Slave patrols were committees of white men established to monitor, track, capture and torture enslaved Africans. Eventually, these groups supplanted local sheriffs and constables as the primary law enforcers, and they became what we now know as police departments. It is perhaps impossible to count the number of African and African-descended people who have died at the hands of slave patrols and police since the slave era. What we do know is that in the aftermath of each highly publicized act of police brutality, there are many who sing the refrain of a popular song in this country.
It goes like this: “There are some cops who are bad apples, but the overwhelming majority of police officers are good officers.”
What exactly is a “good officer?” Is he or she simply an officer who never gets in trouble and who follows all prescribed rules, regulations, policies and guidelines? Must the officer be acquainted with and well-liked by the community? Must the officer receive departmental commendations for exemplary service? Perhaps all of these things are characteristics of a “good officer.” But the history and circumstances of life in America demand much more.
The ACLU of Michigan has dealt with too many cases of egregious police misconduct where the official departmental response and that of rank and file officers has been to rationalize and excuse bad acts. In some cases the police have even attempted to blame the victims for having brought the harm on themselves. Internal departmental investigations often absolve the officers, and once prosecutors announce that no crimes have been committed, the offending officers return to their jobs as though nothing happened.
There are various institutional factors that account for all of this. In unguarded moments of candor, some officers hint that police unions and fraternal organizations loom large in the thoughts of police administrators who contemplate discipline for offending officers. The prospect of grievances and litigation is never appealing, and it can cause even well-meaning chiefs to look at cases two, three or four times through squinting eyes if necessary to finally conclude discipline is unwarranted.
There are also concerns about morale in the ranks. If an officer is punished for “doing his job,” the grumbling of other officers can become amplified in the ears of department leaders. It is also likely that empathy prompts many officers to offer words and gestures of encouragement to officers who find themselves at the center of storms of controversy. The end result of all of this is officers who commit very bad acts and crimes not only do so with impunity, but are swept up in the collective, comforting embrace of their departments. This sends exactly the wrong message.
A “good officer” should not be content to simply go along with the conventional program. Good officers should be concerned enough about the credibility and integrity of law enforcement to do everything in their power to make it clear to those who engage in racial misconduct or commit crimes that their actions are intolerable.
As the black body count mounts, there should be no looking the other way, or soothing words of comfort for offending officers. There should be face-to-face condemnation and criticism. Police chiefs should brace themselves and punish offending officers when and to the extent warranted without concerns about what the union might do. In sum, officers who engage in racial profiling, police brutality and racial murder should find no comfort in police departments filled with “good officers.”
The ACLU of Michigan has urged the law enforcement community to adopt practices that will reduce the number of incidents of police misconduct and police crimes in communities of color. They include, among other things: routine use of techniques to de-escalate tense confrontations; fundamental transformation of a police culture that prompts officers to routinely approach members of communities of color – even law abiding ones –as though they are terrorists; mental health screening and ongoing mental health monitoring of officers; and implementation of plans developed by expert consultants for the elimination of racial profiling.
Police professionals who strive to accomplish these things and who do all they can to ensure that others in their departments do so as well may come to deserve the title “good officer.”