Watch a simple explanation of why it's so hard to improve policing in the U.S.
Reforming our police system seems like a no-brainer. So why does very little usually come of plans to do just that?
With more and more stories of police brutality making their way across the news, you might figure something has to happen eventually. I mean, on a very basic level, the police are meant to serve the public, so there should be some level of accountability ... right?
Yeah. About that:
That's right: Police in 14 states get their own bill of rights separate from the rest of us.
In Louisiana, they even get protection against discrimination despite being a job that people willfully enter into and not a class of people being unfairly punished for their natural-born traits.
But the worst part about it? None of this is new.
Back in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a commission for justice reform that specifically addressed policing in black communities.
There was even a plan in place to weed out cops who were racist or violent. And yet, here we are, 50 years later. Cops who are disciplined for behavior are still formally protected, to the point where they're guaranteed good recommendations at other police departments even after they've been fired for — you guessed it! — racism and violence.
None of this is particularly surprising either, however, when you consider that organized policing at many times throughout history has been used to make sure that slaves, laborers, and the poor all "knew their place." As formal police departments replaced constables, sheriffs, and local militias in the mid-to-late 1800s, their jobs were less focused on merely keeping the peace and reacting to incidents and more on stopping people before they even had a chance to disrupt the proper "order" of things, whatever that might mean.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The craziest part about all of these police powers and protections? The police don't necessarily need them.
2015 was the safest year for police in record history. American crime rates are also at a 25-year low. And on the incredibly rare occasion that an offending officer is actually brought before a grand jury? There's still just a slim chance they'll be indicted for a formal trial, thanks in part to their cozy relationships with the district attorney's office.
The streets are generally safer today, and individual officers are pretty much immune to all potential consequences. Yet police departments have spent billions of dollars on armor, guns, and other military equipment — and are still pushing for more. SWAT units in particular have quadrupled in the same period that crime has gone down. That might sound like a correlation worth considering, but statistics from the ACLU suggest that SWAT aren't particularly effective. (Some of them also claim to be immune to public records laws, too.)
As John Oliver once said: "The phrase isn't 'It's just a few bad apples; don't worry about it.' The phrase is 'A few bad apples spoil the barrel.'"
There's a cultural impulse in the states to always clarify that most individual officers are well-intentioned, upstanding citizens. That may be true. But that also enables a system that allows corrupt and abusive behaviors to continue. And the fact that we're so afraid to outright criticize the enforcers of the state says a lot about the troubling power dynamics at play.
Fortunately, there are places like Denver, Colorado; like Dallas, Texas; and like Washington state, where law enforcement officers are taking it upon themselves to clean up their acts and make their communities stronger and safer, together.
Let's just hope that other police departments follow suit.