Policing and the military should, by nature of their duty, be apolitical. But increasingly, law enforcement has become more and more politicized. The danger of this divide is hard to overestimate, because a society at loggerheads by confusing identity with the law, in viewing right versus wrong as representing us versus them, is an extreme expression of tribalism.
In other words, this is a stance in which identity can become the only thing that really seems to matter. When peace officers become associated with a political party, justice is a casualty, because the law, or the question of right and wrong, becomes less important than whose side one appears to be on.
Think about how this affects the psychology of jury duty. How are just verdicts even possible if us versus them becomes the core concern of law and order?
I watched a recent interview with Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, in which he made the point that for every ten people executed after a death penalty conviction, one of those people has been exonerated after additional evidence has been discovered.
If we applied this kind of comparison to air travel -- if one in ten planes crashed, no one would fly. Indeed, why do we still have the death penalty in such a flawed system? How is it even possible to pursue justice if we politicize the process?
Rarely a week goes by without a police incident in the news in which racial prejudice is mentioned as an accusation or a question mark.
A few years ago, Heather Mac Donald published a book titled Are Cops Racists? Her book is a prime example of why there is so little progress in eliminating hidden racial bias in policing. Her book amounts to a political diatribe, based not on the sciences of human behavior, but on the political ideology of hard-right conservatism. If she were really trying to determine if police officers are racists, she wouldn’t have needed to begin the book with the accusation that the Obama Administration was the most anti-law-enforcement administration in memory.
Mac Donald says her book aims to tell the truth about policing and race. She accuses media of participating in “frenzied cop bashing.” She suggests that politicians burden police “with cumbersome and unneeded procedures to restrain police bias.” Her first chapter title is “The Myth of Racial Profiling.”
On the back cover, David Brooks says Mac Donald should be knee-deep in Pulitzer Prizes for her pioneering work. And yet, if one knows anything about human behavior and about how our minds work with relation to unconscious bias, then one would conclude that Mac Donald’s book is nothing but a diatribe against any and all efforts to hold police officers accountable when they cross the line of acceptable behavior. Moreover, David Brooks, having recently written a book titled The Second Mountain, about finding fulfillment in commitment to something beyond oneself, has fallen off his own mountain if he thinks such a politically biased work merits award.
Statistics that show a racial bias exists in our culture, and especially in our criminal justice system, are overwhelming and objectively undeniable. Even in matters of employment, resumes with African American-sounding names get fewer callbacks. If we don’t acknowledge and face up to that fact, this injustice can never be successfully addressed.
Rarely a week goes by without a police incident in the news in which racial prejudice is mentioned as an accusation or a question mark. Racism in policing, especially implicit racism (the kind stemming from subconscious intuition), is still not well understood, despite the work of many behavioral specialists dedicated to criminal justice reform.
Objective and bias-free policing is a much harder job because the process of socialization and how we internalize the things we believe are true are still a mystery to most people. But is there any doubt in your mind that the Minneapolis police officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck harbored racial issues? Something was surely amiss, and that this officer even saw George Floyd as a human being is suspect.
It is not a mystery, however, that policing and our criminal justice system are, in addition to being subject to a formidable unconscious bias, also increasingly driven by politics. If one out of ten death penalty cases are overturned by new evidence, what might we conclude about arrests and convictions in general for less serious crimes, where the vast majority of defendants are coerced into pleading to lesser charges to avoid the risk of long-term imprisonment?
A police shooting at a Bronx police station resulted recently in New York police union leaders attacking Mayor Bill DeBlasio as being anticop. The President of the Sergeants’ Benevolent Association declared war on DeBlasio, saying New York police officers don’t respect the mayor and that if shot while in the line of duty that the mayor should not feel welcome to visit them in the hospital. Donald Trump weighed in and agreed with the accusations.
No one wins in this kind of dialogue, especially law enforcement. Political declarations about cracking down to bring about law and order have often been heard as promises to oppress minorities, but you can’t win the hearts and minds of the people you serve if you alienate them by choosing sides politically.
Police spokesmen addressing criticism of their officers’ conduct who attack those critics automatically without taking the criticism seriously do a disservice to everyone in uniform, because the result is to increase public anxiety about the integrity of policing.
Two Buffalo New York police officers were recently suspended for pushing a senior citizen down and then leaving him laying injured on the ground. In protest of their suspension, a number of their fellow officers resigned from a special unit. There is no upside for police officers for this kind of behavior. It will not pay dividends.
Former Secretary of Defense, retired General James N. Mattis, is right to declare that Donald Trump has made no effort whatsoever to bring the country together.
There is talk now in social media about police groups severing ties with Joe Biden because he is thought to not be on their side. Siding with the achievement of providing just law enforcement is the only side police department administrators should concern themselves with.
For police unions to favor political candidates of any party lets politics get in the way of a just society. Donald Trump's suggestion to police officers that it is okay to rough up the people that they arrest is clearly intended to show that he is on the side of law enforcement, but for peace officers to see this as anything but the cheap partisan ploy it is, is to let politics defy their oath to protect and serve.
Charles D. Hayes is the author of Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing.