Policing America

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Policing in America has been a hot topic for years. Policing is dangerous work and can even be dangerous to citizens. We can start with the recent murders of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, the squashing of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, think back to the militarization of Ferguson, Missouri, back further to the abuse of Rodney King, back further to the raid of the Stonewall Inn, back further to the water hoses and attack dogs that make our memory of the civil rights protests. It appears that America has always had an estranged relationship with police. Correction: minority America has suffered from the hands of police while white America retained either good or neutral relations with authority.

Birmingham Civil Rights Protest Violence 1963

Police in America started very much the same way as our common law: anglo-saxon leftovers that were adopted in the new world. The first public police officers originated as watchmen in the mid-early 1600’s. Another structural source of policing came from vigilantes who formed in areas that were too new to have a structured police force or whose police force were inadequate. They believed in “lawlessness on behalf of lawfulness”. These officer’s were pretty informal though and for-profit.

Police were decentralized to localities due to America’s theme of independence from overarching governance. They were localized to help sort out economic and ethnic rivalries and reestablish power to the upper and middle classes. This is where we see the start of the politicization of the police forces. Whoever controlled the police forces controlled the society. The police were there to help maintain public order but the definition of public order varies from group to group. Some people believed that public order meant preventing miscegenation (races mixing), or keeping people enslaved, or keeping groups of people arrested or moved out of areas for more “hospitable”people to move in. Now that might mean not allowing any protesting whatsoever to prevent damages, discomfort or inconvenience while others believe in abolishing the police to allow for protections of the people.

The first publicly funded and organized force was in Boston in 1838 and was born out of commercial wish to save money while still transporting their goods and escorting transports. Eventually the priority of these type of police was to prevent unions of lower-class and immigrant workers to keep them from drinking alcohol or gathering in large groups.

Slave patrol badge next to modern police badge.

The origin of policing in the other states had a different economic basis which was protecting racism. There were patrols set up to protect settlers against American Indians, whose land the settler’s were squatting on. There were slave patrols, also known as slave catchers whose duty was to uphold slavery in the southern states and maintain slave owner’s hold over enslaved people. They not only returned runaway enslaved people but also helped punish them.

Before the civil war, fugitive slave laws were enacted by Congress which determined a legal system meant for controlling enslaved people while serving the interests of slave owners. After the civil war, the responsibilities of the slave catchers carried over into what became the police of the south, i.e. systematic surveillance and enforcing curfews.

But what about policing now? How does this legacy impact the current practice? Becoming a police officer can have a few different routes. The most basic route is academy training which on average lasts up to 21 weeks. Otherwise, people can get associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degrees in criminal justice. They are enforcers of the law. At the other end of the spectrum, lawyers are practitioners of the law and, depending on the program, go to school for 5–7 years.

A USAToday report found that over the past 10 years, 85,000 police officers from 44 states were investigated or disciplined for misconduct. The top misconduct reasons were drugs/alcohol and assault/violence. Domestic violence involving police officers is a huge issue considering that officer involved domestic violence rates are anywhere from 17–40%, a discrepancy which is highlighted by the fact that many agencies deal with these cases informally (unreported) and/or don’t have policies in place for how to deal with such cases. Another study using complaints show that 1 in 200 officers throughout America use excessive force.

Yesterday, Brooklyn Center police pulled a man over for a traffic violation and noted a warrant for arrest. In attempting to arrest Daunte Wright, a police officer pulled her gun thinking it was a taser and shot him. While there is still more information coming, here are some of the things we know. The senior police officer yelled “taser, taser, taser” which is routine before using the weapon. After she said “Shit, I just shot him” indicating that she unknowingly pulled the wrong weapon. They use bright yellow tasers so she held her black gun in front of her yelling taser and still didn’t realize until she pulled the trigger. Wright drove away but the shot was fatal and he crashed into another car. Wright’s mother claims that she called her son during the stop and he was stopped for an air freshener hanging from his mirror. Another report says that he was stopped due to expired license tags.

Handgun compared to taser gun.

While we wait to hear more information, a community is grieving and feeling mistrust towards the people that claim to be their protectors. It is important to remember that the police are not there to protect but to enforce law. They are not supposed to offer judgment or make a determination on punishment. They are there to obtain information. Since there are different stories on the reasoning behind pulling him over, the community is distrustful that this wasn’t staged or that the shooting wasn’t accidental. Accidental isn’t even the right word for this. We should be saying “negligent”. A senior officer couldn’t tell the difference between a taser and a gun. People can tell when their gun is full, half-full or empty just by picking it up. The fact that a senior officer who is supposed to be trained in her weapons couldn’t tell the difference in them speaks to either a lack of training and negligence or intent.

Police lead dangerous live and put themselves in the front line. That being said, if police were really meant to protect people, then collateral damage would be taken into account in trainings so things like this could be avoided. If the police needed to fire at Wright but was also trying to protect the community, then they would have taken into account there was an uninvolved passenger in Wright’s car, not to mention the passerby (including the car that Wright drove into that had two people in it). They could have let him go and followed since they had his car and identification information, as well as the warrant. They could have fired or damaged tired to prevent escape instead of firing into Wright who was half in the car, thereby exposing the passenger to unnecessary violence.

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