Since the death of George Floyd, we’ve seen police officers do a whole lot of bad stuff. I mean sure, most police are good people etc., etc. But there’s too much shit going on to blame it on a few bad apples.
We’ve seen unreasonably aggressive force used on peaceful protesters — and on people who just happened to be in the way. We’ve seen people chosen, seemingly at random, for beatings and arrests. We’ve seen excessive use of tear gas, flash grenades, rubber bullets and other instruments of “humane” policing. We’ve seen police vehicles drive through protesters. We’ve seen numerous officers stand idly by while their colleagues engage in needless violence. We’ve seen police destroy water supplies and first-aid stands. We’ve seen loads of instances of police attacking journalists who had identified themselves and were carrying proper credentials.
And we’ve seen police committing vandalism to private property and even to their own vehicles, apparently to justify attacking and arresting peaceful demonstrators.
They’re acting with impunity, with no apparent fear of punishment, dismissal, or shaming. Hell, they arrested a CNN reporter and his crew during a live television broadcast.
They’re acting like Proud Boys with badges. Take this Orange County sheriff’s deputy (please, take him) who thought it was a dandy idea to report for protest duty wearing paramilitary patches right next to his actual badge.
OK, so America has been dealing with a sometimes-toxic culture of policing for a long time. But there’s something different about the ubiquity and shamelessness of police misconduct during the George Floyd protests.
And I think it’s Donald Trump.
Throughout his presidency, he’s been normalizing — nay, celebrating — behavior that is widely considered aberrant. He’s talked of beating up demonstrators, reporters, “not being too nice” with suspects. He has encouraged all the forms of police misbehavior that have been on broad display these past several days.
We all know this nation is more deeply divided than it’s been in a long time. We know that people tend to get their information from sources they essentially agree with. We know what that does to their perceptions of reality.
Now, if you did an opinion poll in the American law enforcement community, do you think you’d find higher support for Trump than among the general public.
I’d be shocked if it wasn’t substantially higher.
Can we posit that there are a lot of police officers who support Trump? In numbers high enough to create a culture in the ranks? If, say, 65% of your police force are regular Fox News viewers, how do you think that will affect their approach to their jobs? Will they see protesters, people of color, and journalists as enemies?
Will they feel no compunction in attacking the enemy?
Of course it’s not as simple as Trump. This problem has deep roots, as does the Trump phenomenon itself. But Trump has made it acceptable for police to act on their worst instincts and deepest fears, to use deadly or crippling force on the innocent, and to make no bones about what they’re doing.
And while I’ve seen noble statements from Gov. Phil Scott and other political leaders, well, that’s the easy part. The hard part is changing a culture in policing that has had its toxic elements for a long time, but has seen those elements normalized under President Trump. Or, even more boldly (and perhaps necessarily), creating a policing system that’s less militaristic, less punitive.
Maybe we should stop calling it “law enforcement,” which describes an essentially militaristic, punitive approach to maintaining the peace. Maybe officers shouldn’t be chosen from the ranks of beefy ex-jocks. Maybe conflict-avoidance skills are more important than the ability to fire a weapon or subdue a suspect.
This is one of many social ills that Trump has made much worse. The cleanup job’s going to be long and painful.
Postscript 6/4/20 10:00 p.m. A bit more to say about those noble statements from Vermont’s leaders. Gov. Phil Scott has received praise for some very forthright remarks on George Floyd’s killing, the pervasive nature of racism in America, and Trump’s toxic response to it all. (Asked if Trump should address the nation, Scott said “maybe not with that attitude.”)
But ask him to put those words into action?
For five years, as VPR reported, the Vermont State Police have been trying to acquire body cameras. It has enough money to buy the things, but it would need $390,000 a year in its budget for video storage. VPR asked Scott if the process would get a higher priority because of concerns over police behavior — concerns he himself has expressed. He said “No,” and added a bit of word salad.
“I’m not actively pushing because of the financial situation and what has happened legislatively with the pandemic, so I think it’s sort of to see where we’re going to be at, budgetary-wise.”
Yeah, I guess so, but the storage money would amount to one-half of one percent of the VSP budget. You’d think a concerned governor could order his people to shift some priorities.
On the other hand, I haven’t seen an outcry from the Democratic Legislature to find the money either. Guess it’s not that urgent.
And then there’s our Democratic Attorney General and energetic tweeter T.J. Donovan.
To recap: The criminal justice system, of which he is the top-ranking officer, is “broken.” A real crisis, no?
No. Look at those “solutions.” A study, which is the bureaucrat’s favorite alternative to action, as well as a boost in data collection and a model policy.
That’s his idea of “act now.”
One more thing to keep in mind about the earnest Mr. Donovan. When was the last time the Office of the Attorney General filed charges against a police officer for using excessive force?
I don’t know. As far as I can recall, Donovan and predecessor Bill Sorrell have an unbroken record of not bringing charges against police.
And how does that change the culture, or discourage any officer harboring racist or fascist beliefs from turning those beliefs into action?