Police have been the subject of criticism for decades, but 2020 has brought new levels of polarization, with a number of high profile deaths at the hands of police, and people from around the world calling for justice. There is no question that policing is a difficult job involving enormous sacrifice, but those who take on this responsibility must be accountable for their actions. Considering the severity and frequency of police brutality, people are merely asking to be treated justly – to be protected and served the way the job was mandated – but it’s hard to see any steps in the right direction. From Rodney King, to Oscar Grant, to Mike Brown, to George Floyd, and far too many in between, history continues to repeat itself. Reflecting on history, policing has certainly evolved from its explicitly racist origins, but many of the unjust elements of policing in America and elsewhere are still rampant today.
American law enforcement stems from organized slave patrols in the 1700s, where White volunteers would enforce laws related to slavery: capturing enslaved people who were running away, extinguishing uprisings, and punishing enslaved people suspected of breaking plantation rules. By the 19th century, the first municipal police departments were formed in a few major cities. In this period of time, police officers were hired based on political affiliation on the municipal level rather than merit, and their main area of focus was responding to disorder rather than crime, which often led to the targeting of Black, poor, and/or immigrant citizens. Later on, the police system shifted to the enforcement of Jim Crow laws (which legalized racial segregation and inequality), causing further harm to the Black community. Today, police departments are meant to “protect and serve”, yet there are far too many instances of police brutality, racial profiling, and disproportionate arrests of Black and Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC).
This racist history of the policing system is not exclusive to America, as Canadian law enforcement has racist roots as well. The RCMP’s precursor (the North-West Mounted Police – NWMP) was established in 1873 to cease any opposition to colonial Canada, which largely involved taking over Indigenous land, and controlling Indigenous populations. The NWMP and later the RCMP forced Indigenous peoples onto reserves, forced Indigenous children into residential schools, and continued to brutally mistreat Indigenous peoples for decades. Even now, Indigenous citizens are disproportionately targeted and abused, evident in the rate of incarceration, as well as the disturbing number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and lack of proper response from authorities.
We often claim that “the system is broken”, but given the origins and history of law enforcement in North America, it appears that the system is doing exactly what it was meant to do – suppress marginalized groups. Rarely, if ever, are we taught about this dark history, and many (if not most) police officers themselves are unaware. As Edmund Burke so eloquently said, “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Other police officers may be aware of the harmful past, and are inspired to join the police force to make a positive difference from within, but with this understanding of the history of law enforcement and its impact on communities, the question becomes “does policing cause more harm than good?” In a podcast, rapper J Cole once said “I think there are good and great people who are cops, but I think the term ‘good cop’ is an oxymoron because the job ain’t good […] they’re agents of a machine that isn’t good.” In reference to police officers, he also said, “those are people, they got a job. The system has given them power. You’re giving a person with flaws and their own biases unchecked power… and power corrupts.”
This idea of unchecked power extends beyond race. Granted, oftentimes the two go hand in hand, as racist police officers abuse their power to hurt Black and Indigenous People of Colour, but the same happens for intra-race abuse as well. For example, police brutality is a massive issue in Nigeria right now, as it sparked the “End SARS” movement (see photo on the left). The “Specialized Anti-Robbery Squad” was created in 1992 to stop violent crimes, but this police unit has notoriously been linked to police brutality and abuses of power ranging from extortion to rape to torture. With this issue, race is not a factor, rather wealth/class seems to be the shared trait among victims, as SARS officers are known to primarily target younger Nigerians who appear to be wealthy. In other areas of the world, police’s abuse of power often takes the form of corruption and bribery, among other violations.
No matter the form of misconduct, police officers are put in a position of immense power and responsibility, and abuses of this power should not be tolerated, yet murderous officers continue to get PAID leave rather than jail time. The commonly used response to this situation is that most cops are good, but there are a “few bad apples.” As Chris Rock said in a stand-up comedy performance, “some jobs can’t have bad apples. For some jobs, everybody has to be good, like…pilots. American Airlines can’t be like ‘You know, most of our pilots like to land, we just have a few bad apples that like to crash into mountains.’”
Being a police officer is undoubtedly a hard job, as they risk their lives, and work in a profession that can be mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. Ideally the job would help communities be safe and secure but a number of those sworn to serve and protect are actually causing harm. Even for cops who have the right intentions, but commit wrongful actions, there should be no margin/tolerance for error. How is it that officers are allowed to panic and commit murder when they feel threatened by an unarmed civilian, yet citizens are expected to stay calm and not resist arrest when there is a gun in their face and a history of police brutality on their mind?
The issue of unjust policing is complex and layered, and for a long time there appeared to be no hope. It is still a dire situation, and history continues to repeat itself, but there are now movements seeking concrete change, proposing solutions such as defunding police (relocating funds to more appropriate services), and increasing training for police, among other strategies. At the very least we need to see the humanity in one another, opening honest dialogue between police forces and communities, and reflecting on/challenging systemic issues, so law enforcement can properly achieve their purpose of ‘protecting and serving’.
How can we construct a future for law enforcement that is free from racism and abuses of power? Can such a system even exist, or are these toxins an inevitable part of the system?