Anyone who has watched the news in the last year has seen the same stories, even if they come from different perspectives. We have heard about the protests in Cleveland, the riots in Baltimore, the vigils in New York, and the memorial in Ferguson. A video surfaces of an instance of police brutality to a African American person or a police officer is acquitted of charges stemming from a similar case and yet some conservative Americans wonder why African American communities are beginning to resort to alternate methods to have a voice in system that ignores or persecutes them. Most other Americans realize now that there is a growing rift between the African American communities and the law enforcement, and that many of the occurrences that they see on the news are a result of that rift. While it may be hard for Americans to agree on what side is the cause of the problem, they do agree that a problem exists. Some of those people are beginning to realize too, that they may have the same problem themselves someday.
Bayonets, which are long knives that are attached at the ends of rifles, were banned too, even though they were not often deployed. Interestingly enough, the report did not ban any other types of knives. Only the knives that serve no modern purpose. The Obama Administration also banned the use of camouflage uniforms, but again with closer inspection you find that that specific provision only applies to camouflage patterns that do not match the surrounding area. For instance, the Miami Police Department will not be allowed to purchase snow pattern camouflage uniforms, but they have no restrictions on the swampland pattern that would be useful near Miami. Therefore, if a person looks a little closer at the equipment ban handed down by the White House, a plan that seemed to be a step in the right direction, will do little more than prevent the police from having equipment that is of no use to them anyway. That gives rise to another question. What is the purpose of banning this equipment? Is it an actual attempt to stem the flow of un-needed equipment from the hands of law enforcement, or is a form of lip service paid to appease the protesting communities?
In the following days after the equipment ban, the President signed into law the Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu National Blue Alert Act of 2015. Simply put, this law requires that a national alert system be put in place that will alert members of law enforcement everywhere of an attack or a threat to a law enforcement person anywhere. Blue Alert is similar to the Amber Alert system that helps find missing children, except the focus is on the police and the threats they face. Members of law enforcement communities claim that this system is necessary to ensure the protection of the lives of officers in times of rising violence. This too, would seem to be a great system to have, but members of the activist communities have already expressed fear that police would use this system to suppress protests and silence activism.
Perhaps even more disturbing than that is the assertion that a system such as Blue Alert is needed. Nobody wants to see an officer die in the line of duty, but to establish a system like this this to protect officers when their lives come under fire because of the public’s response to the actions that the officer took in the first place seems to be missing the point. Would it be too much to ask that instead of creating this system to protect officers that commit brutal acts; that officers instead quit committing the actions that lead to public reprisal, and instead focus on treating the communities they serve with dignity and respect?
The recent actions of police nationwide have shown us all how far off the rails our system of law enforcement has come. Worse still is their need to shift the responsibility for their acts of brutality away from themselves, and onto the people who received the brutal acts. In what counts as little more than “victim blaming” police agencies are more brazen than ever in attempts to justify their violence. Take for instance the death of Natasha McKenna from Alexandria, Virginia, who found herself in police custody last February. Sadly, McKenna suffered from a form of schizophrenia and her jailers were severely under trained in how to deal with a mentally ill prisoner. That would probably explain why she found herself shackled, arms and legs, and repeatedly tasered by officers. When she fell unresponsive, she was transported to the hospital where she later died. Later, it was also found that she had suffered two black eyes and other facial bruising, indicative of blows to the face. When asked by the press later about her death, police officials blindly quoted the autopsy report as the reason for her death with no provided context. They simply said that the cause of her death was an accident and “excited delirium associated with physical restraint including use of conductive energy device, contributing: Schizophrenia and Bi-Polar Disorder.” The officials literally said it was her fault because of her heightened delirium. One could also say that she was tied down, and was then tasered and beaten to death.
Finally, if either of those cases were not cogent examples of blaming the victim, then consider the case of Bounkham "Bou Bou" Phonesavanh, a 19-month-old child in Habersham County, Georgia. Last year, the County Sheriff’s Department got a tip over a $50 meth deal that a known drug dealer was living in a specific residence in their jurisdiction. The information was wrong however, because the person they were looking for had not been there in over 6 months. Instead, staying there was the Phonesavanh family, who had never met the person the Sheriff’s department was looking for. The department then decided to use a SWAT team to conduct a no-knock warrant one morning.
They went in using force, and ended up throwing a flash bang grenade into the crib where Bou Bou was sleeping. When it went off, it blew a hole in the baby’s chest and severely disfigured his face. Bou Bou survived, but has had many surgeries and faces many more to repair the damage done by the explosive. His medical bills will be well over a million dollars. Of course, the SWAT team did not find their suspect, who was caught later in the day in a normal, non-violent arrest, where the officers were able to make contact after knocking on the door.
When the Phonesavanh family attempted to sue the Sheriff’s Department to cover their medical bills, their justification for the act was to blame the child. Their defense report states, “To the extent as may be shown by the evidence through discovery, these defendants also assert the affirmatives defenses of assumption of the risk, failure to avoid consequences, laches, failure to mitigate damages, last clear chance and sudden emergency.” Simply put, the Habersham County Sheriff’s Department places the blame on a one-year-old child that was injured in a flash bang grenade on the child himself, for not leaping from his crib when the grenade landed next to him.
As a society, we have every right to wonder how it has gotten this far. When you look at a picture of how law enforcement used to be, versus how it looks now, you have a right to be shocked. We have gone from Andy Griffith to Judge Dredd in less than a century, and as a society, we have not only let it happen, we have practically asked for it. We have accepted certain aspects of our world to become threats to us, like terrorism and drugs, and we have allowed the authorities to have free reign to bring us perceived security from those things. While certain communities, such as the African American community, has always seen a disproportionate use of power used against them by the police, other groups of people are starting to catch on to the various ways their rights have been put into jeopardy. So again, how can we understand why it has come this far? Why are we as citizens seeing more instances of police brutality, and why do we see so many far-fetched justifications on why the police or committing said acts?
It is my intention to bring understanding to this transition of law enforcement and how it has progressed over the years. To also understand why it has gotten to where it is, and what factors are responsible. For starters, we have to look at the history of law enforcement, as well as the history of associated crime, and see how one has affected the other. We have to look at how law enforcement is trained, and how that training has evolved. We have to investigate the school to prison pipeline, and the difficulty associated with reintegrating back into society after release from incarceration. We have to take a long look at the influence that personal and institutionalized racism plays into the modern system of law enforcement, but first we have to know how deep those roots go and how far they have spread through history. We have to look at the equipment that police use and the manner in which they use it. Finally, even though it does not complete this particular list, we have to end with how our media and entertainment structure has desensitized us to the atrocities that are being committed by the civil servants that are here to protect us.
This piece represents an introduction into a multi-part series that I have yet to name, that will help answer these questions. Over the course of several articles, I will consider each and every factor I can envision that has led to this law enforcement problem, and hopefully begin to get those answers. I should note, there is no timetable, or even topic count for this project yet, but it will be big. Like the many facets of this problem of law enforcement accountability, the investigation and answers will contain the same number of layers as well. I cannot guarantee that we will have our answers by the end, but at the very least, hopefully we’ll be able to understand this madness and shed a light on a broken system of law enforcement, and the reason why our country has embraced it.