The 1988 B-movie “Maniac Cop” featured a titular character with a latex-scarred face stalking and killing innocent people while dressed in a policeman’s uniform. In the film, this killing spree sets the city of New York into a panic and B-movie stalwart Bruce Campbell has to act quickly to stop him. The gimmick was simple: we are compelled to obey authority figures, but things are turned upside down if the police officer stopping your car might be a psychopath. Truth be told, it’s not a very good movie, but there were two sequels made and enough admirers to imagine that there will eventually be a remake. If so, I have a suggestion for the filmmakers: this time around, while the psychopath cop is cutting a swath of carnage through the city, in order to update the story, there should be plenty of glib fatuous talking heads on cable television arguing that the public needs to give him leeway to do his job.
Is that unfair? It certainly seems to be where our “discussion” of police brutality is heading. The apparently endless procession of shocking news stories about police violence is bad enough, but there are two things that add particular notes of horror: the first is the sneaking suspicion one has that the public is simply being acclimatized to the fact of trigger-happy cops beating, shooting, and killing the most vulnerable members of the public on the slightest of pretenses, on mistaken suspicions, or even utterly invented pretenses. At some point, we simply accept this state of affairs as a matter of course and fail to ask the larger question: why is it that a society, as it becomes increasingly market-driven, simultaneously becomes more punitive?
Secondly, even worse than the segment of police officers that violate the public trust with a level of impunity that one could argue makes them a quasi-sovereign independent power, are the authoritarian personalities that slither out from the woodwork to defend every cop in every instance of police misconduct. Eric Garner? Well, he was selling loose cigarettes. Walter Scott? Well, he did run from the police officer. Freddie Gray? Well, nobody knows exactly how he got his spine snapped in a police van, ending his life. The irony is that the very people who dismiss all such stories as the work of “a few bad apples” can never quite admit that any individual officer was bad or did bad. They always ask the public to consider how dangerous police work is and how terrifying it can be for officers to engage with the public when any interaction can potentially be life-threatening. Sometimes mistakes are made under pressure you see.
Fair enough. But a few points need to be made here. The first is that the police in the United States are all too often isolated from normal, non-alienated interactions with the public, which might go a long way to reduce the sense of isolation and fear. Instead of “walking the beat”, they pass by (or stop) in convoys of patrol cars. More and more, they’re driving military vehicles instead of cars, while dressed unnervingly in bullet proof vests, regardless of their duty. One even spots meter maids in flack jackets now. Conversely, they are asked to patrol a litany of “offenses” that seems to magically swell without end. One needn’t be a social libertarian to find the notion of taking someone with force into police custody for reselling “loose” cigarettes absurd and tragic. In a very real sense, police officers bear the brunt of the unwarranted laws the punitive state requires them to enforce.
Secondly, if police defenders want to emphasize how stressful police work is, they should acknowledge that it’s just as stressful to be arrested or questioned by a police officer, especially given the mad parade of violent cop stories, and fearful with greater intensity and urgency for young black males. The level of stress can make an arrestee erratic, jumpy, prone to flee, or mentally shut down. The one time in which a police officer drew a weapon on me, in fact, I was in court for a minor traffic violation but simply at such a high stress level that I had not heard his command to take my hands out of my pockets. The raised gun and screaming certainly got my attention, but I wonder how poorly I would have been handled in a different setting.
So, here’s a modest proposal: all police officers should be arrested. Not charged and convicted, of course, but they should all have to go through the experience of arrest in order to know what to expect from those on the other side. In fact, this should be a mandatory part of their training as rookies in the police force. Note that I am not saying they should be put through a simulation arrest or watch a video about being arrested- I am saying they should be sent to another police district in civilian clothes and called in for arrest by the police of that district for a minor offense. They should be brought in for questioning at the police station. At the time that they arrive there, the ruse could be revealed and they could be released. They should not be given any “safe words”. If they give away the game, their training should end.
This will never be done, of course, because the police unions would be adamantly opposed to the notion. It would never be taken seriously by the police or the media. It would “detract from real police work”; in spite of the fact that most areas of the United States are overpoliced and overlegislated and therefore quite a bit of “police work” detracts from maintaining public order and safety. It might also be opposed on the grounds that such a scenario might result in a tragic accident. Police would have to be much less hasty to use violent force when arresting any young person for fear that they might be assaulting a fellow officer. This, however, seems like an argument for, and not against, my proposal.
Regardless of how unlikely my proposal is to be adopted, something has to change. The constant atmosphere of siege cannot last. Crime is in steady decline in the United States; American policing, on the other hand, is steadily more militarized, hysterical, excessive, and in violation of civilized law. The situation is out of control. The police in much of the country need do something to restore public trust, instead of declaring open war on certain populations and hoping the rest of the citizenry will join along. So, if the answer is not to make all officers go through the experience of a mock arrest, how about making every one of them that uses excessive force go through a real conviction?