There’s been a lot of press about unwarranted police shootings and law enforcement cover-ups of police brutality, but do you ever wonder how on earth a culture developed where some police officers could believe that it is okay to treat people that way? I certainly have. And here’s what I’ve come up with: the culture of police violence takes seed when law enforcement is treated as above the law; the culture of police violence grows when there is clear evidence of misconduct, with no accountability.
A lack of consequences and accountability for police misconduct has become the norm in far too many police departments, fostering the culture of police violence. Take Chicago. You may remember the frightening video recorded by a Chicago police car’s dashboard camera of an officer firing more than a dozen shots into the car of some unarmed black teenagers who had been pulled over for speeding. When an officer charged at the car with his gun poised as if to shoot at the teens, they tried to back away, and the officer just started firing at them. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the click. The video is so troubling that retired Cook County Judge Andrew described the officer’s actions as the most unsettling thing he has seen in his 35 year legal career. So what happened to that officer? Well, there were no consequences whatsoever until after the boys’ families filed suit (the incident happened in 2013). And, even after that, so far the only consequence for the officer has been that he was reassigned to desk duty with full pay. The message is clear, the Department has the officers’ back no matter how disturbing their behavior.
Another recent Chicago incident illustrates how the culture of police violence is fueled by a lack of accountability. Chicago Public Radio recently reported on the video of a police raid on a tanning salon. The video captures not only the senseless violence and bigotry that is so commonplace, but also the wink and nod of the cover up. At about ten minutes into the video, the police entered the salon and promptly arrested the manager. Several minutes into the arrest, the Detective shouted at the Asian woman he was arresting, “You’re not fucking American. I’ll put you in a UPS box and send you back to wherever the fuck you came from.” The Detective then threatened the woman that if she didn’t shut up, “You’ll be dead, and your family will be dead.” He called her a “fucking animal.” One of the other officers punched the woman while she was handcuffed and kneeling on the ground. Let’s just pause to think about how horrible and unnecessary it is to treat another human being that way. But, in this case, at least there were slap-on-the-wrist repercussions: a 25 day suspension for the abusive detective; an 8 day suspension for the officer who punched the woman.
But there’s even more to the story that shows how our culture of police violence gets perpetuated by a lack of accountability. Chicago has a board called the Independent Police Review Authority (“IPRA”), which investigates police shootings and allegations of police misconduct. When IPRA received the salon’s video recording of the officers’ abuse, there was something else also captured on the recording: the officers are caught arguing about whether they are being recorded and discussing how they can get rid of the incriminating evidence. They discuss confiscating the salon’s computer hard drive so that they can make any recordings on it disappear. Their plan was, of course, highly illegal, and yet IPRA just ignored the cover-up efforts entirely. It is those kinds of moments – when the officers know that IPRA has seen evidence of their illegal cover-ups schemes, but takes no action – that feed the culture of police violence. Those moments signal to the officers that they can confidently make the tapes of shootings disappear or simply turn off their cameras before abusing suspects, and there will be no deeper investigation and no consequences. And, thus, the culture of police violence thrives in America and is unleashed on society’s most vulnerable.