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.”
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.
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.
Figure 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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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.↩
a condition in effect when a person opts to withhold what is believed to be vital or important information voluntarily or involuntarily.↩
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.↩
Race, Racism and American Law by Derrick Bell.↩
an unwritten ethic that exists among officers to not report any of their colleague’s violations. also known as “blue code” or blue shield.”↩
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.↩