Confronting a Conundrum
Addressing police violence requires us to confront a conundrum. We don’t practice what we preach. Modern bureaucracy promises to eradicate prejudicial behavior through universal treatment, but the police, like many other institutions, operates within a system that conditions the way problems and solutions are framed and viewed. Bureaucracies are not neutral and still cater to the interests of racist, white elites in ways that allow for and legalize discriminatory practices.
Yes, there is protocol, but how this plays out in practice is not always standard. For example, different people who are pulled over for the same infraction might be ticketed, let off with a warning, questioned—or what we have witnessed recently—apprehended, tased, shot, or killed on scene.
Why the variety of responses to the same offense?
Why is the perception of resisting arrest or having a weapon often based on a person’s gender, age, or race? There are judgments, perceptions, assumptions made, and actions taken that are beyond a mechanical set of stimulus-response circumstances dictated by protocol. People are reduced to essential categories, their complexity glossed over, officers falling back onto simplified tropes, and often, the worst assumptions.
There is thought-work taking place, primarily from police training, which instills a hierarchy of values, a rationale, a way of thinking, a mindset of what constitutes criminal behavior and activity. Who decides this criteria and who benefits from the definitions and classifications placed at the top of the hierarchy? The answer to this question will determine who the bureaucracy favors and what acts are tolerated or forgiven over others.
Policies Fall Differently on Marginalized Communities
Often, we mirror this criteria after ourselves or our own communities, what we value, how we behave, what we expect. We perceive it as universal, in the interest and safety of all people, but laws can benefit certain groups and interests over others, and policies fall differently on marginalized communities.
In the name of safety, the “war on drugs” initiated by Nixon in 1971 and the 1994 Crime Bill categorized and approached crime and possession or selling of drugs in ways that disproportionally harmed people of color and areas that already struggled with poorly funded schools, depressed economies and communities, lack of healthcare, and other resources.
The way these issues were framed, defined, and enforced made the same “crime” by white people or wealthy people less severe or approached with a different rationale. Often, white, and especially white-collar offenders have been awarded reduced sentences, lower jail time, offenders call forward character references to describe their generosity and good works, claim that if allowed to return to work, they can be productive members of society.
If it is a first time offense, they are often perceived to have a lower threat of recidivism and are treated with more leniency by judges during sentencing. These disparities sanction discrimination and preferential treatment through legal channels. When applied systematically, such a bureaucratic apparatus conducts violence and generates chronic struggle while maintaining a perceived neutrality.
Money Contributes to the Creation of Hierarchy
Often, money contributes to the creation of the hierarchy. Officers cannot make arrests for every infraction they see in a day; this would not be possible. Department heads consider results, performance, cost, man-hours, and funding, and structure protocol accordingly.
Departments are pressured to target specific crimes and ignore others because of the time, man-hours, or paperwork required for certain infractions, or the profit of payments resulting from certain fines. Some arrests just don’t “pay off”. This can produce conflicts of interest within the department when fiscal strategy demands that officers not pursue certain offenses because they are an inefficient use of resources or time; officers are asked to stand down or let offenders go.
The cost-benefit ratio is a factor that organizations of every kind consider to keep themselves economically afloat, but the question we must ask ourselves is, do economic choices determine the best plan for safety, protection, and just, equal application of the law? Do the frameworks of funding, man-hours, or paperwork justify the creation of police policy, and how much do they hinder the pursuit of other forms of safety and protection that are not monetarily beneficial?
Policing, far from being an “objective” system, is a derivative of our history of condoning and practicing enslavement, a society that actively, consciously, and continually enslaved human beings for generations. At its inception, the police force was created to protect and serve whom? Whose interests? Certainly not the interests of slaves. We cannot not pretend that America has ever fully embraced human rights in practice or that it has afforded us all equal resources, funding, care, housing, education, and opportunity.
While we claim to be free and equal today, we have not rid ourselves of deeply-rooted hierarchies of human value (be it race, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, or ability) and the practice of consistently protecting the values and interests of wealthy, racist, white men. There are huge gaps in what we say we value, and what we practice, and it’s time to identify and address them.
Power perpetuates unequal distribution of practice and it must be checked.
Instead of continuing to invest in a biased system and continuing to bend ourselves to powerful institutions that have systemically sanctioned the agenda of violent and racist elites into bureaucratic channels, it’s time we listen to what the people are saying, create policy for and around those needs, practice inclusion and place black, brown, indigenous, Asian, LGBTQ, differently-abled, female ideas and people at the center of policy change.
An Opportunity to Hold our Systems Accountable
Crime is continuously redefined and reclassified by us; if we are serious about justice and equal rights, we will change the social structures that exacerbate human suffering. We will recognize how our own definitions, unequal practices, and unequal distribution of resources criminalize and harm people.
We will recognize the legal, prejudicial channels that are used to perpetuate discrimination. This is a major opportunity to hold our systems accountable, to honor historically marginalized voices, to listen and give the platform to diverse community leaders whose inclusion is instrumental in identifying and changing the structures and mechanisms that are responsible for the propagation of injustice.
Inclusion, representation, and the sharing of power dismantle the hierarchy and are paramount in re-designing a future that recognizes and values all people.