One of my heroes is a psychologist named Amos Wilson. He passed away many years ago, but one brilliant thing he said all the way back in the 1980s always stuck with me. It’s simple but profound. “I often get people to ask me why white racism is so prevalent in this nation,” Wilson said. “Why do they get away with saying and doing so much of what they say and do that causes us harm? How can they lynch us or shoot us or strangle us and get away with it over and over and over again? And my answer to those questions may surprise you: They do all of that … because they can.”
Wilson no doubt believed in the prevalence of racism and bigotry. Born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1941, he came of age during the height of Jim Crow in a place that was ravaged by it. He was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta during the pinnacle of the civil rights movement. He experienced and observed racism and white supremacy firsthand. But it was his belief that power structures and differentials that maintained and protected bigotry were as responsible for the effects as the bigotry itself.
The Baltimore chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police freaked all the way out.
That very logic is at the root of why, despite of thousands of marches and protests, police brutality has continued, year after year, as a force in American life. We’re all aware of it. We know more names and stories of police brutality victims today than we ever have in American history. But that awareness has not slowed down the violence.
Police in the U.S. are consistently brutal and corrupt … because they can be! Even the worst behavior too often escapes our society’s safeguards, and police are shielded from punishment or consequence. Like many social ills, there is no silver bullet for ending police misconduct. But this much is clear: Until police are held accountable, police brutality will exist.
That’s why the Baltimore chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police freaked all the way out when the police association learned that the city had no intention of protecting nine officers found by a jury to have acted with “actual malice.” The police officers had gone on trial for a series of corrupt arrests in which evidence was planted, false reports filed, people beaten, and ultimately innocent men and women sent to jail and prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
With the guilty verdict in, the city is expecting dozens of lawsuits to be filed because of the actions of the cops on Baltimore’s notorious Gun Trace Task Force. As a result, city leaders are panicking. Baltimore simply does not want to pay out for these lawsuits. City officials claim it’s a longstanding policy to put cops on the hook for damages doled out in cases when police acted with malice, but the policy has never been used quite like this: Necessity is finally forcing Baltimore to hold actual officers financially accountable for their worst actions.
There are over 1 million law enforcement officers throughout the country. The message has long since been loud and clear that no matter what they do, city, state, and federal governments will stick by them. As of the last comprehensive count in 2014, New York City has 55 officers still on the force that had been sued at least 10 different times.
Police should contribute financially toward the victims of their own violence and corruption.
Placing accountability with individual officers, though, is not without its complications. In Baltimore, Solicitor Andre Davis has gone so far as to say that the city won’t cover any of the costs or damages stemming from the corrupt actions of the cops in the Gun Trace Task Force. But if the city won’t cover the bulk of the costs of these lawsuits, many victims could have their justice delayed while individual officers stonewall and fight paying out these families.
The principle of the matter, though, is right: Police should contribute financially toward the victims of their own violence and corruption.
Will a policy of holding police officers directly responsible for their conduct completely eliminate police brutality and corruption? Of course not. But it’s a culture-changing, life-shifting moment for your paycheck or pension to suddenly be docked by 25 to 50 percent because you caused great harm to someone. Right now, the worst cops have very little motivation to think twice before they make horrible decisions. Direct accountability might give them pause.