We Want The Police To Fail

We Want The Police To Fail

Adrienne BoettingerSunday,14 August 2016

Reading through the recently-released Department of Justice report on its 14-month investigation into the practices of the Baltimore City Police Department produces many different reactions. For some, total denial of any wrongdoing on the part of the police. For others, the response is more of a shrug, sort of “what did you expect? Of course the whole system is broken” answer. Others respond with shock, dismay, and disgust.

It’s difficult to be unbiased when you read the report; we all see what we want to see. But if you step back and look at how the DOJ conducted this investigation—reviewing hundreds of thousands pages of internal reports, examining the BPD’s own data, interviewing hundreds of officers, cops, community leaders, and citizens—and read the evidence of systemic problems and horrific examples, perhaps we can reach common ground by agreeing that we’re not talking about a made-up problem or a few bad apples.

What we are talking about is a failure on the part of the BPD, city officials, and individual police officers to properly recognize unconstitutional and racially discriminatory policing (and a troubling tendency toward gender bias) and to hold officers accountable for their gross misconduct. On at least one point there is widespread agreement: the BPD needs reform.

Baltimore is not alone in this. The DOJ has found constitutional violations for the police in Ferguson, Cleveland, Newark and beyond. In these cities, and almost certainly many more, police departments routinely violate citizens’ constitutional rights including the 1st, 4th, and 14th Amendments. Police retaliate for citizens exercising their right to free speech, apprehend and arrest people without cause, escalate where de-escalation is called for, and practice what amounts to racially biased policing that doesn’t just result in unsafe cities but further deteriorates terrible relationships between the police and the communities they are sworn to serve and protect.

The real bitch of it is that even if the cities were able to correct the problems detailed in the DOJ investigations, the police would still fail. Because we want them to. Let that idea sink in for a moment.

We want the police to fail.

How else do you explain it when we have cities like the one I was born in, Baltimore, where our children face the worst odds of escaping poverty in the entire country and yet so little of our resources and funding goes towards education, mental and physical health services, employment assistance and job training, and other social services? In far too many neighborhoods, the only face of the government that the community sees is that of the police officer trying to charge them for loitering when they’re just standing on the corner. When it feels like the only choices you have are poverty, crime, or dying young and the only public servant you see is strip-searching you without cause, what the hell do you do?

As a society we expect far too much from our police forces. We cut mental health to the point where there is nowhere else to go for treatment besides jail, don’t train our police force in how to deal with those with mental illness, and then wonder why you have incidents like the unbelievably terrible one in Miami, where a police officer claims he mistakenly shot a black caretaker who was lying on the ground with his hands up when the officer meant to shoot the unarmed autistic man that black caretaker was trying to assist.

This year alone, eighteen percent of Baltimore’s budget goes to the police — that amounts to $480 million. How much of that goes to just getting under-trained officers out on the street and paying them overtime for dealing with the persistent societal problems that we have no political will to attack from any angle other than locking someone up? What portion of it goes to training officers in effective community policing? How much of the department’s time goes toward engaging with a community that has been persistently reaching out, despite the police’s gun-shy unwillingness to reciprocate since Freddie Gray died while in police custody? How much of Baltimore’s budget goes to education or mental health in comparison?

I’m not saying we can just stop spending money, time, or energy on policing. What I’m saying is that we need to once and for all move beyond our narrow-minded focus on “zero tolerance” and other failed programs and realize that solving problems like racism, lack of education, and poverty through policing is like trying to cure a gunshot wound to the chest with a Band-Aid. Don’t just wholesale blame or praise the police. Examine where your tax dollars have been spent. Talk with your elected officials about your real priorities and willingness to devote time and resources to solve them. And look in the mirror.

Take Action!

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Image Credit: Ted Van Pelt on Flickr

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