In discussing with my relatives (almost all of whom live outside the US) about the current unrest in the US following the murder of George Floyd, I realized that many of them did not quite understand how deeply warped the US criminal (in)justice system is from the top to the bottom and so I thought I would try and explain how it got to be that way for the benefit of this blog’s readers who also live outside the US.
One question that was raised is why the people who recorded Floyd’s murder did not step in and try to stop it, when so many people are willing to confront police by taking part in demonstrations against the death. There is a world of difference between taking part in a large demonstration protesting police brutality and challenging, on your own, four American police officers during the course of that brutality. With demonstrations there is some safety in numbers. When large numbers of people protest, the chance that the police will shoot YOU is small.
Some may fantasize that if they had been present during Floyd’s murder, they would have bravely stepped in and stopped it. But people in the US, especially if you are poor and minority, have few such illusions, however brave they might be personally. Recall that there were four armed police at the scene. If you stepped in and tried to stop Chauvin from doing what he did to Floyd, you are putting yourself directly in their sights. You WILL get handcuffed and/or beaten and/or kicked and/or tased and/or shot. If you are lucky, you will just end up in jail for interfering with the work of the police. But it is far more likely that you will end up in hospital or in the morgue and that nothing will happen to the people who put you there.
People like me, middle class and not black, tend to think of the police as our protectors because the police actually do protect people like us because we have some power. But people who are poor, minority, and powerless have mixed feelings about the police. On the one hand, they need the police because they are often victims of crime, since criminals know that police do not care that much about investigating crimes against poor people. On the other hand, they are reluctant to call the police because even simple crimes can end up with someone dead or in hospital. Remember that Floyd was accused of using a forged $20 bill, which is an utterly petty crime which any one of us can fall prey to. I cannot identify a forged currency note if it is given to me and could easily try to spend it somewhere. But if that should happen to me and the police are called in, I am pretty certain that I will not end up like Floyd because I am not black and am obviously middle class. I expect the police to treat me well and assume that I was also a victim of the forgery, not a perpetrator. I can also afford a lawyer, which makes a big difference.
I think that in order to understand what is going on currently in the US and why US police can be so brutal against at least some classes of people, you have to know the context of the US criminal (in)justice system.
There are about 18,000 independent, local police departments in the US, some of them tiny. Local prosecutors in each area are the ones who decide who gets charged and for what. These prosecutors are almost all elected to their office. Most of the local judges who oversee these cases are also elected to their posts. And of course, the people who pass laws are also elected to office. All these people have found that being ‘tough on crime’ and being a ‘law and order’ candidate is a good strategy for winning elections and that an accusation of being ‘soft on crime’ is a death sentence for most candidates. This is because most of the people who vote are middle class or wealthier and the legal system is designed to protect the interests of such people. As a result, prosecutors and judges and legislators in their election campaigns compete to boast of the number of convictions they obtain and the number they put in prison. But to get convictions they need the support of the police to investigate and arrest people and gather evidence. Hence they are very reluctant to bring charges against police officers accused of crimes because they are their allies and even friends. If the police refuse to cooperate with them, the prosecutors are stymied.
Furthermore, legislators like to pass laws that put people in prison but mostly the less powerful ones. For example, in the infamous war on drugs that sent the prison population skyrocketing from around 1975 onwards, the punishment for possessing crack cocaine (which poor people use because it is more potent and hence cheaper to get high on) was very much stiffer (by a ratio of 100-to-1) than for powdered cocaine, which is what wealthy people, celebrities, and film stars use. But the latter people were rarely prosecuted anyway. The war on drugs was also used for the massive crackdown on the smallest amount of marijuana use and that too was used against minorities while celebrities boasted with impunity about getting high. Hence it should come as no surprise that the US has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world (with 5% of the global population, it has over 20% of the prison population) and blacks are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites.
But now that marijuana is being legalized across the country, we have the situation where the former speaker of Congress John Boehner, who used to moralize against the evils of marijuana as part of his ‘tough on crime’ stance while an elected official, is now making a ton of money being on the boards of companies that grow and sell marijuana. So blacks got punished most harshly when marijuana was illegal and whites are making the most money once it became legal.
But there’s more. Police unions are very powerful and they protect any and all police officers who are accused of crimes. There is a something called the “law enforcement officer bill of rights” that has been pushed by unions that gives accused police officers many rights to defend themselves that other accused people do not get and that makes it very hard to hold individual officers accountable for even the most egregious acts. The current union head of the Minneapolis police is already protesting about the firing of Derek Chauvin and the other three involved in the Floyd murder and calling for their reinstatement. There is also a strong code of silence where police officers are supposed to support their fellow officers, whatever they do. Anyone who gives evidence against a fellow officer will suffer serious consequences from his fellow police. There have been a slew of films such as Serpico (based in a true story) that show what happens to any police officer who exposes brutality and corruption within their ranks. The unions and the code of silence are so strong that they are able to thwart even reformist prosecutors and chiefs of police who have recently tried to bring about changes in police culture because it is so obviously rotten.
And there’s yet more. The US spends a vast amount of money on new military hardware. What happens to the old stuff that is no longer needed? They are given free to any local police force that wants them. As a result, even small police departments can have armored vehicles with cannons and battering rams, high-powered weaponry, SWAT and other equipment that transforms them from a civilian force into a paramilitary one. This breeds the mentality in the police that they are like an occupying force and the people, especially those who live in poor and minority areas, are the ‘enemy’. To compound the militarization problem, US soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan and Iran and other wars are often recruited by local police forces on their return, bringing their militaristic attitudes with them. Also many police departments have their officers undergo what is called ‘warrior training’ to make them think and act like soldiers.
Politicians at all levels also tend to pander shamelessly to the police, constantly saying how brave and great they are and excusing abuses as committed by a few rogue officers. As a result of this system, police have got accustomed to think that they are untouchable and can act with impunity. Hence the job attracts sociopaths like Chauvin who do not care about, and may even enjoy, using force against civilians. I am not saying that all police are sociopaths. But all it takes is for a small number, even as low as 10% of the force, to be sociopaths for things like this to happen on a regular basis.
The real problem with US policing is that there seems to be little or no effort to identify and weed out these sociopaths from their ranks. Chauvin and another officer Tou Thao who was present during the Floyd murder both had a long history of violence and abuse, with over a dozen complaints against them but no disciplinary action was ever taken. Thao was once sued because he and his partner accosted a man walking along with his pregnant girlfriend. They punched, kicked, and kneed the man’s face and body causing broken teeth as well as other bruising and trauma. The case was settled out of court but Thao was not disciplined.
When you look at case after case where police have killed or otherwise abused unarmed people (and there are so many even in just the past five years that I cannot keep track of them all), you will find that the police involved have a history of violence. And we do not know how many more cases there are where there was no video evidence to expose the abuse. The real indictment is against a system that does not identify and remove such people. By not doing so, they are collectively guilty, even if just a few are responsible for most of the abuses. You cannot escape culpability by blaming a ‘few bad apples’ (as political leaders like to do) if you have made no effort to identify, remove, and punish those bad apples.