Prevalence of Police Brutality: Trust and Entitlement
As the protests in Ferguson continue to showcase some of the best and some of the worst of human nature, the national discussion about police brutality takes center stage.
Anyone on the left is almost certainly reacting with an admixture of emotions right now. We’re glad to see this issue get the attention it deserves. We’re also saddened that it took this long for the issue to be discussed and to get outrage. We may even be optimistic that perhaps the fact that people are waking up to the issue, including many in the white community, shows that there may be a break in the tendency for the race of many victims of police brutality to cause the issue to not receive adequate attention.
Many rightly ask, “How prevalent can this kind of brutality be be?” Cop Block reports that about six thousand incidents of police misconduct occurred between April 2009 and June 2010, and about twenty five hundred in the six months from January to June in 2010. The 2010 statistics were especially illuminating, since more than half of the incidents of misconduct included serious derelictions of duty, indications of poor judgment or even bona fide criminal behavior. Between the 23.3% of these 2541 reports of misconduct that regarded excessive force, the 10.6% regarding sexual misconduct, 7.5% regarding fraud or theft, 6.2% regarding false arrest (which is if one thinks about it basically kidnapping), and the 5% regarding driving under the influence, easily half of these acts of misconduct are either crimes (misdemeanors or felonies) or extremely immoral behavior that goes beyond merely having a lapse of judgment.
The excessive force complaints in 2010 in particular had 60% of the misconduct being about the use of firearms. In other words, the majority of the violent conduct reported regarding police is about the most lethal weapon in their arsenal.
As serious as several thousand incidents of police misconduct occurring annually may be, in terms of the net number of interactions that the public has with the police, these interactions of misconduct is actually a fairly small subset. Even if every single one of these acts of misconduct were committed by a unique officer, the total of a little more than a million law enforcement personnel and about eight hundred thousand sworn personnel (as of 2008) means that these thousands of instances of misconduct would only tarnish less than one percent of police officers.
But virtually anyone who has listened to the African-American community or even been imprisoned as a result of participating in a rally knows that these misconduct complaints paint a quite probably misleading picture. Many acts of misconduct, most likely the majority, are never detected. Victims don’t report or the police officers committing them aren’t caught. Consider, for example, the issue of theft or financial misconduct or fraud by officers. How easy must it be for an officer to take contraband from a suspect and retain it for personal use or sale, or to steal from an evidence room, without ever being caught? There are obviously some safeguards in place against this kind of behavior, but can anyone seriously imagine that they’re remotely sufficient?
So we get the cliché of an officer bumping a suspect’s head when putting the suspect into a patrol car, or the common complaints by African-Americans both in and out of the ghetto of being monitored and subtly harassed by police officers. And we have to consider this as part of a spectrum that includes police brutality. What many whites fail to understand about the rage that has exploded in Ferguson is that it isn’t just about the outright acts of brutality. The brutality is merely the most outward expression of a deeper problem of police culture, where cops make certain people feel unwelcome, unwanted and treat them as criminals and where officers get away with their crimes and misconduct routinely. The brutality is only part of the problem: The bigger problem is that, for many people in this country, the average interaction with a police officer is one fraught with mutual mistrust and fear.
After all, the Ferguson grand jury is not the first grand jury to let an officer off. Again, as Cop Block notes, only 33% of officers that are charged are convicted (as of 2009). Okay, there’s a lot of reasons for that: Evidence can be hard to get, and even the most committed DA will be under a lot of political pressure. But 64% of those convicted receive prison sentences. That means that even those officers who are caught, tried and convicted have a fairly reasonable expectation of being able to pay a fine, do community service, perhaps lose their job and pension, or perhaps go back to work.
Trying to measure the amount of brutality that actually occurs in any real way is much harder. My research on the topic found that almost no one was talking about what is probably the real level of brutality in any way that seemed likely to actually generate statistics. However, consider this from Phillip Bulman of the National Institute of Justice: “Researchers have estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of arrests involve use of force… Injury rates to civilians ranged from 17 to 64 percent (depending on the agency reporting) in use-of-force events, while injury rates to officers ranged from 10 to 20 percent”. Now, to be fair, most of these injuries are minor such as “bruises, strains or abrasions”, and these numbers do seem to be improving with newer non-lethal technology.
But still, the fact that, of every hundred arrests, at least fifteen will involve some amount of force, seems incredibly worrisome. When we consider the pattern of brutality that the activists at Ferguson are arguing exist, then, it becomes clear how this could emerge. Quite a lot of people who are ultimately arrested (instead of just let off with a warning or having a benign interaction with police officers) get physically hurt, and so do the officers. That doesn’t include the amount of times that an officer “just has a conversation” with a group of people who are doing nothing wrong. All of these interactions therefore take on an aura of suspense and danger.
A fantastic American Conservative article provides another piece of the puzzle. This article examines some of the reasons why brutality is systemic, not anecdotal. One of the crucial problems is in fact that standards for police brutality haven’t been set at the national level. But there’s a much bigger indicator that I think shows how deep the problem actually is and also why our statistics aren’t very good: “A Department of Justice study revealed that a whopping 84 percent of police officers report that they’ve seen colleagues use excessive force on civilians, and 61 percent admit they don’t always report ‘even serious criminal violations that involve abuse of authority by fellow officers’.” So there’s a lot of bad apples, but their fellow cops don’t stand up to them.
Human beings are not rational in terms of our fear assessment. We can say that a police officer is less likely than a factory worker to be killed or injured on the job all we want, but a police officer feels that threat every day. When combined with a culture that lionizes vigilantes and cowboy cops who “push the line”, from Dirty Harry to Law and Order’s Logan and Stabler, the psychological inducements to become brutal are there.
What all of this says to me is that police officers have failed to build trust with communities. Yet so many of these officers want to stand in solidarity with Darren Wilson, despite the fact that it seems so emphatically clear that Wilson should at least stand trial.
I see a sense of entitlement in this reaction that police officers have. When one views oneself as “the thin blue line” between chaos and order, it can be very easy to view any criticism as being rather ungrateful. I get that. And it is undoubtedly the case that many officers are (excuse the pun) criminally underpaid.
But police officers are public servants. If people mistrust them, especially if whole communities mistrust them, that’s their failing.
In my own interpersonal dynamics with others, I have often had to win their trust to be able to help. That process is hard. It’s not a linear one: It seems to be perpetually stalled until there is suddenly a breakthrough. But it’s up to me to win trust, not up to the other person to give it.
Many officers show exemplary service, and they should be honored. But police officers show an incredible sense of entitlement that leads to a logic of poor accountability when so many of the officers who are actually convicted do not spend a single day in jail. Many officers stand in solidarity with fellow officers who have shot at them, who have committed horrible crimes, who are sexually abusive or are abusive to their intimate partners.
Consider that statistic, that the vast majority of officers see violence and yet we are not seeing these officers publicly speaking out about it, standing up at the moment it happens, reporting it, and so forth. How can officers publicly claim to be the line against chaos when they idly sit by when their own brothers do the harm?
A real band of brothers makes sure that their wayward brothers get the help they need. Sometimes, that help comes in the form of consequences. Officers need to start demanding better from themselves. They should be asking, “How can we repair the bridges with communities that we have allowed to collapse? How can we win back the trust of the public? How can we make sure that our conduct is the best possible?” Heroes have to be accountable. That’s the cost of being a hero.