A protest in Cleveland, Ohio, after police officer Michael Brelo was acquitted for the shooting deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. | Ricky Rhodes, Getty Image
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.
About that 15 percent of officers who regularly abuse their power: they exert an outsize influence
It is not only white officers who abuse their authority. The effect of institutional racism is such that no matter what color the officer abusing the citizen is, in the vast majority of those cases of abuse that citizen will be black or brown. That is what is allowed.
And no matter what an officer has done to a black person, that officer can always cover himself in the running narrative of heroism, risk, and sacrifice that is available to a uniformed police officer by virtue of simply reporting for duty. Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo was recently acquitted of all charges against him in the shooting deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, both black and unarmed. Thirteen Cleveland police officers fired 137 shots at them. Brelo, having reloaded at some point during the shooting, fired 49 of the 137 shots. He took his final 15 shots at them after all the other officers stopped firing (122 shots at that point) and, “fearing for his life,” he jumped onto the hood of the car and shot 15 times through the windshield.
Not only was this excessive, it was tactically asinine if Brelo believed they were armed and firing. But they weren’t armed, and they weren’t firing. Judge John O’Donnell acquitted Brelo under the rationale that because he couldn’t determine which shots actually killed Russell and Williams, no one is guilty. Let’s be clear: this is part of what the Department of Justice means when it describes a “pattern of unconstitutional policing and excessive force.”
Nevertheless, many Americans believe that police officers are generally good, noble heroes. A Gallup poll from last year asked Americans to rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in various fields: police officers ranked in the top five, just above members of the clergy. The profession — the endeavor — is noble. But this myth about the general goodness of cops obscures the truth of what needs to be done to fix the system. It makes it look like all we need to do is hire good people, rather than fix the entire system. Institutional racism runs throughout our criminal justice system. Its presence in police culture, though often flatly denied by the many police apologists that appear in the media now, has been central to the breakdown in police-community relationships for decades in spite of good people doing police work.
Here’s what I wish Americans understood about the men and women who serve in their police departments — and what needs to be done to make the system better for everyone.
1) There are officers who willfully violate the human rights of the people in the communities they serve
As a new officer with the St. Louis in the mid-1990s, I responded to a call for an “officer in need of aid.” I was partnered that day with a white female officer. When we got to the scene, it turned out that the officer was fine, and the aid call was canceled. He’d been in a foot pursuit chasing a suspect in an armed robbery and lost him.
The officer I was with asked him if he’d seen where the suspect went. The officer picked a house on the block we were on, and we went to it and knocked on the door. A young man about 18 years old answered the door, partially opening it and peering out at my partner and me. He was standing on crutches. My partner accused him of harboring a suspect. He denied it. He said that this was his family’s home and he was home alone.
My partner then forced the door the rest of the way open, grabbed him by his throat, and snatched him out of the house onto the front porch. She took him to the ledge of the porch and, still holding him by the throat, punched him hard in the face and then in the groin. My partner that day snatched an 18-year-old kid off crutches and assaulted him, simply for stating the fact that he was home alone.
I got the officer off of him. But because an aid call had gone out, several other officers had arrived on the scene. One of those officers, who was black, ascended the stairs and asked what was going on. My partner pointed to the young man, still lying on the porch, and said, “That son of a bitch just assaulted me.” The black officer then went up to the young man and told him to “get the fuck up, I’m taking you in for assaulting an officer.” The young man looked up at the officer and said, “Man … you see I can’t go.” His crutches lay not far from him.
The officer picked him up, cuffed him, and slammed him into the house, where he was able to prop himself up by leaning against it. The officer then told him again to get moving to the police car on the street because he was under arrest. The young man told him one last time, in a pleading tone that was somehow angry at the same time, “You see I can’t go!” The officer reached down and grabbed both the young man’s ankles and yanked up. This caused the young man to strike his head on the porch. The officer then dragged him to the police car. We then searched the house. No one was in it.
These kinds of scenes play themselves out everyday all over our country in black and brown communities. Beyond the many unarmed blacks killed by police, including recently Freddie Gray in Baltimore, other police abuses that don’t result in death foment resentment, distrust, and malice toward police in black and brown communities all over the country. Long before Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed Michael Brown last August, there was a poisonous relationship between the Ferguson, Missouri, department and the community it claimed to serve. For example, in 2009 Henry Davis was stopped unlawfully in Ferguson, taken to the police station, and brutally beaten while in handcuffs. He was then charged for bleeding on the officers’ uniforms after they beat him.
2) The bad officers corrupt the departments they work for
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.
3) The mainstream media helps sustain the narrative of heroism that even corrupt officers take refuge in
This is critical to understanding why police-community relations in black and brown communities across the country are as bad as they are. In this interview with Fox News, former New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir never acknowledges the lived experience of thousands and thousands of blacks in New York, Baltimore, Ferguson, or anywhere in the country. In fact, he seems to be completely unaware of it. This allows him to leave viewers with the impression that the recent protests against police brutality are baseless, and that allegations of racism are “totally wrong — just not true.” The reality of police abuse is not limited to a number of “very small incidents” that have impacted black people nationwide, but generations of experienced and witnessed abuse.
The media is complicit in this myth-making: notice that the interviewer does not challenge Safir. She doesn’t point out, for example, the over $1 billion in settlementsthe NYPD has paid out over the last decade and a half for the misconduct of its officers. She doesn’t reference the numerous accounts of actual black or Hispanic NYPD officers who have been profiled and even assaulted without cause when they were out of uniform by white NYPD officers.
No matter what an officer has done to a black person, that officer can always cover himself in the running narrative of heroism
Instead she leads him with her questions to reference the heroism, selflessness, risk, and sacrifice that are a part of the endeavor that is law enforcement, but very clearly not always characteristic of police work in black and brown communities. The staging for this interview — US flag waving, somber-faced officers — is wash, rinse, and repeat with our national media.
When you take a job as a police officer, you do so voluntarily. You understand the risks associated with the work. But because you signed on to do a dangerous job does not mean you are then allowed to violate the human rights, civil rights, and civil liberties of the people you serve. It’s the opposite. You should protect those rights, and when you don’t you should be held accountable. That simple statement will be received by police apologists as “anti-cop.” It is not.
4) Cameras provide the most objective record of police-citizen encounters available
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.
5) There are officers around the country who want to address institutional racism
The National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, Reform and Accountability is a new coalition of current and former law enforcement officers from around the nation. Its mission is to fight institutional racism in our criminal justice system and police culture, and to push for accountability for police officers that abuse their power.
Many of its members are already well-established advocates for criminal justice reform in their communities. It’s people like former Sergeant De Lacy Davis of New Jersey, who has worked to change police culture for years. It’s people like former LAPD Captain John Mutz, who is white, and who is committed to working to build a system where everyone is equally valued. His colleagues from the LAPD —former Sergeant Cheryl Dorsey, now a frequent CNN contributor (providing some much-needed perspective), and former officer Alex Salazar, who worked LAPD’s Rampart unit — are a part of this effort. Several NYPD officers, many of whom are founding members of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, the gold standard for black municipal police organizations, are a part of this group. Vernon Wells, Noel Leader, Julian Harper, and Cliff Hollingsworth, to name a few, are serious men with a serious record of standing up for their communities against police abuse. There’s also Rochelle Bilal, a former sergeant out of Philadelphia, Sam Costales out of New Mexico, former Federal Marshal Matthew Fogg, and many others.
These men and women are ready to reach out to the thousands of officers around the country who have been looking for a national law enforcement organization that works to remake police culture. The first priority is accountability — punishment — for officers who willfully abuse the rights and bodies of those they are sworn to serve. Training means absolutely nothing if officers don’t adhere to it and are not held accountable when they don’t. It is key to any meaningful reform.
Police abuse in black and brown communities is generations old. It is nothing new.
Racism is woven into the fabric of our nation. At no time in our history has there been a national consensus that everyone should be equally valued in all areas of life. We are rooted in racism in spite of the better efforts of Americans of all races to change that.
Because of this legacy of racism, police abuse in black and brown communities is generations old. It is nothing new. It has become more visible to mainstream America largely because of the proliferation of personal recording devices, cellphone cameras, video recorders — they’re everywhere. We need police officers. We also need them to be held accountable to the communities they serve.