Will cellphone cameras do what years of eyewitness testimony couldn’t?
As protests have swelled across the country, those who the late, great Molly Ivins memorably called “the chattering classes” have been debating similarities and differences between today’s demonstrations and those of the 60s. One of the clearest differences is the ubiquity of cellphone cameras–and the number of videos that have emerged capturing police–many in riot gear– brutalizing peaceful protestors.
The nationwide anti-police brutality protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US have been marked by widespread incidents of police violence, including punching, kicking, gassing, pepper-spraying and driving vehicles at often peaceful protesters in states across the country.
Many assaults were captured on video. Had the murder of George Floyd not been similarly captured, no doubt it would have been “explained” in a way that absolved the officers involved of blame–much as the Buffalo Police Department tried to evade responsibility for shoving and injuring an elderly man by issuing a press release that said he “tripped and fell.”
For more years than I can count, Americans have given police the benefit of the doubt when the facts were even slightly at issue. When facts haven’t been malleable, when the officer’s behavior was too clearly out of line to claim otherwise, the standard line has been “every profession has some bad apples.” (We’re supposed to ignore the fact that police unions vigorously defend those “bad apples”and deploy their considerable resources to defeat mayors and prosecutors who try to hold police accountable.)
Are there lots of “good cops”? Sure. But in far too many police departments, the organizational culture works to silence them, and to incentivize a defensive “us versus them” mentality. A vivid example: when the evidence was too graphic to ignore, and the officers who shoved the elderly protestor were charged with battery, 57 members of the police force quit the unit to protest their suspension–and actually applauded them as they left the courthouse after being charged.
A few years ago, the Harvard Business Review had an article explaining organizational culture as “consistent, observable patterns of behavior” and quoted Aristotle for the observation, “We are what we repeatedly do.”
The culture of an organization is powerfully shaped by incentives — money, of course, but to an under-appreciated extent, intangible rewards such as status, recognition and approval, and sanctions.(It is not inconsequential that officers who connect with their community are far less likely to be recognized and applauded than those who make many arrests, especially ones involving force.)
Ultimately, organizational culture is the “sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.”
People who study policing concede that the culture of many American police departments is toxic. Last November, The Brookings Institution convened a panel discussion focusing on the challenge of changing the “values and rituals” that–according to one panelist, formerly a police captain– too often pit police against the people they are supposed to be protecting.
Another panelist noted that training often encouraged a “warrior mentality” that is attractive to a subset of individuals who “may not always be the best fit” for police work. Panelists also noted a lack of transparency and accountability–and the frequent use of internal cover-ups to protect officers who habitually use excessive force.
When bad behavior isn’t punished, it breeds impunity.
Five Thirty Eight recently posted an article about that impunity, and the reasons police officers are so rarely held criminally accountable.
Many major cities continue to pay out millions of dollars each year to settle lawsuits against police officers, too often without firing officers who have been repeatedly sued. So even though police misconduct has drawn greater national attention, it’s still really difficult to hold police officers legally accountable for any kind of misconduct — including fatal violence.
According to the article, only 110 law enforcement officers nationwide have been charged with murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting — despite the fact that around 1,000 people are fatally shot by police annually. Of that 110, only 42 were convicted. (Fifty were not and 18 cases are still pending.) Many of the convictions ended up being for a lesser offense. Only five were convicted of murder and failed to have that conviction overturned.
Part of the problem is understandable. Judges and juries are inclined to believe law enforcement officers.
When I worked in City Hall, I became convinced that, other than the police union, the most significant barrier to accountability was prosecutors’ reliance on, and close working relationship with, local police. At the time, I lobbied–unsuccessfully–for a law requiring appointment of special prosecutors in such cases, to eliminate the unavoidable conflict of interest.
Policing is a difficult job. It often requires split-second decision-making. We can be cognizant of that fact without giving bad cops permission to act like animals. Cellphone cameras can help.