In the era of Facebook Live and smart phones, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than the fact that police brutality toward African-Americans is a pervasive problem that has been going on for generations. Seriously, absent video proof, how many innocent African-Americans have been beaten or killed over the last hundred years by the police—with little or no media coverage or scrutiny?
There’s no telling the damage this has done to us collectively, not to mention the specific families and individuals that were victimized. And, of course, the long-term psychic damage transcends the physical. All sorts of negative externalities can be expected of someone who rightly feels he’s living under an occupying army.
I was brought up to reflexively believe the police. To give them the benefit of the doubt. This was before everyone had a camera—and before my own personal experience would demonstrate to me that not all cops are heroes (though some certainly are). It was also before I became a dad and could appreciate the fear that many African-American parents have regarding their children’s interactions with police. (Note: I’m writing this the morning after five innocent police officers were murdered in Dallas. It goes without saying that this violence should be vigorously condemned.)
This default assumption that the police officer was always right is, I’m sure, what a lot of well-meaning and decent middle class white people were raised to believe. Sure, there were incidents of police abuse, we were told, but those were very rare—and mostly happened in the Deep South. If you had to take someone’s word, you would always go with a police officer over the word of some random citizen (and, let’s be honest, for many Americans, this was especially true if that citizen was a minority).
It’s important to note that I’m not talking about overt racists here. Many of the white Americans who reflexively trusted cops would never personally discriminate against someone, nor would they use a racist slur. But they have outsourced their concerns about crime to the authorities, and part of the deal is that you don’t micromanage this work. It is understood that you may have to crack some eggs to make an omelette. And this was fine so long as they had plausible deniability.
Those days are gone. Decent Americans cannot turn a blind eye to police abuse; they just didn’t really believe the it was happening. Or maybe they didn’t want to believe. Today, there is literally no excuse to be ignorant of the problem.
It would be hard to overestimate the impact that smart phone cameras have had on forcing us to grapple with the fact that this is, in fact, a very real (and all-too-common) problem. The streaming video of the aftermath of the killing of Philando Castile appears to be the latest tragic example. (Note: We still don’t know exactly what happened, so I’m going to withhold judgment on this specific incident—but the video evidence we’ve all seen does not look good for the police.)
And if there’s any good to come from this horrible trend, it may be that the scales are coming off the eyes of a lot of well meaning, if naive, white Americans. My hope is that this will change public opinion to the point that we can change public policy.
This is why—though it’s not a panacea—if there’s one action item that we can probably all agree on, it’s mandatory police body cameras that monitor and record all interactions with the public. It’s in the best interest of our many responsible and professional police officers, as well as the public interest. This needs to happen.