July 17th is a very special day for me. It’s my birthday! I usually have a small party with my family, hang out with my friends, and eat a lot of cake. On my tenth birthday, I did all of those things, but it was different. It was what I saw on the news following my birthday that made me wish that I had my party a bit earlier because I learned that while I was celebrating, Eric Garner had lost his life. July 17, 2014. It is just one of the many dates when Black lives were lost due to the inappropriate use of force by law enforcement.
Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe,” and more recently, these words were also spoken by George Floyd, who died after police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Even during this pandemic, tragedies like the death of Eric Garner were faced by others like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. This has resulted in the buildup of tension within the U.S. as protesters have taken to the streets to seek justice and change in response to yet another Black death at the hands of police. The fact that these mass protests are taking place during a global pandemic makes them even more unprecedented, oftentimes with protesters going against recommended health measures.
Riots have also sprung up across the country in response to Floyd’s death. Whether or not they are the best representation of how to react, the grief and destruction they produce parallel the grief and destruction that many Black Americans feel in their lives during these times. Many people, including the media, may judge the reactions to oppression like the riots or protests instead of the oppression itself, which is the killing of George Floyd and too many Black Americans for so long. However, it is completely unjust to judge unless we put ourselves through everything Black Americans as a whole have gone through. Slavery, the Black Codes of the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow laws, an increase in police brutality, and so much more. We can’t judge the current reactions to oppression without even considering everything that has come before it and the oppression itself. If we don’t focus on the oppression that has and continues to occur, then we are simply normalizing it and allowing it to run rampant in our society. Other nations around the world have joined in the protests as well, including demonstrators in France, Britain, and Germany where a mural of Floyd was spray-painted on a former section of the Berlin Wall.
In the very recent history of our country, we have seen many attempts to create change in terms of racial equality, notably the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 and Colin Kaepernick leading NFL players in kneeling during the national anthem. Yet, there are still many incidents of excessive force being used by the police, as exemplified by George Floyd’s recent death. Even with grassroots movements highlighting the reality of experiencing racism every day, the issue has been simplified, often making it seem as though it is not that complex or ingrained in our society. One stark example is the controversial Pepsi commercial that aired in 2017. It showed people from many different backgrounds, races, genders, and ethnicities rallying for the Black Lives Matter movement. But in the crowd, there was the face of one young white woman that stood out: Kendall Jenner. She was marching alongside the protesters, but she eventually broke through the crowd and brazenly made her way to the barricade of police officers. She had in her hand a Pepsi–a white flag–and she handed it to one of the police officers. This resulted in a celebration by both the officers and the protesters. The advertisement elicited outrage because many people could not stand to see a celebrity and a can of Pepsi be posed as the solution to such an important issue.
Although Pepsi apologized and claimed that this was not their original intention, if we acknowledge and try to understand how deep-seated the issue is, and that it operates within a broader system of our society, it could keep people from making assumptions about the issue. Policing is an example of something that needs to be looked at as a system. In thinking about the police, some people think there may only be a “few bad apples” while others point to the racism being systemic. Even those who subscribe to the “few bad apples” mindset must acknowledge, as Chris Rock points out, that this would be unacceptable in the context of professions like being a pilot where people’s lives are at stake–as they are for the police. Regardless of which side of the aisle you stand on the issue, it is crucial to examine the aspects of America’s policing system that could potentially contribute to the acts of violence that we see today.
One aspect that has been widely argued to contribute to excessive violence by the police is how officers are trained. Vince Velasquez, a law enforcement expert who appeared on CNN last month, made an observation when discussing a case in Virginia where an unprovoked police officer used a stun gun on a Black man on June 5, 2020. He said that the officer’s first instinct was to use force and that he came out of his car with a taser before even interacting with the man in question. Seth Stoughton, a former officer and law professor at the University of South Carolina, reinforces this idea of officers being trained not to hesitate to use force. Stoughton states that police are trained to always be vigilant and act even before a threat actually manifests itself in order to keep a potential situation at bay. Officers in training are shown videos of other officers who were harmed because of hesitation, and constantly conduct exercises that require immediate action. Therefore, it is quite apparent that officers are being trained in a way that fosters a negative approach when looking at their communities and handling various encounters with civilians.
Another argument contributing to excessive force by police deals with the safeguards that protect officers even if they do conduct unwarranted or unethical actions. Police officers may find themselves in undesirable (if not unsafe) scenarios at times, and so it makes sense that they would have legal protections if something were to go awry. Oftentimes, however, these protections can allow for some unethical actions to go without punishment. One of the primary safeguards is qualified immunity. Qualified immunity states that there must be a previous record of someone being held liable for the specific actions that took place (“clearly established”) in the case in order for an officer to be held liable. Just this past February, a prison guard in Texas pepper-sprayed an inmate while he was in his cell. The inmate provided similar instances where guards hurt inmates “for no reason” and were held accountable. The only difference was that in the cited instances, the inmates had been hit and tased rather than pepper-sprayed. Despite this, it was enough of a difference where the guard was granted qualified immunity. This shows the potential of qualified immunity in letting officers off the hook for unethical actions.
Another safeguard that protects officers is having a confidential record, meaning that an officer’s disciplinary records are not open to the public. Only 12 states have public police records. In New York State, section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law long allowed for records to be sealed. It has recently been repealed in part because of the passion and efforts of protesters. By making records public, it will be easier to hold officers accountable for repeated unethical actions.
A final area of the policing system that is important to discuss is police unions. A report from the Texas Public Policy Foundation by Sheriff Currie Myers outlines key concerns about police unions in the 21st century, including statements like “police unions have run counter to the best practices of professional law enforcement standards.” One of the problems with police unions that the report mentions is the collective bargaining agreements that are made with them. These agreements include many provisions that make it very challenging for any kind of inquiry to take place into misconduct and for any real punishment to be made if misconduct is discovered. For example, some of these provisions include “Delays Interrogations of Officers Suspected of Misconduct” and “Provides Access to Evidence before Interview.” These essentially give officers time to potentially collude or come up with a story and also allows them to make sure their story checks out by allowing them to review the evidence. There are also provisions like “Limits Consideration of Disciplinary History” and “Limits Length of Investigation or Establishes Statute of Limitation.” With these provisions, police don’t have to worry about their wrongdoings as long as they occurred beyond the set length in their agreement. They also don’t have to worry about it being brought up against them if they decide to act wrongfully in the future as well. Other provisions limit civilian oversight and require legal representation from the union. Having provisions like these that yield so much power can incentivize misconduct and keep officers from feeling responsible for their actions.
America is facing a time of high racial tension, on par with the time after the Rodney King trial and perhaps also similar to some of the sentiment during the OJ Simpson trial. As we saw in the 2015 Department of Justice Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, there are larger systems at play that contribute to patterns of excessive force, racial bias, and so much more. As a result, we need to inform ourselves on the role of the policing system in manifesting structural racism. Perhaps not all cops are bad people, but the corrupt structure of the police makes it very difficult to be a “good cop.” Saying that there will always be a “few bad apples” may not create any true change, but trying to understand and reform the system can.
Azam Lalani is currently a rising junior at Syosset High School in Long Island, NY. He enjoys playing table tennis, hanging out with friends, and watching the news. He hopes to learn more about politics and current events by writing and researching for NGP.