I have no special insights into the recent awful series of abuses by American police officers against American citizens (mostly male and mostly Black). But I’m not surprised to see it happening. I have been troubled, as a White man, for years by the practices employed by our local police in patrolling our neighborhoods.
During my tenure as a reporter in the Midwest, I covered the civil rights lawsuit filed by a middle-aged Black man who was grabbed by the local (white) cops, beaten to the point of needing treatment at an emergency room, handcuffed to the bed while at the hospital, and later released. The federal court found for the plaintiff and forced the city to pay thousands of dollars in penalties. Just a few miles away from that city, the local police (especially the canine patrol officer) had a habit of stopping motorists on bogus charges and beating them viciously (these guys were equal opportunity abusers, didn’t matter if you were Black or White). I was warned early on not to drive through that city late at night.
I lived in a city not far from these two, and over time began to notice that when the police cruisers cruised through my neighborhood, they would slow down and stare at me, even if I was simply standing in my own yard.
Over time, I noticed that the younger officers (as departments were “militarized” with kevlar vests and black riot gear) began shaving their heads and wearing dark or mirror sunglasses. That practice continues to this day in the town we first moved to here in Maine. The police patrolled our street, near the tiny, downtown business district, frequently, always scrutinizing anyone outside through those mirror sunglasses that prevent you from ever making eye contact with them. I really came to resent being treated as a potential offender, especially as my hair turned from brown to white and I obviously looked like an older citizen. My objection to the way the officers distanced themselves from me was aggravated every time I read, on the side of the police car, those increasingly ironic words: SERVE AND PROTECT.
Years and years ago, when former Philadelphia police chief Frank Rizzo had been elevated to mayor, people objected to the level of violence perpetrated against citizens by Philly cops. To prove the cops weren’t at fault, they subjected all of them to aggression tests. As I recall, better than fifty percent of those officers demonstrated an aggression level above the cutoff established by psychologists for engaging in police work. I’m guessing many of our officers today would show egregious levels of aggression. Rizzo didn’t test for racism, but I suspect many of the overly-aggressive officers would also demonstrate unhealthy attitudes toward people of color, and in some cases, toward human beings in general.
I actually started researching this topic with the intention of writing a novel about modern American policing several years ago, and one of the major things I learned from a veteran cop’s book was that these shaved-headed officers are not taught to abuse the public in the police academy, they learn it from the veterans on whatever force they join when they graduate. So maybe it’s a “culture” problem that could be ameliorated by weeding out the bad cops and rewiring the thought processes of the young ones. That might make more of a difference than charging them with murder when they cross the line and kill a citizen (as someone said yesterday, criminal trials don’t do much good for the dead person). In the meantime, as we work toward healthier policing in America, I suggest we take away those damned mirror sunglasses. It might make a difference in how things develop if we could just look these folks in the eye.