Police Impunity and Beyond

Lesley J. Wood

People gather outside the funeral service for Eric Garner at the Bethel Baptist Church in Brooklyn (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty)
People gather outside the funeral service for Eric Garner at the Bethel Baptist Church in Brooklyn (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty)

Police brutality feels like an epidemic. In the last two weeks in the US, thousands have been in the streets marching and raging against the impunity of police in Ferguson after the grand jury decision not to indict the white police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, a young unarmed Black man. Facing pepper spray, flash bang grenades and mass arrest, protesters in 90 cities grieved as they occupied the highways and streets. In the midst of this, another white police officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old Black boy in Cleveland. Then yesterday, a grand jury in New York City refused to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold, despite clear video evidence. The streets filled with people chanting Garner’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe’, in despair. The question is, when a system is so fatally flawed, where to turn for justice?

When it comes to shooting Black men, the oversight bodies are far too weak to make a difference. In New York City during the 2011-12 period, the Civilian Complaint Review Board closed 2,518 cases of complaints against police officers, only 27% of which were full investigations, and only 74 of these 671 (3%) were found to be substantiated (CCRB Report January – June 2012). In Washington DC, none of the 579 complaints against officers in 2012 led to criminal conviction. Instead of using police oversight bodies, people are turning to lawsuits to seek redress. In this regard, complainants are more successful, but through cash settlements and not the enforcement of new policies and practices related to changes to police behaviour.

Unsurprisingly, across the Global North, public trust in the police has been falling since the mid-1990s. A 2013 Gallup poll (US) found that only 42% of non-whites and 60% of whites had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police. This has declined significantly since 2006, when 48% of non-whites and 68% of whites felt confident in the police. Similarly, in 2005, only 61% of US respondents and 67% of Canadian respondents had a great deal or ‘quite a bit’ of confidence in the ability of police to defend them from violent crime.

Despite this distrust, fear and security remain political gold. Elected officials in the US, Canada and elsewhere continue to support a mandate to increase the number, arms and funds for the police. Most of the time, this trajectory is not questioned by the broader public, even when yet another young Black man is killed. However, the widespread rage has created a political crisis. Political authorities now face pressure to be seen doing something about the police. However, they are trying to solve the problem without challenging its very foundation. The US federal government has continued to refuse to condemn the police, turning instead to technical fixes and task forces – none of which will question the root causes of police violence.

In the wake of militarized police operations against protesters last August, Obama directed an investigation into how local police forces were obtaining such weapons. The conclusion of this investigation revealed little, instead recommending better record keeping. A similar ‘Band-Aid’ solution is proposed in order to counter the shootings of unarmed civilians, as the White House is asking for $263 million to provide police departments with body cameras and training. Such approaches, while leading to nice contracts for the producers of such cameras and training workshops, will do little to reduce police violence. This is made abundantly clear by the irrelevance of video footage of the killing of Eric Garner.

Now Obama is convening a task force on policing, with the goal of ‘combating crime while building public trust in local law enforcement agencies’ (Liptak CNN December 1, 2014). This task force has been given a broad mandate. Although his choice of Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey will permit some to believe that black leadership will mean that policing isn’t racist, public trust in the police is unlikely to increase.

But increasing public trust in the police is not the goal.

It is not appropriate to trust the defenders of the racist, exploitative system. Today’s police agencies are not the originators of racism or state violence. Rather, they are a block in the pyramid. Political elites and the wealthiest in our society have built – and continue to build – their power through industrialization and colonialism, exploiting paid workers and slaves. These authorities established the police and justice systems as part of efforts to ‘keep the peace when ordinary people resisted their exploitation.  In the name of the rule of law and legitimate state rule, these authorities armed a tiny fraction of the population (the police) and directed them to ensure order.

Today, society is increasingly divided by race and class, and the more unequal a society is, the greater the likelihood of police impunity. Right now, this impunity is being called into question. In the coming days, months and years, police oversight bodies will try to call into question police powers, resources, and legitimacy. They will face serious challenges.

This doesn’t mean we abandon the oversight bodies. We need more and better ones – they may save the life of a young father, may challenge a budget increase, may stop the adoption of a new weapon. However, we know that these reforms and bodies cannot and will not end police impunity, racism or violence. For those types of changes, we need to transform the foundations of our racist and unequal society. The current level of state violence cannot be accepted. The status quo is not a realistic option.

We need to build communities and societies that are fair, equitable and compassionate. The potential and desire for a different world is with us already. We can see it in the widespread protests against police violence and in the ways that ordinary people, people of colour in particular, are converging, imagining and building community institutions that manifest trust, compassion and equality.  In Missouri groups like Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) and others are organizing for both reform and future transformation. In New York City and elsewhere there are many such projects. These groups, by moving beyond the horror that is today, and starting to build to the future, offer us a way forward.

Lesley Wood is Associate Professor of Sociology at York University in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing (Pluto, 2014), Direct Action, Deliberation and Diffusion (2012) and co-author of the third edition of Social Movements 1768-2012. She is an activist in the global justice and anti-poverty movements.

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