You’ve probably seen this picture or seen video of the same scene. Campus police at the University of California at Davis blasted pepper spray at peaceful student protesters Friday. Many people are outraged. Many are calling for the firing of the officers. I’d like to step back and take a broader perspective with three points.
First, this incident proves again that photography matters. In many places, police arrest people for taking pictures of them doing their jobs. In some places, it’s even specifically against the law. The attempts of police, politicians and prosecutors in some places to stop photography of them are wrong, whether it’s through arrests or intimidation.
If the pictures and video from the UC-Davis incident didn’t exist, this would be a non-story. We wouldn’t be talking about the issue. It would be almost as though it didn’t happen. This is why it’s important to strongly press the case that photography is not a crime. (You’ll find plenty of stories at that site of police and other public officials attempting to stop photography that they don’t like.)
Second, these sorts of incidents — and far worse — go on almost every day, but we don’t know about them because there is such a strong “support the police” culture in this country. The people who are experiencing oppression, threats and intimidation from police are mostly those who are powerless to do anything about it. They tend to be poor, black, brown or undereducated. They tend to be people who either don’t know their rights or know they won’t be believed if they complain.
In this case, a bunch of middle-class white college kids were targeted — with plenty of evidence. If we wouldn’t be talking about this incident without photos and video, imagine how much worse it would be if you were a poor urban black male and it’s your word against a police officer’s. You wouldn’t stand a chance and you’d know that. Is it any wonder so many of them are scared of police?
Third, this isn’t a problem of “a few bad eggs.” This is the modern police culture. This is the way they’re trained. There have always been some people attracted to law enforcement because they have the kind of attitude that lends itself to believing, “I have a gun and a badge, so you will obey me,” but the culture makes it very clear that a large proportion of police believe they’re above the law — and that they should be allowed to do pretty much anything they believe is right. Many of them believe that people’s rights are irrelevant, and they’re willing to lie to make it appear they’re following the law. These people are just as evil as the criminals they supposedly oppose.
Since the incident Friday, many are calling for the firing of police Lt. John Pike, the officer in the photo above. You can sign a petition here or see a Facebook group about it here. And the university has suspended a couple of the officers while the case is being investigated, although police were still defending what they did.
I certainly don’t have a problem with firing the officers who did it, because it can at least send a message to the others on the job. Maybe. If it’s like most such incidents, the officers would be rehired by other departments immediately. The police culture protects its own — because they don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong.
And that’s the key. Firing a few officers here or there isn’t going to change things. It’s a systemic problem. Police have to learn that they’re not above the law. They have to learn that they’re going to be consistently punished if they lie or abuse people’s rights. They have to know that complaints against them are going to be taken seriously, not ignored by people more concerned with the appearance of “procedure” than with justice.
The police culture has to change. I don’t know how to do that, because I think the lousy attitudes ultimately come from the public. The vast majority of the public seems to vaguely believe that police should be supported in almost all situations. Especially in you’re in a Republican district, the safest thing you can say is that you support police and want to spend even more money on law enforcement — for higher salaries and new toys for them to “play” with.
I’m not in a lot of danger from police, because I’m a white middle-class guy, but even I get nervous with them these days. A friend of mine made the same point to me over the weekend. Until most people demand accountability and courtesy from some of the thugs who we’re giving guns and badges to, this behavior isn’t going to stop. It won’t affect those of us in our nice, safe, comfortable suburbs, but don’t be surprised when crime gets even worse as more people in minority communities turn against police.
I’m glad to see the outrage against what these thugs did Friday to some white middle-class students. I’d just like to see the same level of outrage when the victims are poor blacks or Hispanics.