Police Violence: The symptoms of deeper societal issues?

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The rash of police-on-civilian and civilian-on-police violence has once again brought to a boil the question of why a nation founded on the very idea of limited government power is so tolerant when the government exercises power in the most devastating way — by killing you.

We don’t seek here to argue the facts of the police shootings that have occurred over the past few weeks. It’s easy (and lazy) to look at a video and say “that is a bad shoot” — and indeed, the past several shoots do “look” very bad. But it’s also clear there are numerous facts to which the public was not privy, and that the causes of this violence are far too extensive for this short piece.

One area often ignored that plainly is a major contributor to increased violence between police and civilians is the war on drugs. Like any war, the drug war has desensitized the public (and the “warriors” — a.k.a. the police) to violence. Also like any war, it has re-emphasized the truth of Cicero’s words “inter arma enim silent leges” — in times of war, the law falls silent. Indeed, since this nation went to war on the inanimate object of “drugs,” we have seen a steady decline in Fourth Amendment protections. The courts have steadily allowed dozens of exceptions to warrant requirements that are used extensively in drug cases.

The war on drugs drives a self-perpetuating system in which police and prosecutors are evaluated based on statistics, and drug cases represent an easy way to generate those statistics. Specifically, drug cases are typically “easy kills,” in which a defendant has the damning evidence in his pocket. Moreover, drug defendants are often poor and unsophisticated, and rely on a heavily burdened public-defender system in which the job is more about “putting out fires” than delving intensely into the legal issues.

The war on terror has also contributed to this attitude through a trickle-down effect that has resonated throughout the cultural atmosphere. Police are essentially domestic combatants hired by the state for punishment or protection, whereas military personnel take on this role internationally. Both are trained to obey orders, protect certain individuals and, most importantly, be violent when “necessary.”

But there is a perception by large subsets of society that there is a lack of accountability where police are concerned. In military altercations, there is an international threat where international law applies. While police are subject to domestic criminal laws, the public too often sees a minority of police interacting as if due process is a mere suggestion. Some police will go into these encounters with the understanding that there is a “blue wall” that will circle the wagons and ensure they are protected

Some of those involved in these types of shootings have even been written up for multiple instances of police bullying. Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, the officers in the shooting of Alton Sterling, had both been recently investigated for prior complaints. Salamoni had two prior incidents; one for improperly carrying out orders and use of force and the other for another use of force complaint. Lake had two prior incidents, both involving the use of force.

But there are ways to curb this trend, including changes to the way police are recruited, trained and held accountable in the event of a shooting. The requirements to become a police officer need to be steepened — one hopes, at the least, to require an undergraduate degree. Pay needs to be raised to make the job attractive to a broader swath of society. There needs to be more community interaction, with members of the police force who are familiar with the specific needs of the communities they police.

Policing through fear or the threat of force is inappropriate for almost all circumstances. Sometimes a club is needed, but this should not be the go-to “tool” for police officers. Where it is, the result is simply to widen the gap between police and citizenry without addressing any of the root issues that plague these communities. In addition, requiring body and dash cameras that cannot be “accidentally” erased would go a long way toward narrowing the trust gap between citizens and the police. So, too, would citizen police misconduct review boards that have real power.

Furthermore, educational and economic development in these highly plagued areas must be improved. Time and time again, it has been proven that socio-economically depressed areas become hot beds for crime. To ignore those topics and expect police to wear a multitude of hats – including remaining calm while their lives are in peril – is not only unproductive, it’s impossible.

Widely distributed videos of police shootings do not show the root causes of the problem. We are merely viewing the symptoms of deeply embedded societal issues. This is simply where the conflict has spilled over. If we continue to ignore the deeper issues, the trend will continue.

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