Having lived and worked in several countries, I’ve had a chance to see firsthand how the role of police in the US is very different than other countries. Still, having grown up in the US, I was somewhat accustomed to this situation and I suppose that I just accepted it as reality. In recent years I have been more frequently reminded of these stark differences in policing after numerous questions from my 7-year-old daughter, which are unbiased, innocent, inquisitive, and posed without malice.
I’ve often heard questions that begin with “Daddy, why are police in America…?” She has seen police while visiting in the US, and also sees occasional coverage on TV and the internet, and immediately notices the strong differences between the nature of US policing compared to the nature of policing where we presently live (Japan). I wish all American citizens (including myself) could see matters as simply and clearly as she does.
One of the main issues is that police are only supposed to do proper police work: Protect citizens from harm and maintain peaceful conditions that enables everyone to go about their lives without fear of being attacked, having their belongings stolen, being injured by reckless behavior(s), etc.. The job of police is to dissuade and (if that fails) deal with anyone who presents a threat to public safety and the ability of people to live out their liberties in peace and happiness. Police work is supposed to bring a sense of safety and calm to a community. Citizens are supposed to feel more safe and relaxed when police are present. Police work plays a very important role in a civilized society, and this is usually how things work in much of the developed world.
However, police forces in the US are now very different from this ideal. Amid fresh calls to abolish police forces, I suspect that the situation has gone so far off the tracks that many Americans have forgotten the proper role and importance of genuine police work. When a US police officer comes around, carrying guns, wearing military style fatigues, body armor, handcuffs, and radio blaring…tensions increase rather than decrease. Police regularly race their beefed up patrol cars around at high speeds, violating traffic laws and raising nerves across the neighborhood. This is already bad enough, but is just the tip of the iceberg.
In these worst of times, we saw video of a police officer killing a black man in public, without any apparent conscience or fear of retribution. This is especially troubling in a country that continues to struggle with its legacy of racism, and such extrajudicial killings raise demons of a wicked past in which lynchings were common and used as a means to terrorize the black population. (Note to readers: I did NOT allow my children to watch that horror.)
Today we are lucky to live in a society where most people are horrified by this kind of event, and many come out in protest. However, we then saw police attacking citizens who are not a threat to anyone, firing “less than lethal” munitions randomly into crowds, tear gassing and beating them with batons. The internet is now filled with thousands of hours of video taken by ubiquitous smart phones showing that these are not isolated incidents, but rather are occurring ubiquitously and with disturbing frequency from sea to shining sea.
The US is now experiencing one of the worst outbreaks in police violence in its history. At least in this instance, it is clear that the police are not doing police work, instead they are bringing fear, violence, and danger to their own society. They appear more like henchmen of a brutally repressive dictatorship attempting to terrorize a population into obedient submission, rather than a police force that underpins a free and just enlightened society.
How did this happen?
First, I hope we might agree that in the present mess, the police are being ordered to arrest peaceful protesters by political leaders such as mayors, governors…the president. And this is inflaming matters, because police are apparently not properly trained to handle this situation, and it is largely because this is not bonafide police work. Let’s understand that police forces did not spontaneously decide one day that they were all going to go out to murder, beat, maim, run over people with cars, etc.. Instead, this situation has been building up over time, and has been created by political leaders in both major political parties.
The reason is that government has continually relied on police to do jobs that are not proper police work. Police have been the only tool available for government to address many of the problems that are spiraling out of control owing to policy failures at the top levels of government.
If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem becomes a nail. US police are the proverbial hammer that has been tasked to hammer nails that continue to pop out owing to failure of the government at all levels to provide the conditions that allow for a peaceful and just society.
Failure to address mental illness? Send in the police.
Failure to solve homelessness? Send in the police.
Failure to address poverty and hunger? Send in the police.
Failure to address systemic racism? Send in the police.
Failure to educate the populace? Send in the police.
Failure of the judicial system? Send in the police.
Failure to address drug addiction? Send in the police.
Failure to establish a coherent immigration and trade policy? Send in the police.
Failure to give younger generations opportunity and a voice? Send in the police.
And so on…
What’s next? Will police be asked to address climate change, too?
Here’s the thing: Every time the USA sends in the police to do a job that police are not meant to do…it is another admission of failure as a country to provide the basic conditions that allow for the sustenance of a peaceful society in which police only do police work.
Furthermore, trying to produce a peaceful and just society using the police, as a substitute for fixing the fundamental problems that give rise to public discord, is like putting the cart before the horse. It simply cannot work.
With the above points in mind, I hope that we can also agree that it would be absurd and ineffective to blame this entire situation on the police. It is too easy to blame the people who have been put in a circumstance that is not of their own making, instead of blaming those who were actually responsible for creating the situation.
Instead, I think we should view policing like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. When policing expands beyond its accepted proper roles, and plays out in ways that are opposite to these expected roles, then it is a symptom of a deeper problem…it is not the entire disease.
So, what about that disease? The people need to protest the political leaders whose failures were thrust onto the shoulders of police forces, and who created this very situation. And while it is very clear that the current president is absolutely the worst person to lead the country in these times, we have the prospect of his replacement being a man who proudly authored and sponsored the 1994 crime bill that expanded and militarized policing, and who still refuses to admit (or blames others) that this was a failure in policy that helped create the present situation.
The election is between a man who would unleash the military on protesters (if he could), and a man who was a primary architect of the present state of policing in the US. This does not give much hope for using the ballot box to cure the disease, unless Democrats are willing to confront Biden, hold him to task, and pressure him to roll back his previous policies if he is elected. Will they do so?
However, the bigger and more important message is that we need to do a better job as a society to make sure that police are not expected to play whack-a-mole with all of the society’s problems. Deep, fundamental reform is needed across the board before this can be possible. Let’s put the horse back in front of the cart.