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Ash writes: "Experienced civil rights and police reform advocates were undoubtedly deeply saddened to see the killing of George Floyd captured in a shocking video, but it's not likely many were surprised."

This image of police in Minneapolis arresting a protester was taken after the death by asphyxiation of George Floyd at the hands of police there. (photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images/TNS)
This image of police in Minneapolis arresting a protester was taken after the death by asphyxiation of George Floyd at the hands of police there. (photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images/TNS)

The Four Corner Posts of Police Violence

By Marc Ash, Reader Supported News

10 June 20


xperienced civil rights and police reform advocates were undoubtedly deeply saddened to see the killing of George Floyd captured in a shocking video, but it’s not likely many were surprised.  

This is a scene that plays out day after day, all across America, and sometimes video of the incident makes its way into the public realm. The video being the key. No video, no public outrage. The police know that.

Two things the police do not want pointed at them are guns and cameras. Guns pose a lethal threat, so that’s understandable. Cameras, however, pose a different threat that police fear – a legal threat.  

Very often when a video surfaces implicating a police officer engaged in the commission of a crime there is a tendency on the part of some in law enforcement to blame the video or the person who made it rather than the police officer committing the crime. This explains the images we now see coming out of riot police in Minneapolis targeting journalists.

Of course violence can be distilled into universal themes. Inhumanity, lack of compassion or empathy, and yes, good old all-American racism. But the longstanding pattern of police violence in America depends upon very specific mechanisms to continue to function year after year. These are the four corner posts of police violence in America.

1. Absolute Authority

The concept that a law enforcement officer can and must totally control the interaction in every instance is foundational to policing in the US. When an American police officer instructs someone they are interacting with to do or not do something, a process begins. If the instructions are followed, the process often goes smoothly. But if the person they are interacting with objects, American police are trained to begin to increase the pressure and if necessary use force, including lethal force, to compel compliance. Non-compliance is viewed as unthinkable.  

Non-compliance with police commands leads to a large number of police-involved fatalities every year. Even doing nothing when commanded to do something can result in the use of deadly force. There are many reasons why a person may be non-compliant, including disorientation and fear.  

When a person is shot while attempting to flee, that is more specifically a person shot for non-compliance, and that accounts for a significant percentage of police-involved shootings every year.

It should be noted that in many other countries, particularly so-called Western democracies, police are trained to withdraw from situations that are not going well and reevaluate rather than force a potentially more dangerous conclusion.  

2. Virtual Immunity

Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison is already on record warning that convicting Minneapolis police officers in the killing of George Floyd will not be easy: “What I’m really saying is that, you know, it’s hard to convict the police – and even when the criminal wrongdoing appears to be in front of your eyes.”

The record in fact would indicate Ellison’s assessment is something of an understatement. Traditionally, charges against US law enforcement officers in cases involving use of force are rare, and convictions almost unheard of. Radley Balko, writing for The Washington Post, breaks it down pretty thoroughly.

The legal process is designed from top to bottom to give police officers the benefit of every doubt and broad deference. From fellow police officers who would investigate, to district attorneys who would prosecute, to judges who conduct trials, and especially jurors who render verdicts, there is unilateral support for police officers and great reluctance to try, let alone convict them. The legal shield around police officers has for decades been so impenetrable that the effect has been virtual immunity.

The trial of former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager for the slaying of Walter Scott was indeed a stark example. Although Slager would ultimately plead guilty to federal civil rights charges in the killing of Scott, his state trial ended in a hung jury, despite direct video evidence of the killing that proved not only that Slager killed Scott as he attempted to run away, but also that he lied to investigators. It appeared to be an airtight case.  

A single juror held out against convicting Slager, writing in a letter to the judge, “I cannot with good conscience consider a guilty verdict.” Neither the evidence nor the law made any difference to one juror who simply did not want to convict, and the trial had to be aborted.   

3. Infiltration of Law Enforcement

For decades, really since the end of the Civil War, men who wanted to commit acts of violence against communities of color, but to avoid becoming themselves subjects of law enforcement, have sought to infiltrate law enforcement agencies. This has allowed them to commit those acts under color of law.  

The murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia is a real-time reminder that violent racists still seek the protection and sanction of law enforcement agencies. Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, and their alleged accomplice William Bryan are charged with murder in the death of Ahmaud Arbery. Gregory McMichael had a nearly four-decade-long career as an officer with the Glynn County Police Department and after that as an investigator for the District Attorney’s office there.

Georgia has a long history of racist attitudes and conduct, and that might suggest that law enforcement agencies are more receptive to individuals with ill will toward people of color seeking to become police officers. However it seems more widespread.  

San Francisco has the reputation of being the most socially and politically progressive city in America and arguably the world. But in 2016, a scandal broke when text messages sent by multiple veteran San Francisco Police Department officers came to light revealing blatantly racist language. At least 14 officers were implicated. The problem was not limited to a few bad apples, but appeared to be commonplace within the department.

4. Police Unions

Oversight of police departments by civilian or politically elected leaders at the state or local level works very much the same as oversight of the US Armed Forces on a national level. With one very significant difference. At the state and local level police unions to a very significant extent stand between the civilian overseers and the rank and file police officers.  

Very often the police unions are among the most powerful organizations in their states. The result is that when civilian administrators become aware of misconduct, even when there is significant evidence of wrongdoing or illegality on the part of police officers, taking corrective action is an uphill legal battle against a powerful machine.  

Stephen Rushin, writing for the Duke Law Journal to describe the manner in which states negotiate with police unions, put it this way:

“Most states permit police officers to bargain collectively over the terms of their employment, including the content of internal disciplinary procedures. This means that police union contracts – largely negotiated outside of public view – shape the content of disciplinary procedures used by American police departments.”

Rushin’s piece, supported by extensive citations, illustrates the impact of police unions on disciplinary actions and reform efforts.  It provides powerful insight into why, even when discipline and/or reform are clearly warranted, it is often the police union that prevents it.  

Solving a problem requires understanding its construct. Change is possible, but the mechanisms have to be understood and addressed.

Marc Ash is the founder and former Executive Director of Truthout, and is now founder and Editor of Reader Supported News.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
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