Stop Police Misconduct

With growing existential dangers abroad and a president ill-equipped to handle them (see Charles Blow’s excellent column in today’s Times), I’m going to direct your attention instead to a long-standing domestic problem: police misconduct. We may not have answers for dealing with North Korea, Syria or Russia at the moment (as I write this, a headline on my phone’s home screen informs me that the Pentagon is developing options for a military strike in Syria), but surely we can address a problem that plagues every American city (and many small towns and rural areas as well). Or at least we can try.

Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. Pantaleo was not indicted.
Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. Pantaleo was not indicted.

When I speak of police “misconduct,” I’m being euphemistic. What I really mean is criminal violence perpetrated by the police, up to and including murder. What I really mean is systemic brutality and racism and a larger culture that encourages and excuses criminal police behavior. What I really mean is a judicial system that kowtows to the police as sacred “public servants,” not to be penalized under any circumstances.

Here I will introduce the obligatory reference to the admirable service that “good” cops provide. “Good” cops risk their lives to help people in need. “Good” cops are altruistic when it counts, doing their utmost to protect people from harm. “Good” cops, unfortunately, are something of a rarity. And even they tend to keep their mouths shut when it comes to criminal behavior by their colleagues on the force.

The cops who “misbehave” are antisocial thugs with lifelong inferiority complexes. Guys too stupid or emotionally immature to handle college but who want to earn a decent living anyway. Guys who hunger for respect and deference, which were in short supply as they were growing up. Guys who perhaps couldn’t cut the armed forces but managed to find a haven in a local police force. Guys who, if they sense even a hint of disrespect, will make you pay for it. Sometimes with your life, especially if you’re black.

You’ve all met these people, I’ll wager more than once.

So when Attorney General Jeff Sessions (I hate granting Sessions that title, since he is so blatantly unqualified for his job) attempts to roll back efforts to reform police departments around the country, it’s cause for great concern.

Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III is, in my view, an unreconstructed Southern bigot. It shows in his weaselly face—you can easily imagine spotting him in a photograph, standing in the front row at an old-fashioned lynching party in a Southern town square back in the fifties. No matter how many niceties and courtesies he tries to layer on top, his essential character still shines through.

We need to rally around the police reformers. They have two important jobs to do. The first is to get rid of the obvious “bad actors” on their forces. The second is to change their recruiting practices to avoid replacing current bad actors with new ones. If policing really is such a hallowed profession, then maybe it should be treated more like one: increase the requirements (educational, professional, personal) for joining the department, and increase the rewards proportionately.

The mindset that cops can do no wrong has got to go. So does Jeff Sessions.

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