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Why We Need Police Reform


In the United States there is perhaps no public service sector more hostile to criticism than our police forces. At even the mildest criticism, the response from the police is almost universally one of abject whining. A police officer in Birmingham was recently pistol-whipped after he hesitated to use force against a suspect. “A lot of officers are being too cautious because of what’s going on in the media,” the officer said.

In other words, police are now openly admitting that upon being criticized their first instinct is to stop doing their job. When the citizenry expresses a bit of unhappiness with the regular criminal violence and corruption that marks many police departments today, the response from the police themselves is to become scared and cease to do the things we pay them to do. It is yet more evidence that, as I have written before, in many parts of the United States the police no longer work for you.

The arrest of Sandra Bland was a textbook example of this dismal trend. Bland committed suicide in her Texas county jail cell after being arrested by a state trooper. The reason she was arrested in the first place would be laughable, if she were not dead. The officer ordered Bland to put out her cigarette, and she—under no legal obligation whatsoever to do so—refused. The police officer was offended, as police officers are wont to be. The situation escalated from there, culminating in Bland’s arrest and her eventual, as-of-yet inexplicable hanging.

We Must Take Actions To Reform Police Behavior

Sandra Bland is dead, in other words, because she briefly and legally annoyed a police officer. Had Trooper Brian Encinia been of a slightly less megalomaniacal bent, she would still be alive. But she is not. Given that police departments all over the country are generally hostile towards the idea of punishing the criminal cops on their payroll, the police officer in this case is unlikely to suffer any negative repercussions whatsoever. And so we must again ask ourselves what we are going to do about this. How are we to get our police departments under control again?

Sandra Bland is dead, in other words, because she briefly and legally annoyed a police officer.

The first step would be to implement and enforce a zero-tolerance policy for the abuses of power in which police regularly and freely engage. The burden of proof for such incidents should be high, but in cases when the officer is clearly in the wrong – as Trooper Encinia was in ordering Sandra Bland from her car and arresting her – the sanctions should be swift: suspension, probation, in many cases termination. For quite some time now, police officers have acted under the correct assumption that higher management will tolerate their lawlessness and their thuggish behavior. We must demand that the police police their own, either internally or by way of local or statewide ordinances.

But this will not be easy, in part because the structural self-interest of the police is very well established. When a job allows the employees to effectively steal money with impunity, throw people in jail for no reason, and get away with it, the employer is not liable to change its practices. Moreover, such reform cannot come about from a single law passed by Congress. Our police departments are a nationwide problem, but they are not a national problem: the solution to each lawless police brigade must necessarily be a local one, which will necessarily be a more difficult proposition than reforming a single political entity.

There Has To Be A Solution; We Cannot Go Without One

Just recently, a young man suspected of stealing pizza in New York City was assaulted by police as he was surrendering. He was defenseless and holding his hands up, which is when one of New York’s finest thought it would be a good time to punch him thrice in the head. It is again entirely probable that the violent, hair-trigger policeman in this case will suffer no meaningful consequences whatsoever, outside of perhaps being put on a week’s desk duty inside an air-conditioned precinct.

We cannot continue to be policed by vain, egotistical gangsters who feel as if they can arrest us and beat us, and terrorize us at the slightest provocation.

In Virginia, an Iraq War veteran was sleeping in a model unit of his apartment building due to a plumbing problem in his own unit; a neighbor thought he was breaking and entering and called the police on him. The police inexplicably responded by conducting a no-knock raid. The veteran awoke surrounded by three officers with their guns drawn and aimed at him; he was handcuffed and searched before they discovered his identity. A shift commander described this inept, terroristic response as “on point.”

That is about how the police work these days. It must not continue. Police officers need a bit of latitude in order to do their job correctly, and they should not have to worry about losing their jobs or going to jail over exercising that latitude within an acceptable range. And it should be noted that many police officers are honorable, valuable public servants who do genuine good in their communities. But the problem is larger than they are. We cannot continue to be policed by vain, egotistical gangsters who feel as if they can arrest us and beat us, and terrorize us at the slightest provocation. Police reform must happen — for Sandra Bland, and for whoever comes after her.