Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was charged with the murder of George Floyd on May 29th 2020. George joins that of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Terence Crutcher and Alton Sterling (to name a few) on the ever-growing list of unarmed black civilians killed by law enforcement officers in the United States.
In each of these cases, an officer of the law applied a fatal amount of force in their efforts to ‘apprehend’ their ‘suspects’. Moreover, in dark displays of irony and institutional tribalism, the officers responsible for the deaths avoided persecution and received acquittals from the county/state courts they at one point represented.
There have been excellent articles produced over this period that address the existence of entrenched racial prejudice that is present within US policing. Keisha N. Blain’s Washington Post piece tracks the force’s culpability in racial profiling and brutality back to the post-Civil War Black Codes; while Connie Hassett-Walker’s article in The Conversation identifies the police’s role in the enforcement of the south’s Jim Crow Laws.
However, both articles focus too directly on the symptoms exhibited when the law institutions are governed under racist principles, instead of addressing the irreparable schism that lies at the heart of US policing – that the system in itself is intrinsically and irreparably connected to violence, injustice and oppression.
The Genesis of US Policing
US policing developed in different iterations depending on its geographical location. The northern states formed municipal collectives, the southern states supported Slave Patrols, and the Midwest had its Sheriffs. Each group operated under similar objectives: the enforcement of ‘law and order’, the suppression of ‘disorder’ and providing an armed deterrent to crime.
Fundamentally, the institution from the offset has been rooted in an adversarial relationship with its communities. As opposed to older European systems of policing, which were founded with a greater emphasis on community assistance, the infrastructure of the US regional (that developed into state/federal) systems have been modelled on a template of individualistic justice, limited accountability and armed confrontation. The modern incarnation of these regional institutions continues to operate under these basic principles.
The attributes and place ‘law enforcement’ occupies within American society has stayed the same, while the needs of their respective communities and operational environments have changed. The streets of Minneapolis are no longer the western frontier to unoccupied territories. But, as clearly exemplified by Derek Chauvin and many others, the contemporary officer continues to view themselves as the supreme punitive deterrent to crime and have refused to relinquish their authority to the justice system, jurors and courts that should dictate ‘punishment’ to fit ‘crime’ in a 21st-century democracy.
Indeed, the very authority of police officers, and the institution of policing as a whole, is intrinsically connected to their capacity to commit violence. As opposed to being mediating forces in conflict resolution, the usefulness and capacity of an officer to fulfil the duties of their role (the protection of the wider public), appears to be directly associated with their ability to dominate/subdue their assailant.
While admittedly, such attitudes may be partially justified when contextualised to American society, (due to the wide distribution of firearms to the public), it does not detract from that fact that they do exist, are rife amongst officers and often result in fatal consequences for those who experience them in their most aggressive forms. Consequently, even before being viewed through the prisms of racism and direct oppression, the relationship between officers of the law and the people they supposedly protect is skewed towards violence.
US police killed 1,099 people in 2019 alone. A further 1,147 people in 2017, and at least 1,152 people in 2015. When applying the aforementioned prisms to such statistics, as it is impossible not to when African Americans make up 24% of those killed while being 13% of the population, the killings of black civilians are shown to be the product of institutionalised racism and an intrinsic tenancy towards violence in equal measure.
An inability to reform
After the killing of unarmed civilians, one of the most prominent narratives to emerge in defence of the policing institution is that of individual culpability. That the officer(s) acted out of solely personal directives, were over-zealous in their application of police training, or made a simple mistake. Their ‘errors’ are seemingly resolved by the termination of that officer’s role within the institution, or they face moderate disciplinary action. Crucially, they avoid getting charged with a crime, prosecuted in court, and convicted for their role in a murder. While it is worth noting that Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder for the killing of Floyd, it took half of Minneapolis taking to the streets before the city took action, and charges don’t necessarily result in a conviction.
Again, even before acknowledging and operating under the abject reality – that African Americans and citizens of colour have been systematically abused and mistreated by the US justice system and its affiliates – the underlying tumour of violence in the police institution continually failed to be identified. There has been no condemnation of the police’s actions from the White House. Trump promises nothing but adding more fuel to the fire. Fox News decries the violence of the Minneapolis protestors while ignoring the three other officers who saw Chauvin kneel on another man’s throat and did nothing.
Instead of discussing whether police officers in the position of Chauvin acted within the legal boundaries of their role, focus instead should be directed towards the space and function that the role serves. If the policing institution truly wants to implement long term structural reform, its founding principles must be recognised, admitted and challenged. Only through such measures can the upward trend of civilian killings even being to plateau. Whether the policing institution will ever be forgiven by the public, is another matter entirely.
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