The police are constituted to act on behalf of society. They embody society’s power. The police are the enforcement teeth behind the laws, the courts, the mayor or governor — all the branches of government. Besides requesting and coaxing and cajoling, besides careful de-escalation, besides the intimidating authority of their physical presence, our police wield force, even lethal force, ostensibly to further society’s goals.
That’s how it’s supposed to work.
In many places, much of the time, for many people, that’s how it does work. As Brandon del Pozo says, our police occupy “a positive and indispensable place” in our society.
Yet the individual members of our police forces are, like all of us, entirely human, hence fallible. Individually and collectively, they will make mistakes, get things wrong, sometimes. Some get things wrong nearly all the time. Some police, too many, are so fallible that they work evil. In some places, nearly all the citizens suffer wrong police behavior nearly all the time.
Many protests and many writers have made the case that systemic police violence and injustice are deep and widespread, with a long history. That case has been made far beyond my poor ability, as a septuagenarian white man, to add or detract.
Even so, with this brief essay I necessarily add my voice to those of the protesters, even as I do not physically join the crowds. History will judge not just the complicit but the silent, so I must speak.
“The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police was a horrible tragedy.” (Charlie Baker, Governor of Massachusetts)
“I’m opposed to police officers murdering people. I’m opposed to looting, arson, and destruction, as well. Who exactly can be for these things? I’m also opposed to those police deploying tear gas and pepper spray (and physical violence) against people who are peacefully protesting.” (Derek Lowe)
Another blogger notes the “decades-long history of violent, brutal, racist, xenophobic and routinely unconstitutional behavior” in one urban police department, Seattle. (Eric Lippert)
Del Pozo says today’s police “are powerless to disentangle themselves from the wider web of anger at their profession.” He’s an expert, but let me go out on a limb and address the good cops directly:
I suggest that one way out is for you to embrace the anger, and join it. Not anger at your profession: it is not true that ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards). But some are — some individuals, some departments — and they deserve your deep, rich anger at them, for their actions tar your profession and fuel the citizen anger of today. You work too hard, you do too much good, to let the bad cops define your profession. They make all police look bad, make your jobs harder, sap the respect you deserve, and ruin your reputation. You deserve better from your colleagues. But you will have to act on it.
The good cops should step out from behind the Blue Wall of Silence, go around to the other side of the (metaphoric) protest barricade, and speak out. Condemn murder by police. Condemn excessive use of force, including militarized weaponry, against your fellow citizens. Condemn injustice “directed at African Americans, First Nations people, Latinos, immigrants, the homeless, the mentally ill and many other minority populations” (Lippert). Make your voices heard — the media are standing by to be your megaphones!
To be sure, protest-worthy police behavior is only a small part of the wider societal injustice we all live with and in (and, some of us, constitute and benefit from). There is a lot more that needs to be fixed. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (MLKjr) But even when, especially when, everything seems like it needs to be fixed, that is no license for evil to continue. The respect deserved by “<Your city>’s Finest”, could arise again, but only if the Finest voices can be heard.