically, people tend to make quick judgments about these encounters based on their preconceptions rather than facts.
Until relatively recently, however, the police authorities completely controlled the dissemination of these “facts” and the investigative process. For example, California law gives accused police officers so many procedural protections that it is almost impossible to have actual liability. The internal culture of the “thin blue line” leads the public to mistrust official information. Fortunately, video cameras have changed that dynamic.
Oddly enough, footage of a brutal incident — like the police shooting of an unarmed man begging for his life in Arizona or that Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck — doesn’t always change viewers’ attitudes. Police defenders will continue to make excuses for the officers or change the subject by criticizing the resulting protests or riots.
For their part, many community activists will criticize the police even when the suspect behaves violently. It seems almost impossible to bridge the gap between “badge-supporting” conservatives who fly those desecrating blue-striped flags and “defund the police” progressives who don’t acknowledge the human victims of the latest wave of violent crime.
Perhaps the latest horrific incident in Memphis could nudge the nation back to center: toward an understanding that we can actually do two things at once by fighting violent crime and firing badge-wearing thugs. A few years ago, the stars aligned for a sensible bipartisan movement for police reform, but recent culture wars have swept away that opportunity.
It was painful to watch the video of four Memphis police officers beating Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop near his home last month. “The original police report said Nichols ‘began to fight’ with the officers and at one point grabbed one of their guns,” CNN reported. “But neither claim is supported by police video footage released last week.”
Someone gave the report to the radio host despite the consternation of the police department. To their credit, the department has released some of the gruesome videos. While Nichols was on the ground, one officer kicked him, another hit him with a baton, and another sprayed him with pepper spray. It reportedly took 22 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Fortunately, the city fired the officers and the district attorney’s office is pressing charges.
This case will make it difficult for the culture warriors of the left and right to focus on tangents. The video is long, so the defenders of the police cannot claim that it was taken out of context. Nichols is black, but so were his attackers—thus downplaying the racism angle. So far, the ensuing protests have been perfectly peaceful, allowing the public to focus on the incident rather than the aftermath.
As I have often argued, the problem centers on the nature of our current police bureaucracy and its stubborn refusal to accept even modest reforms. The current police culture promotes militarization – the idea that police officers are engaged in a war for our streets, rather than a civilian operation that requires the support and trust of the community. That’s why I oppose the military’s efforts to send dismantled equipment to local police forces.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle actively seek the support of police organizations, passing crime laws and other measures that always increase funding. Even in progressive California, union-friendly Democrats have granted police unions a special charter of rights and secrecy protections that make it nearly impossible to fire abusive cops.
Federal laws grant officers a wide range of immunities. The federal war on drugs has led to asset forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement agencies to take property from us without due process or proof that its owner has committed a crime. If you adopt the laws of a police state, you will get the behavior of a police state. Yet instead of evaluating these measures individually, Americans easily fall into the “pro-cop” or “anti-cop” trap.
And even when lawmakers pass the long-awaited reform, the bureaucracy digs in and resists its implementation. California Attorney General Rob Bonta publicly supported the police surveillance measures. However, CAL is important reports that the Justice Department “failed to investigate—or even record—all police killings of presumably unarmed people,” as required by the 2020 law.
ReasonJD Tuccille is right that the Nichols killing should reinvigorate broad efforts at police reform—but that will only happen when Americans stop instinctively choosing sides and start looking deeply at the way our “public safety” agencies operate.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.