There’s no denying that police violence in the US has become far too common. Over the past year, it has become abundantly clear that officers will not face any serious repercussions for their actions in all but the most horrific cases. These two facts have created an environment of fear and tension between civilians and police, one which regularly erupts into violence that only serves to further divides the two groups. A positive feedback loop has been created, where some violence leads to more violence, which in turn leads to even more violence.
The main issue with the current system is the lack of accountability held by offending officers. When an officer abuses his power and is not punished, he will continue to do so, while serving as a reminder to other officers that they are untouchable, and not to be held to the same standard as normal citizens. This only serves to reinforce the “us against them” mentality that has become far too common on either side of this mess. On the other hand, if officers are punished for their transgressions, (actually punished, not suspended with pay for two weeks) they serve to discourage similar behavior. If this were the case, violence would lead to convictions and punishment, and every violent incident would make future incidents less likely, instead of the current system that encourages them.
Considering all of this, why aren’t officers punished for breaking both civilian trust and the law? Thanks to an anonymous hacker known as “Cthulhu” along with an anonymous source within the Fraternal Order of Police, we finally have an answer for this question. Cthulhu hacked into the central server for the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and released 2.5 GB of confidential information, consisting of 63 contracts between police unions and their local governments. Although some of these contracts were innocent enough, more than a third included clauses allowing departments to destroy records of investigations, complaints, and disciplinary actions after a negotiated period of time, ranging from a few years to only a few months. Many of these contracts also allowed police departments to deny citizens access to any of these records, effectively burying any evidence of wrongdoing.
FOP officials argue that these provisions are there to protect the rights and safety of officers, and that it was “standard HR practice” to remove evidence of wrongdoing, as it can affect career advancement. This argument only serves to illustrate the disconnect between the rules for officers and the rules for civilians. A civilian convicted of a felony is stuck with the record of that felony for the rest of his life, and whatever career he may have been advancing through can be assumed to have ended the moment the verdict was read in court. “Standard HR Practice” for employees who break the law is to fire them.
There are other alarming provisions in these contracts, which can be read about here, on The Guardian’s website. Many of the practices outlined in these contracts are damaging the public’s trust of the police, but the most damning by far is the nearly universal practice of conducting all investigations internally. This means that corrupt departments investigate their own guilt, and the verdict is almost always that they are innocent. Many law enforcement officials defend this practice, stating that “no one understands what we do.” Not only is this excuse condescending and contrived, it hints at the very dangerous mentality shared by many officers today: That they see themselves as separate and above normal citizens. They see battle lines being drawn between themselves and the very civilians they are supposed to be protecting.
Although the current situation seems grim, it’s vital that we remember a few things: First, that these events of police brutality are not new. There always has been and always will be a risk of those in power abusing that power. Corruption has always been present in any organized society since the beginning of time. What has changed is our ability to see that corruption. With modern technology, a bystander can take out their phone and record these events at a moment’s notice, then post them online to be viewed by millions. The apparent epidemic of corruption and violence that we see today is largely a product of that fact. The next time you wonder, “how did the world get so backwards?”, remember that it already was backwards, and it’s only now in the digital age that most of this corruption is coming to light – and once it’s out in the open where everyone can see it, we can finally start to do something about it.
The second thing we need to remember is that not all police officers are corrupt. In fact, it’s likely that very few are. Sadly, these few seem to congregate in certain departments that damage the reputation of all other departments. However, the current climate of anger and mistrust towards officers only serves to alienate them from the public they are supposed to protect. Every time an act of violence is perpetrated against law enforcement officials, every single officer is forced to question his commitment to the public, especially when the public seems to condone that violence. Law enforcement agencies need to take a serious look at themselves, and make sure that they are addressing their failures in a way that serves to discourage further failure, but we as citizens also need to take a serous look at our own actions, and make sure that we are not encouraging each other to perpetuate this violent cycle. Without compromise and restraint on both sides of this conflict, the violence will only get worse, and people will keep needlessly dying.