Thoughts on Police Reform 

by William McGaughey

Michael Brown’s shooting death at the hand of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, is the latest in a series of events billed as police brutalization of the black community. In this scenario, an unarmed black male is shot and killed by a white officer whose deed, typically, goes unpunished. It is another in a centuries-long pattern of white-racist practice in America.

The racial narrative is well-established. Indeed, it is the only narrative that has political acceptance. Therefore, the media readily repeat it. White-on-black violence is the prevailing theme in media reporting. The largely white police are getting away with murdering blacks.

However, the untutored white community has its own narrative which centers upon the high rate of criminal behavior among urban blacks. The police are charged with controlling crime. Naturally, their activity will be concentrated among those who commit the most crimes, relatively speaking. Yet, when the police try to punish blacks, they are often accused of being racists. Many whites, if not most, are grateful to the police for keeping them safe from black criminality. Therefore, the political will is lacking to crack down on “racist” police behavior.

I think this line of argumentation is leading to a dead end. It is an example of Einstein’s supposed definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We will not achieve a different result if police brutality is interpreted in racial terms alone. We will only continue to have racial polarization.

My own opinion is that, in cases such as Brown’s (or Terrance Franklin’s or Trayvon Martin’s), there is such a thing as police brutality. The police control the release of information. It defies reason that an armed police officer had to kill an unarmed man who was lunging at him. And even if the officer had to defend himself from a physical attack, why was it necessary to fire so many bullets?

Such explanations defy common sense. Yet, police officers who kill civilians are often exonerated. That may be because public prosecutors friendly to police control the release of information to juries and grand juries. The system as a whole is dishonest.

Therefore, I will assume that there is such a thing as unjustified police violence - violence that was not required for an officer’s self defense or another legitimate purpose. I will also assume that black criminality exists and it needs to be controlled by law enforcement.

From a public-policy perspective, police brutality is the more compelling problem because our government (elected by us) authorizes police activity, trains the police, and otherwise controls police behavior. With different policies, the police might act differently. On the other hand, there is no way that black people can be effectively instructed not to commit crimes. All the government can do is to punish crimes when they are committed. Hopefully, this will be done in a way that does not discriminate against blacks or anyone else.

The incident in Ferguson, Missouri, illustrates another aspect of contemporary police practice which I think is relevant to the discussion. This is the increased militarization of local police. Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, governments at all levels in the United States have been mobilized to combat terrorism. Vast amounts of military equipment, purchased first for use in foreign wars, have later been released to local law enforcement to assist in its fight against crime.

The use of advanced military equipment by local police gives the impression that the communities which the police are sworn to protect and serve are, in fact, regarded as enemies. It is frightening to see tanks in our streets, military-style helicopters or drones in the skies above us, and officers armed with shields and semi-automatic weapons in situations that seem not to warrant this amount of force.

We now have heavily armed SWAT teams serving routine warrants and kicking in doors. We often have what seems unjustified stops and searches of motorists. The officers act as if they were controlling a subdued alien population. They are quick to arrest anyone who questions what they are doing. Utmost deference must be given the officers - or else! Such an attitude makes enemies if such did not already exist.

My hypothesis is that police attitudes are at the root of the current problem. Too often, the officers have an attitude of “us vs. them” with respect to the civilian population. No one dares ask what they are doing; that would be interference with law enforcement: grounds for arrest. Therefore, the civilian population, nominally their superiors, are required to do immediately whatever the officers require. And some of the civilians, like Michael Brown or Terrance Franklin, are shot and killed.

I want to analyze the problem in a different way. The post-9/11 police have become militarized and not only with respect to equipment. The police are gung-ho warriors employing force to solve every problem. They seem to delight in the show of force for its own sake. They also delight in showing off all that equipment.

For brevity’s sake, I use the term “macho” to describe this police attitude. It is a disposition to use immediate violence, to confront with unconditional demands, and assert one’s own superior force. In outright gun battles between police and civilians, that attitude would be appropriate. The police need to prevail in such situations; and they, of course, need to defend themselves. But police work involves much more than this. Most of the time police are dealing with routine matters of law violations and public disturbances not involving violent behavior. We need officers with the personal courage to do their work with minimal force, sometimes working by themselves.

The macho policing differs from the way that police have traditionally behaved. In the old days - we like to believe - the police were peace keepers. They enforced laws and intervened in difficult personal situations where force might have to be used but used it sparingly. The police were also more approachable. They knew that their job was to protect the public. They were reasonably honest. They more scrupulously followed the law. Admittedly, police today do face a more dangerous situation due to the greater prevalence of guns.

The traditional role of a police officer was in contrast with that of a combat soldier whose job was to overcome the enemy by force. In World War II, we had American and other allied soldiers fighting Nazi Germany. The German soldiers were disciplined and ruthless fighters who would kill you if you did not kill them first. In that kind of war, we needed soldiers with an attitude of fierce determination to employ violence immediately and effectively. Out of such struggles came military heroes. This may be the genesis of the macho attitudes that characterize both the military and local police.

Sadly, however, we did not win the next four wars that Americans were asked to fight. The Korean War was fought to a stalemate. The Vietnam war as well as the more recent wars fought in Iraq and Afghanistan were lost outright. So the World War II approach to warfare - focusing primarily upon enemies to kill - seems out of date.

That is because we were not fighting the armies of nation states but armed groups within those states whose individual members were hard to identify. Our mission has been to rid the South Vietnamese, Iraqi, or Afghan nations of those “terrorists”, or pockets of violence, and then go home. To do that effectively, we needed to make friends with the civilian population. But if our approach was not to fraternize with the population and but to kill before asking questions, we made enemies instead. The result was that we lost those wars.

Somehow the message needs to get through to our top political leaders and military brass that the World War II approach to warfare needs to be revamped. We need less use of weaponry and more intelligence-gathering activities. We need a political component in our military operation. We need to talk with those who may become our enemies so they can understand that our mission is benign. Supposedly, we are there to help. We have common interests with the people whose lands we have entered.

Better still, we need to let the United Nations, which has legitimacy as a global peacekeeper and guardian of justice, to assume the task of conducting foreign wars as we did in Korea. We need to reform the United Nations so that it can act more effectively as a peacekeeper. That would probably require eliminating the veto in the Security Council. It would require modernizing the voting system in the General Assembly.
And certainly we need to junk the military approach to local policing. The military needs to become more like the police, not vice versa.

I want to address what may be the root of the macho attitude among soldiers and police like. “Macho” is an attitude associated primarily with males although some females emulate this as well. It is an attitude required for successful fighting in a World War II type of war. It has to do with cultivating one’s own identity.

The fact is that many young people want to test the limits of their courage and ability. They want to be respected by others. Ultimately, they want to become heroes. However, we are living in a society that affords a large measure of comfort and ease. It is hard to be a hero in that environment. Life is just too easy. There are few opportunities for self-testing.

And so, in their late teenage years, many young men are itching for an opportunity to prove themselves. They want to show courage and determination in dealing with difficult situations. Some see service in the armed forces as an opportunity for personal self-fulfillment in those terms. To face death is the ultimate test of courage. And so many young men volunteer to serve in the armed forces, building their positive identity around the real challenges they expect to face. Macho is a personal ideal.

The armed forces respond to this desire by training programs that build solidarity on the basis of discipline and shared sacrifice. They commemorate the fallen heroes in those wars. They cultivate a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of battle-tested warriors set apart from the general population as a kind of moral elite.

I would not disparage young men’s or women’s desire to test themselves. Those who have displayed superior courage and fighting ability deserve to be respected. Such persons deserve a special position within hierarchies of organizations that use violence to protect society. For military personnel, we have Purple Hearts and Congressional Medals of Honor. For police, we have the respect that one officer gives another for having faced a dangerous situation, stood his ground, and prevailed. That attitude must be preserved within the ranks; for it is the ethical core of policing.

Having said that, however, I would also suggest that good police work requires a broader perspective than the officers’ pride in themselves. We judge this work by how well the officers kept the peace and enforced the law within the requirements of a free society. The officers also need to maintain community respect. If instead of simply doing their work, we have officers engaging in various kinds of macho behavior to flaunt their self-styled legal and moral advantage, that respect will be lost.

Therefore, from an organizational standpoint, such behavior need to be controlled. The police need to use force only when force is required. They need to scale back the show of force which only creates enemies. Top police officials need to adopt a model of policing that gains the community’s consent and cooperation. A few macho officers may be required to handle the violent situations, but mainly policing is about maintaining public trust.

I would suggest that this trust has been lost not only by hyper-aggressive confrontations with individuals in the community but also the polluting influence of money. It sometimes seems that police focus inordinately upon generating and collecting fines or seizing property from the so-called “bad guys”. It seems that they are often conducting little "stick-up jobs". Only where there is financial gain for the department do they seem motivated to do work. This is another reason that the police are not held in high regard among large segments of the population.

The corrections process is even more corrupted by money. Inmates or their associates are charged inordinate rates and fees for telephone contact, food from the prison canteens, or money transfers to the inmates’ accounts. Obviously, someone high up in the corrections department has arranged for sweetheart deals with private contractors, probably in exchange for kickbacks. The graft is so obvious it cannot help but discredit the criminal-justice system as a whole.

Still another problem is that the police sometimes frame suspects. They sometimes lie on reports. Reports of officers’ wrongdoing are covered up. The public is consistently frustrated if it expects the police to reform themselves. Civilian intervention is required.

Therefore, we need a thorough overhaul of the police and corrections system to restore public confidence, starting with control of macho policing. While the police leadership cannot condemn macho attitudes entirely, it needs to make clear that being a police officer is not mainly about becoming a hero or fulfilling personal ambitions; it is about helping the department do what it takes to preserve law and order within a peaceful community. We do not hire police for identity-fulfillment reasons. Most of the time, officers need to be interacting cooperatively with community members as they do routine work. Only on rare occasions would a show of force be necessary.

If we approach police reform this way, I believe that racial tensions can be overcome. We understand and respect the officers’ personal needs but also allow civilian authority to set the agenda for police work. Right now, this should focus on toning down the military-style show of force.


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