Life. One irony after another. Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning registers the greatest season on record for NFL quarterbacks. Only, however, to get trounced 43-8 in the Superbowl by the Seattle Seahawks. Irony. Arguably the most gifted artist in the history of Hip-Hop, Tupac Shakur, “diagnosed” the Code of Thug Life that frowned on “snitches” Tupac is later murdered and, to this day, no one has “snitched” to bring the killer(s) to justice. Irony. Ted Haggard, the former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals [NAE], preached boldly on values. But Haggard fell from favor at NAE, ensnared in a drug-sex scandal that involved a male prostitute. And here’s another irony. Denzel Washington is not awarded Best Actor for the portrayal of Malcolm X, but Washington wins Best Actor for a character that scares the hell out of some segments of society, including black males. That character being, a dirty police officer.
The anxiety about dirty police is not one that demonstrates a lack of [black] manhood. But it involves one of society’s most fragile exchanges. That of police and suspect. In the countless thousands of such events that occur daily, myriad things can go wrong. The movie Fruitvale Station depicted a series of downward spiraling events that began with Oscar Grant defending himself, but ended with a bullet in Grant’s lifeless body. University of Cincinnati student, Everette Howard (18), dies after being tasered. Numerous other incidents, such as the killing of Sean Bell, demonstrate the volatile nature of these police encounters with ordinary citizens.
The capacity for bad policing was never so clear in my mind than a few years ago. During a cookout, I was discussing with a police officer, a highly suspicious fatal shooting of an African American male. The officer concluded after rounds of debate, “Well, if he didn’t get it for something he did then, he got it for something he did before.” Needless to say, I was stunned and left the conversation, realizing that reason and decency were not considerations with this officer, who happened to be a black male.
Admittedly, police-citizen encounters have left officers injured for life and dead. And police have no less interest in getting home to their families than does the ordinary citizen. Even the most cynical has to acknowledge what can be tremendously stressful situations. And yet, unlike citizens, police are trained for these encounters. They wear the badge of State authority. They carry the taser, billyclub, and revolver. And they can summon the support of overwhelming force.
Not only are these encounters moments of life-and-death, they are likely moments of “time”. That is, how much prison time might a citizen ultimately receive that began with an abuse of police authority to: search premises; inspect possessions; and take another individual into custody or what could otherwise be called “temporary slavery”.
The various powers in which the state vests in police are necessary for civil society, but likewise fraught with potential abuses. Denzel Washington’s classic line in Training Day, “It’s not what you can show. It’s what you can prove”, was art imitating life in a way that conjures up myriad questions. How many Americans are behind bars because of what someone could “prove”? How many millions of dollars on legal fees have been spent on falsified evidence? How many lives have been broken? Families split? Jobs and businesses suffered? Property seized? Reputation ruined? Citizens shot, choked, or bludgeoned as a result of policing that is itself worthy of prosecution? And, as in the case of a childhood friend, how many people have resorted to taking their lives, having been sent to prison for lengthy terms (or indeed life) for unjust allegations? How many have laid on a gurney as lethal substances flow into their veins for an injustice they could not “disprove”?
A society that turns a blind eye to dirty policing. Even police who deny what is indisputable. These will only continue to rob lady justice of the trust we place in her. And allowing this behavior to continue only taints the relationship that civilized people desire with decent law enforcement officials.
Take a look at the videos below. And share your thoughts on these questions: “Is police abuse a minor issue or a serious problem in our country? If minor, does circulation of information incite hostilities between citizens and police? If major, what can the public and police do to fix this problem.”
Let me hear from you…
In memory of Rodney Glen King
(April 2, 1965 – June 17, 2012)
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