Toxic Perceptions Of Authority In The Police Brutality Debate
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Politics and Activism

Toxic Perceptions Of Authority In The Police Brutality Debate

It's time for better accountability for those we trust to protect and serve.

Toxic Perceptions Of Authority In The Police Brutality Debate

"If you don't want to be mistreated by the police, don't break the law."

That sentiment is expressed by somebody, often on Facebook, every time a police brutality incident gains national attention. Not always in so many words, but basically the same sentiment.

"If you don't want to be mistreated by the police, don't break the law."

I recall specifically after the Eric Garner verdict was released, reading a Facebook comments section filled with comments basically saying the same thing, with slight differences in wording. I'm convinced that a good many of those commenters didn't even bother to read the facts of the case before commenting.

"If you don't want to be mistreated by the police, don't break the law."

I object to this line of thought because it grossly oversimplifies the very complex issue of police brutality. While many with this view might acknowledge the existence of corrupt cops or isolated police brutality incidents, it is often used to deny that police brutality is a problem. Granted, I'm uncertain of the scale of the problem, or whether corrupt cops are the majority or the exception to the rule. I just know that while there are many good cops, these incidents happen often enough that police brutality is a problem that needs fixing.

The bigger problem with this view is that it allows for those who hold it to make assumptions about highly publicized cases of police brutality. Even if they understand that some cops can abuse their power--which many do--they still might assume that, when these incidents make headlines, the victim must have done something to deserve the harsh treatment by the cop.

When that assumption is made about a situation such as that of Alton Sterling, who was shot in the chest by police while on the ground, on the basis that he allegedly had a firearm on him, that promotes a dangerous idea of police authority. If the gun was simply on him, if he wasn't wielding it or shooting at anyone, that isn't justification enough to shoot him.

The "breaking the law" part of this soundbite is especially problematic, as it implies that as soon as a citizen breaks the law, the police have carte blanche to do whatever they want to them. "Breaking the law" encompasses a wide variety of offenses, from traffic violations like speeding or running red lights, to crimes against humanity like rape or murder. Different crimes require different penalties; the punishment should fit the crime. And even if the crime is rape or murder, that alone doesn't justify an officer shooting the suspect. We have due process of law in place to prevent draconian criminal justice systems like that. Those suspected of a crime, regardless of the crime, are entitled to a fair trial with a proper defense.

That's why it bothers me how much attention Alton Sterling's criminal record received. It isn't the first time that a victim's past has been drudged up and used to assassinate their character, and to justify brutal, and sometimes fatal, treatment of them by police. But if Alton Sterling had already done his time, why is that relevant to whether the police were justified in shooting him? Did his status as a convict make it okay for police to just shoot him point blank? If you don't think so, you shouldn't bring up his criminal record at all.

The other problem with that soundbite is that it erases the role of race in police brutality. I can hear people moaning about how I'm "bringing race into this," but I cannot "bring race" into anything. I can not mention the influence of race and pretend that it doesn't exist, but the link between racial profiling and police brutality will still be there. Ignoring it doesn't make it magically go away.

If you still don't think that the color of one's skin doesn't influence treatment of citizens by cops, that the system is stacked against people of color, your opinion is contradictory to the evidence. I could cite statistics showing that people of color are charged with drug possession more than white people, despite similar rates of drug use. I could cite studies showing evidence of implicit bias against people of color in police officers, including an experiment in which officers who partook in a shooting video game simulation were found to shoot black suspects quicker than white suspects when suspects were armed. The discrepancies are there, so any conversation about police brutality must include discussion of race.

When we entrust certain individuals with the task of keeping our streets safe, we hold them to a higher standard. The officers who do their jobs well and legitimately strive to protect and serve deserve our utmost respect. But police officers are human, too, and with access to the kind of power and authority the police have comes the temptation to abuse it. When those who we trust to protect us and grant authority over us use that authority to abuse the civilians they are supposed to protect, that betrays our ability to trust them. That's why there needs to be a check on their power, and a better accountability system in place. Police officers should be properly trained, and if they abuse their power, they are removed from the force. If they break the law, they are subjected to the same legal system as ordinary civilians, with an independent, third-party prosecutor.

When officers who abuse their power are let off the hook with a slap on the wrist and allowed to remain on the force, the ensuing mistrust among civilians makes officers' jobs tougher and more dangerous. That's why, if you want people to respect the police, if you are truly concerned about police safety, you should support the efforts championed by Black Lives Matter to toughen the accountability standards for police. Because that's all anyone wants: to ensure that cops who abuse their power are held accountable, and more so, to be able to trust those in power.

So, if you are tempted to respond to these police brutality incidents with "If you don't want the police to mistreat you, don't break the law," stop and think: What do you want the powers of the police to look like? Is this really the standard that you want to uphold? I don't know about you, but police officers who do what they did to Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and scores of other black individuals do not deserve my trust and respect, nor do they deserve to wear the badge.

No justice, no peace. No racist police.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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