On Conservatism, Government Accountability and Viral Policing Videos (Part I)
What makes the incident especially newsworthy is the identity of the two people. The man, a white police officer, and the boy, an unarmed, young black male, combine to reignite an acrimonious and enduring public debate in America.
The response to the video has been largely one of disbelief over the actions of the officer. But the department’s statement pushes back. One sentence stands out: “This type of situation is hard on everyone—the young man, who resisted arrest, and the officer, who would much rather have him cooperate.” Some of the video’s commenters agree that the whole interaction would not have happened but for the child’s stubbornness.
Many others see it differently. The founder of Sacramento’s Black Lives Matter chapter stated “There is no valid reason…to punch a child in the face and chest. There is no valid reason for an officer to push a child’s face into the ground against a curb by their neck.”
Some version of both of these statements appear in every violent police interaction that garners widespread coverage. These attitudes reveal two divergent views on a recurring problem: fear and mistrust between police officers and black communities. This dynamic breeds hostile, sometimes violent encounters.
Those who would take the side of the officer in this instance would claim it is the blatant refusal of individuals and communities to cooperate with law enforcement that fosters these incidents. Their counterparts would assert the opposite. They claim commonplace abuses of power reduce the legitimacy of law enforcement in the eyes of the people, and that diminished faith in the legal system leads to fear and an aversion to cooperation.
This fundamental disagreement presents a chicken-or-egg problem. Undoubtedly, individuals who refuse to cooperate with police make the latter’s job far more difficult. Noncompliance creates tension that might not otherwise exist. But which party is at fault for the noncompliance, the refusal to cooperate? The answer to this question tells us who bears responsibility for changing the status quo.
The answer, for conservatives, should not be difficult. Law enforcement officers do a job not many others could. But ultimately, they are armed agents of the state, and their primary role is not to instill respect, fear and compliance into an unwieldy populace. Rather, the job of police is to respect and protect the constitutional liberties of the people. To Serve and to Protect, the famed LAPD motto declares. The people are ultimately responsible for holding accountable those in power.
Tragically, many on the right do not accept this. They are willing to contradict foundational conservative thinking about the role of government in society, to the point of blaming a child for receiving a beatdown from a much larger adult man.
Conservatives’ (and some liberals’) unquestioning deference to police has trickled up to politicians and judges and created a system in which police are effectively free, legally speaking, of any sort of accountability. Is there a war on police? Certainly, in political discourse, those at the far end of the progressive spectrum do not disguise their loathing of law enforcement. But as far as the law goes, it couldn’t be any more different.
Police unions’ impressive political heft has allowed them to create extraconstitutional protections that make it virtually impossible to hold them legally responsible for transgressions. Furthermore, the “qualified immunity” doctrine invented by the Supreme Court created a nearly impossible standard for a civil rights plaintiff to meet, and has protected officers from lawsuits accusing them of tasing a pregnant woman, handcuffing a crying 7-year-old and sicking a police dog on a surrendering person, among countless other offenses.
If any other government bureaucracy enjoyed these same protections, conservatives would rightfully protest.
These policies, among others, have established a system of perverse incentives. Bad cops are not held liable for their abuses, and good cops, who grow weary of their rogue colleagues, either retire or go rogue themselves.
It isn’t surprising, then, that roughly two-thirds of African Americans report just “some” or “little” confidence that police will not use excessive force when they interact with citizens. Given this longstanding mistrust between these communities, the department’s blame-deflecting public statement is a clinical exercise in eroding the trust of the community. Blaming a child for the violent excesses of an adult serves only to widen the gap between police and citizens.
It’s time conservatives act on the values they claim to cherish. First, conservatives need to correct the contradiction. Once they are willing to hold public officials responsible, they should demand reform of these perverse legal incentives that shield the government from accountability. Doing so will renew badly damaged trust in the institution of law enforcement, allowing good officers to thrive and carry out justice more effectively.
Until that happens, we will only see more viral videos.
Image credit: ArtOlympic