America has a problem: police brutality. In 2017 alone, American police killed 1,147 people.1 Police – whose job it is to protect people – have killed 1,147 people.1 While individual police officers are responsible for the deaths of these people, we also have the justice system as a whole to blame for these tragedies. It is evident that, as a whole, the latter has been designed to punish people rather than to uplift them. Case in point: America “…spends more than twice as much on law and order as it does on cash welfare…”2 As welfare spending decreases, poverty levels increase, and as poverty levels increase, crime rates increase. Instead of investing in futures and a better America, we invest in prisons. We invest in punishment. Additionally, the prevalence of force in policing is unacceptable, yet little is done to fix this issue. Police officers are often left unaccountable for their actions, even if these actions result in an individual’s death. Although they are supposed to protect against discrimination and all that is wrong, they are oftentimes the perpetrators of violence and discrimination. We cannot deny the individual officers’ roles in this process; however, it is obvious that we can change the system and the culture within the system to prevent further violence and discrimination.
First, we must address the large-scale dehumanization of whole communities by some police. In his book, On Combat, Lt. Colonel Grossman presents a theory that divides people into “Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs.” According to Lt. Col. Grossman, the sheep are unsuspecting citizens with no capacity for evil, the wolves are “bad guys” who exist solely to prey upon the sheep, and the sheepdogs are the police, who protect the citizens from the wolves.3 Not every police officer has this sort of mentality, but police officers that do jeopardize their communities. This picture of the world grossly oversimplifies reality. People are neither predisposed to evil nor predisposed to good, as the metaphor suggests. This view of the world dehumanizes “criminals.” This is the danger. Thinking of and treating people like this, as less than human, makes it easier for police officers to abuse their power. The dehumanization of others “…opens the door for cruelty and genocide.” The Nazis dehumanized Jewish people during the Holocaust, Hutus referred to the Tutsis as cockroaches during the Rwanda genocide, and slaveowners thought of slaves as less than human.4 The police will not likely commit a mass genocide of its people. However, the dehumanization of so-called “criminals” allows police officers to more easily – with less guilt – resort to using excessive force. In turn, this excessive force can result in the serious injury or death of the “criminal.”
The problems created by this sort of mentality are compounded with the fact that the current system, which gives inappropriately broad powers to the police force, was built in a racially divided nation by White people determined to preserve their power. The first American police force was created in Boston in 1838: an antebellum America. Massachusetts had abolished slavery by that time; however, not everyone was truly equal. Just one proof of this is that Black men and women had not yet gained the right to vote. Not to mention the fact that in the South, police departments were born from the “Slave Patrol.”5 Therefore, the system, designed in a racist society for the preservation of White supremacy, has been designed to overlook discrimination. The inappropriately broad police powers bestowed upon officers give them license to target Black and Brown people and communities at much higher rates than they do other communities, regardless of history of crime or crime rates.6 They are able to target and use force on people merely because they simply “[look] sketchy”7 (as in the case of Elijah McClain) and use an inappropriate amount of force without penalty, at their discretion. According to the district attorney for Adams County, where Elijah McClain was killed, “…there was not enough evidence the officers had broken the law when they used force on Mr. McClain”7 to file charges. Furthermore, the officers were not fired. They were placed on administrative leave and then reinstated. The officers used excessive force on a man, eventually killing him, because he looked suspicious and did not violate any established rule set in place by the Aurora, CO police department – at least not enough to get fired.7 The department should not have accepted this behavior and allowed the officers to continue working with little consequence for their actions. This sort of nonchalance is why Black people are “…three times more likely to be killed by police than white people,” 8 and the officers who kill these people are often left unaccountable. Police are able to get away with using inordinate amounts of force on whomever they choose if they choose to do so. And it just so happens that those targeted are disproportionately Black.
Because of how it was created and who it was created by, we need to radically change the structure of the law enforcement system. The biases of those who created the police force are inherently ingrained in the system. They continue to allow for “dirty cops” to continue to abuse their power and oppress people, especially Black and Brown people. We need to change the system to prevent this sort of behavior because, unfortunately, we cannot expect each and every person on the police force to be innately good or immune to the corrupting forces of the current system. In the words of Machiavelli, we must “…[adapt our] course of action to conditions of the present time…”9 Right now, the “…conditions…” provide that some police officers will be biased. It should not be that way, but it is. And until we can reach a point where discrimination is nonexistent, we must change our systems to protect against these conditions rather than attempting to do the opposite. The opposite will get us nowhere.
- Sinyangwe, Samuel, and DeRay McKesson. 2017 Police Violence Report, 2020. https://policeviolencereport.org/.
- Ingraham, Christopher. “U.S. Spends Twice as Much on Law and Order as It Does on Cash Welfare, Data Show.” The Washington Post. WP Company, June 4, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/04/us-spends-twice-much-law-order-it-does-social-welfare-data-show/.
- Grossman, David. On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. Warrior Science Publications, October 1, 2008.
- Conan, Neal, and David Livingstone Smith. “‘Less Than Human’: the Psychology of Cruelty.” NPR. NPR, March 29, 2011. https://www.npr.org/2011/03/29/134956180/criminals-see-their-victims-as-less-than-human
- Potter, Gary. “The History of Policing in the United States, Part 1.” Eastern Kentucky University Police Studies Online. Eastern Kentucky University, June 25, 2013. https://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/history-policing-united-states-part-1
- Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, January 5, 2010.
- Tompkins, Lucy. “Here’s What You Need to Know About Elijah McClain’s Death.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, June 30, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/article/who-was-elijah-mcclain.html
- Sinyangwe, Samuel, and DeRay McKesson. Mapping Police Violence, June 30, 2020. https://mappingpoliceviolence.org
- Machiavelli, Niccolo, and Mark Musa. Machiavelli’s The Prince: A Bilingual Edition. St. Martin’s Press, 1964.