Redditt Hudson was a police officer in St. Louis for five years and he has a long essay at Vox that I think sheds a good deal of light on the problems with brutality, abuse and misconduct in our police departments. He begins with this quote, which I think is important for understanding the situation:
On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.
That’s a theory from my friend K.L. Williams, who has trained thousands of officers around the country in use of force. Based on what I experienced as a black man serving in the St. Louis Police Department for five years, I agree with him. I worked with men and women who became cops for all the right reasons — they really wanted to help make their communities better. And I worked with people like the president of my police academy class, who sent out an email after President Obama won the 2008 election that included the statement, “I can’t believe I live in a country full of ni**er lovers!!!!!!!!” He patrolled the streets in St. Louis in a number of black communities with the authority to act under the color of law.
That remaining 70 percent of officers are highly susceptible to the culture in a given department. In the absence of any real effort to challenge department cultures, they become part of the problem. If their command ranks are racist or allow institutional racism to persist, or if a number of officers in their department are racist, they may end up doing terrible things.
The numbers may just be educated guesses, but I think that’s probably a fairly accurate representation of reality. Why is that important? Because it helps us understand the potential ways to fix the problem. That majority of officers in the middle, ones that can be pushed in either direction, means that the leadership and the prevailing ethos in each department is absolutely crucial. If the leadership in a department routinely looks the other way and provides excuses and protection for misconduct, that 70% is going to be pushed in the wrong direction. If the leadership sets clear standards and provides real oversight that does not accept such misconduct, that 70% is going to be pushed in the right direction.
About that 15 percent of officers who regularly abuse their power: a major problem is they exert an outsize influence on department culture and find support for their actions from ranking officers and police unions. Chicago is a prime example of this: the city has created a reparations fund for the hundreds of victims who were tortured by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and officers under his command from the 1970s to the early ‘90s.
The victims were electrically shocked, suffocated, and beaten into false confessions that resulted in many of them being convicted and serving time for crimes they didn’t commit. One man, Darrell Cannon, spent 24 years in prison for a crime he confessed to but didn’t commit. He confessed when officers repeatedly appeared to load a shotgun and after doing so each time put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Other men received electric shocks until they confessed.
The torture was systematic, and the culture that allowed for it is systemic. I call your attention to the words “and officers under his command.” Police departments are generally a functioning closed community where people know who is doing what. How many officers “under the command” of Commander Burge do you think didn’t know what was being done to these men? How many do you think were uncomfortable with the knowledge? Ultimately, though, they were okay with it. And Burge got four years in prison, and now receives his full taxpayer-funded pension.
This is why it’s so important to weed out the bad cops. The thin blue line has to be erased. Police officers must be held to a higher standard, not a lower one, because we entrust them with enormous power and have voluminous evidence, in the form of literally thousands of cell phone and surveillance videos, of how often they wield that power in an imperious, arrogant and dehumanizing manner. That’s why screening up front is so important. It isn’t all that difficult to identify the troublesome psychological profiles of people who should be denied that kind of power and that needs to be done up front, and periodically evaluated as well. The bullies, bigots, sadists and power-trippers should not be allowed anywhere near a gun and a badge.
When Walter Scott was killed by officer Michael Slager in South Carolina earlier this year, the initial police report put Scott in the wrong. It stated that Scott had gone for Slager’s Taser, and Slager was in fear for his life. If not for the video recording that later surfaced, the report would have likely been taken by many at face value. Instead we see that Slager shot Scott repeatedly and planted the Taser next to his body after the fact.
Every officer in the country should be wearing a body camera that remains activated throughout any interaction they have with the public while on duty. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy for officers when they are on duty and in service to the public. Citizens must also have the right to record police officers as they carry out their public service, provided that they are at a safe distance, based on the circumstances, and not interfering. Witnessing an interaction does not by itself constitute interference.
That is a single example out of a virtually countless pool of such examples. We know now that large numbers of police officers lie on their reports to justify their actions. We’ve seen it over and over and over again. Body cameras aren’t a total solution, nothing is, but they are the best tool we have. In test cases, departments that require them see a dramatic drop, sometimes over 80%, in the use of force and in complaints from the public. If they know they’re being watched, even the really bad cops will usually change their behavior purely out of self-preservation.