To Watch the Watchmen: An Understanding of Police Brutality

Quis custodiet ispos custodes?

“Who watches the watchmen?”1

Only a few weeks ago in the city of Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke was formally charged with the murder of 17 year old Laquan McDonald. Like Walter Scott’s murder by a cop earlier this year, Laquan’s murder was captured on camera, but sealed away from the public for a year. However, as a result of a lawsuit by independent journalist Brandon Smith against the city of Chicago, the public can witness Van Dyke firing sixteen bullets towards a fleeing teenager. As a result of the video’s release and public backlash against its year-long withholding, Chicago Police Department (CPD) superintendent Garry McCarthy resigned and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel issued an apology. Attorney General Loretta Lynch only recently announced an investigation into the CPD’s practices and procedures.

The national attention and scrutiny over police-involved killings have brought extra attention to Laquan McDonald’s murder. Only recently, officers “accidentally” killed 55 year old Bettie Jones and 19 year old Quitonio LeGrier during a domestic disturbance call. However, if any of these reports and commentary (academic research and personal anecdotes alike) reveal anything to the general audience, it is that police-killings and brutality against Black people is not a recent phenomena. As Atlantic journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates stated, “It’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new.”

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Figure 1: Protestors demonstrating against McDonald’s murder. Cred Jet Magazine

The same can be said about the Chicago PD and many of its officers, whose brutal practices against Black citizens extend back decades. Whether it was Jon Burge’s torture of over 200 black men into false confessions, the other non-Burge torture of suspects at various “black-sites”, 2 or the allegations by black officers of police misconduct aided by a “code of silence”3  within the department, Loretta Lynch’s investigation will more than likely be a damning indictment against the CPD that will only spark more subsequent commentary and scrutiny. Some will probably be surprised by the extent (or even the existence) of racism and misconduct in the CPD. Others, particularly Black Americans, will not be shocked by the outcome.

Yet, in light of all the attention towards law enforcement’s violations, we must recognize this stark reality: police officers and their departments are not intrinsically benevolent.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 file photo, Daniel Holtzclaw, front, an Oklahoma City police officer accused of sexually assaulting women he encountered while on patrol in neighborhoods near the state Capitol, is led into a courtroom for a hearing in Oklahoma City. Holtzclaw is one of number of law officers in the state that were accused of sexually assaulting women while on the job, one of the top stories in the state during 2014. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

Figure 2: Former OKC officer Daniel Holtzclaw found guilty of rape. Cred Huffpost

I find no use in overgeneralizations such as “police are racist pigs” or “jack-booted thugs,” although I certainly understand where these characterizations come from. I am also not questioning how many “good cops” there are to “bad cops” nor am I calling for a society without police. Instead, I am simply challenging the prevailing narrative that automatically associates the occupation of “cop” with “good.”

Despite all the television police procedurals Americans consume such as Law and Order: SVU, Quantico, and (ironically) Chicago PD, the cultural view of cops as fundamentally being vanguards of a decaying society against a rising criminal horde is a myopic one. Michelle Alexander writes of this hagiographic 4 viewpoint in her book The New Jim Crow:

These fictional dramas, like the evening news, tend to focus on individual stories of crime, victimization, and punishment, and the stories are typically told from the point of view of law enforcement. A charismatic police officer, investigator, or prosecutor struggles with his own demons while heroically trying to solve a horrible crime. He ultimately achieves a personal and moral victory by finding the bad guy and throwing him in jail. That is the made-for-TV version of the criminal justice system. It perpetuates the myth that the primary function of the system is to keep our streets safe and our homes secure by rooting out dangerous criminals and punishing them. These television shows, especially those that romanticize drug-law enforcement, are the modern-day equivalent of the old movies portraying happy slaves, the fictional gloss placed on a brutal system of racialized oppression and control. The New Jim Crow p. 59.

The fact is that police in real-life are not the noble (or even comic book level anti-heroic) servants of justice we see in fiction. Being a cop does not automatically entitle the label good anymore than being a soldier means one is a “hero” or a being a parishioner means being inherently “pious.” No one is good via their profession alone. Rather, what an individual does during their line of work and how institutions respond to injustice ultimately determines their moral standing; which is why Michelle Alexander, myself, and countless others detest such hagiographic portrayals of police, only because this viewpoint engages in a certain ahistoricism that ignores the centuries long police brutality against the Black community.

ct-rahm-emanuel-ethics-event-met-1219-20141218Figure 3: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel

Black Americans (as well as other people of color) have always felt the boot and baton of law enforcement going all the way back to slavery.5 While slavery and Jim Crow no longer exists and overt racist hostility is condemned, the attitudes that demonize black people (and a plethora of other) still exists. In addition to the Chicago PD’s violations I listed earlier, we can also look to how drug laws and mass incarceration disproportionately targets the black community, why police stop black civilians more so than white citizens, and the hundreds of millions of dollars of lawsuit money shelled out to black victims of police brutality. The reality is that the consistent over-policing of black communities, the stop and frisk laws that criminalize black and brown men, and the department’s seeming hostility towards change (supported by the blue wall of silence”6), have only aided in Black people’s current levels of distrust against law enforcement.

WARNING: Graphic Footage

4 LAPD officers beat Rodney King. 1991.

Because of the presence of racism in these institutions, citizens must face the stark reality that officers, like anyone else, are human and thus privy to the same biases and prejudices. Anyone can be a monster as easily as they can be an angel. It is why we see Daniel Holtzclaw, who was supposed to “protect and serve” use his badge to raped 13 black women on the job. It is why we see a few Kern County police officers sexually assaulting women while bribing and/or blackmailing them into staying silent. Their humanity and presence in society is also why they score similarly to civilians on Implicit Association Test, where subjects are more likely to shoot unarmed black men than armed white men. The only difference is, unlike the average racist civilian, racist police officers are empowered by the government, armed with unions, and protected by prosecution.

Because of their power, many civilians hesitate charging individual cops with brutality in fear of a legal backlash by their peers and department. For this same reason, even the so-called “good cops” rarely take sides or whistle-blow against their bad brethren because it violates the “the blue wall of silence.”

Which brings me back to my original question: “Who watches the watchmen?”

Plenty have argued for body cameras, although there have been plenty of instances where cops have been caught on film without any consequence.7 Others propose civilian oversight committees or special outside prosecutors to deal with violators. Plenty have also proposed ending the militarization of the police, which Amnesty International has charged as violating international norms.

Yet, police reform, given the power of its unions and the critical mass blindly supports law enforcement, does not seem to be likelihood in the near-future.

The answer to that question, no matter how it’s asked, is not readily available. But at the very least, particularly in the advent of the internet and social media, let us neither dismiss violations and shortcomings of police departments and their employees nor should we automatically assign a hagiography for every person with a badge. Otherwise, the Chicago PD as well as other departments wouldn’t be in the predicament of having to explain its history of violent behavior towards Black people over and over again.

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  1. I usually ask this question in its original Latin language every time the government or any authority commits some flagrant violation that goes unpunished. I’ve uttered this question over and over starting with the 2010 death of Oscar Grant at the hands of Johannes Mehserle to Laquan McDonald’s murder by the gun of Jason Van Dyke in 2014.

  2. As reported by the Guardian, Homan Square is one of the major locations where cops have allegedly tortured black men into false confessions.

  3. a condition in effect when a person opts to withhold what is believed to be vital or important information voluntarily or involuntarily.

  4. Hagiographic: adj. from noun “hagiography.” A biography of a saint or ecclesiastical leader. In a pejorative sense, a biography or viewpoint that is uncritical and over-embellishes its subject.

  5. Race, Racism and American Law by Derrick Bell.

  6. an unwritten ethic that exists among officers to not report any of their colleague’s violations. also known as “blue code” or blue shield.”

  7.  Eric Garner was choked to death on camera by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in August 2014. Despite the illegality of the chokehold in NYPD procedure, the Grand Jury refused to indict Pantaleo.

Racial Identity in Corporate Entertainment

Roman Reigns is one of the most popular (and most controversial) wrestlers working for the WWE today. Roman Reigns – whose real name is Leati Joseph “Joe” Anoa’i – has enjoyed much success in the WWE, first with the tag team/stable “The Shield” (with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose) to headlining a wildly successful Wrestlemania 31 main event match earlier this year. 

Reigns, also half-Italian via his mother, hails from the Samoan Anoa’i family, a multigenerational professional wrestling dynasty whose most famous member is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The WWE develops storylines around the familial relationships with all of these wrestlers. Currently, the company acknowledges Roman Reigns and the Usos as real-life cousins.

However, former WWE writer Kevin Eck recently posted on his blog that the company, allegedly, ordered the writers and broadcasters not to acknowledge Reigns’ relation to the Anoa’i family on the grounds that it would associate him with Samoan identity.

Yet, CEO Vince McMahon and COO Paul Levesque (better known as Triple H) vetoed the idea on the grounds that they could not acknowledge Roman Reigns as Samoan. As Eck said:

“[McMahon and Levesque’s] belief was that it would pigeonhole [Reigns] and damage his mystique. The inference was that the audience had a preconceived notion of what a Samoan wrestler is. You know, a guy in a grass skirt who wears a puka shell necklace.”

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This statement is somewhat alarming because it reveals the ongoing struggles non-white performers face with race even to this day. While the WWE has yet to comment on these allegations, it is no secret that the WWE has a sordid history with race and racism.

Should we ignore one’s racial and ethnic identity to prevent stereotypes? What are the implications in ignoring these identities?

To answer the first question, not acknowledging one’s racial identity, or “colorblindness,” is not a viable option in preventing racism. Colorblindness does not prevent both interpersonal and structural realities of racism against people of color, which include stereotypes as well as disproportionate rates of unemployment, incarceration, and wealth disparities.

One cannot “unsee” race/ethnicity (as both skin color and culture) anymore than they can unsee other visible characteristics such as gender/sex and size. Rather, how people choose to act upon each other’s race is what defines interracial contact.

dwayne-johnson-roman-reigns-wwe

As such, ignoring Reigns identity would not have disassociated whatever the audience’s preconceived notions would have been at the time.

More insidiously, by erasing a person of color’s cultural identity, one is essentially problematizing their existence by not being white. “Whiteness” is summarized by Audrey Thompson who says:

“Whiteness-privileging mechanisms work in several, sometimes paradoxical ways. For example, on the one hand, whiteness is normalized; it is taken for granted and therefore invisible. On the other hand, it is treated as preferable.”

Some scholars tend to understand post-racialism or colorblindness as a pattern of which to establish a “default.” As such, any racial/ethnic identity that is not white is immediately “othered.” Sometimes, this othering can manifest in exoticizing identities (such as Asians, Latinos, mixed races, etc.) or criminalizing them altogether (Blacks, Latinos, etc.).

Whatever way the othering presents itself, the result is ultimately the same: the person’s identity is as too distracting to the norm. The “other” is not allowed to function as individual similar to those who inhabit the norm; rather that person must act as a representative, if not the very essence of their identity as preconceived by the audience.

Can people’s racial and/or ethnic identities be acknowledged in public without being attached to stereotypes? The answer is yes. As such, corporations, artists, and audiences alike must share the burden in imagining all groups of people of color as being a diverse range of personalities and appearances.

The Usos perform the traditional Samoan Siva Tau dance before matches while their cousin Roman Reigns remains a stoic powerhouse dressed in military garb. Their current success in presenting different versions of Polynesian men is indicative of how ignoring someone’s cultural identity is nothing more than lazy uninspired thinking