I touched briefly yesterday on the role of the police in perpetuating and exacerbating America’s serious gun problem. This deserves to be expanded on.
In Florida, police knocked on someone’s door, and when the guy answered it with his own gun drawn, they shot him dead. They hadn’t announced themselves as police, and the guy was apparently just a little paranoid. The cops were trying to track down a murder suspect, but had got the wrong apartment.
In California, a crowd gathered to protest against the police’s treatment of a homeless man suffering from mental illness last year, who died after an alleged violent beating by police. At the protest, cops fired rubber bullets into the crowd, and sent a police dog to engage with members of the public, who included a mother holding a child.
In Virginia, a police officer went to a family’s home, to let them know that their son was dead, having been the tragic victim of a shooting. After breaking this sad news, the officer found himself being approached by the family dog, which he shot and killed.
These are just a handful of the examples of this kind of thing which I’ve noticed in the last week or two. Hang out with Radley Balko, and there’s another story like it pretty much every day.
And it’s not just the US which has problems like this. The most prominent example from my own country in recent weeks has been the case surrounding Ian Tomlinson, who a coroner’s inquest found died in 2009 from internal bleeding, as a direct result of being struck and pushed by PC Simon Harwood. His death was ruled an “unlawful killing”.
When the jury trial of PC Harwood concluded last week, he was found not guilty of manslaughter.
So, the complete official picture is that Ian Tomlinson was unlawfully killed… but not by the thug who violently beat him and caused the injuries from which he died.
(If my use of the word “thug” seems needlessly inflammatory and pejorative there, have a look at the video, read about his history of disciplinary proceedings, then see if that still seems like something worth complaining about.)
This isn’t just about “fuck the police” (on which I’ve written before, here and here – the title of this post might make more sense when seen as part of a pattern). Although yes, that is somewhere to start, so to reiterate: Fuck the police. But that’s not because I want there to be a combative relationship between ordinary people, and this separate demographic of individuals who just happen to be given a lot more leeway in their use of violence.
We need to change the way we see the police. Not as an “enemy”, who we can “beat” if we fight them hard enough and then we’ll have “won”. But also not as people who can be relied upon to look after us, to fix our problems, to be forever brave and principled in their commitment to justice.
And definitely not as a powerful authority to be feared.
There are legitimate things for a police force to do, and ways in which such a force could legitimately act to keep order, deter crime, and foil the actions of criminals. Sometimes they do act like this, and numerous individuals have done great things and shown commendable courage in their roles representing the police. But we don’t need to choose between supporting or condemning the entire institution and all its actions together.
The police aren’t without purpose, but they’re also potentially dangerous people with weapons and authority, both of which they’re prone to use unjustly against us, with tragic results. Many people, not without good reason, live in greater fear of the harm this protective force will do against them, than of the criminals they’re being “protected” from.
I’d love to be able to see the police in a more generous and respectable light than this. But they’re going to have to earn it. And the rest of us should be more aware of what we will and won’t put up with from them in the meantime.