I think what often gets overlooked about the problem of police brutality and racist policing in America is how these issues stem from larger ingrained societal and systemic factors. Meanwhile, I also think two things happen simultaneously that: (1) we rely on police too often for too many different things; and (2) police have too much authority and power.
When I was a social worker in a supportive housing program, I was perturbed by how often we were instructed to call 911. I now understand better that we call the police for especially liability purposes, but it is pretty amazing for me to recall that we relied on police for such a wide range of scenarios. We called the police when a tenant invited over as a guest someone that was on their Order of Protection. We called police for someone expressing suicidal ideation. We called the police when tenants were yelling and arguing with each other, and we were not able to deescalate the situation. We called the police when a tenant received an eviction notice but was refusing to leave the building. We called the police when a tenant was accusing another tenant of stealing from them. We called when a tenant was too drunk to be able to take care of her young children.
There is no denying that we rely on police. It’s hard for me to imagine how we could have resolved these situations without getting the police come and take over. However, I do think the paradox is that because the police have to deal with so many different types of situations and so often, a good number of times police involvement actually made things worse. A lot of times, waiting for the police to come took a very long time, and in that duration, because people involved knew police will be coming, the situation worsened and escalated. I remember that time when the police was called because a tenant was highly under the influence of a psychotic substance and the police resolved the situation by tasing him and subduing him. I was shocked and terrified by the way police treated this man who was more in need of help than such aggression. There are also so many times I remember observing in shock as police mocked and belittled the emotionally disturbed person they had been called to help and monitor.
Because police officers have to deal with sooooo many different kinds of situations, I do think it is probably unrealistic to expect they will be able to handle all those situations in the best social worky-way. Many police officers are not trained in matters of domestic violence, mental health, developmental disabilities, ptsd, cultural sensitivity, and so many other things social workers are expected to be well versed in. That is again, to be expected, since even many social workers end up not being adequately trained in these things either.
Many of these situations that we rely on police for are also situations that are too uncomfortable or dangerous for anyone else. When a tenant on my caseload got into a fight with a stranger on the streets and the situation escalated to a point that the tenant took out a pair of scissors from her purse and was looking like she was ready to stab and slice with it, even though I wanted to deescalate the situation myself, police of course had to be called. Fortunately, things died down quickly when police arrived, but I recall feeling like the tenant was so inconsolable that she may have tried to stab the police officer talking to her. Police officers really do risk their lives everyday they are out responding to calls.
Because we rely on police for so many things, they are of course given the authority and the resources to respond to these calls. The end result unfortunately is that they have too much authority, and after USA sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and all around the globe under the guise of “War on Terror,” police precincts around the country came to be equipped with military grade equipment including rifles, grenade launchers, armored vehicles, even tanks and armed drones.
I think this context is an important thing to consider to try to understand why NYPD arrested black and brown people far more than anyone else for social distancing violations, and why black and brown people tend to be brutalized and killed disproportionately in their encounters with the police.
At the backdrop of this are societal stereotypes that we are spoon fed all the time via news, TV shows, movies, books, etc. So much of the culture and media products that we consume portray black men as dangerous and criminal, and black woman as conniving and scheming and emotionally explosive. (This study for example explores how media representations impact black men.) When it’s been the norm for so long that black male characters are portrayed as villains and the hoodlums, when it’s been the norm for so long that black female characters are portrayed as prostitutes and single mothers addicted to drugs and trying to take advantage of government benefits, I think that racist bias will tend to be very ingrained in not only regular everyday citizens but of course police officers as well. Black and Hispanic officers will often live and act with this bias as well.
That’s why I have argued for a long time that the issue is not about if this police officer is racist or that police officer is an amazing race-conscious and ethical police officer. Racist behaviors and, as an extension, racist policing often happens unconsciously and subconsciously. When a person has the authority and power to control someone else, this subconscious bias can have devastating consequences, especially in life-of-death situations in which you have to make split second decisions.
This of course is not a good enough explanation for why policing in America ends up racist. There is more going on behind the scenes that how culture portrays society. Society itself is built on centuries of racism and it never ever stopped being built on top of it.
The other day I was reading through YouTube comments about this video game called Battlefield V. I haven’t got to play the game yet but from what I know about the game, apparently there is a story chapter in the game that takes place in France and sort of explores how African people in French colonies during WWII experienced racism. I remember seeing a comment saying this game was wrong to try to depict France as being racist because France gave independence to its French colonies and those colonies afterwards shouldn’t blame France for their failings. Stuff like this almost always makes me think back to slavery in the Americas from 1400s to 1800s. Is it enough that slaveholders and colonialists gave independence to their subjects? Should we just then expect the former slaves and former colony subjects to do well and prosper and if they fail, it’s on them?
See, I don’t think it’s enough at all. After slavery was abolished, after colonies gained independence and became their own nation states, what happened to the power and wealth of the former slave-masters and the former colonial rulers? Their wealth and their property was extracted from the labor of their servants. And afterwards, they got to keep it. They got to invest it and use it so they can procure even more wealth and power, and pass it down to their future generations. A lot of times they used their wealth and power to make competition with their former servants basically unfairly impossible, and former slaves ended up living like slaves still, beholden to the rules and regulations of their former masters.
There is more freedom of opportunity in USA than in the 1800s and in the 1960s for all races of Americans, but because the wealth and power holders of this society got to keep their power and wealth from way back when, it makes complete sense to me that majority of current holders of power and wealth are descendants of those wealthy and powerful families from centuries ago. The system was racist from the beginning, and it still is. The average CEO of a huge American corporation or the average governor of an American state probably doesn’t think of black and Hispanic people as inferior creatures that should be treated like property, but I bet you it’s highly, highly likely that this CEO’s/governor’s great grandfather thought this way. Those great grandfathers didn’t go to prison; they were not fired; their products and business were not cancelled by Twitter; they got to keep their station in life.
This reality fuels the racist prejudices and stereotypes. A lot of times, the stereotypes feel very true. Black and brown people are disproportionately living in poverty, and they disproportionately lack political leverage and power. When police officers respond to calls about theft, about home invasions, about domestic violence disputes, about assault, in many working class neighborhoods, they will be encountering black and brown people. (If Native Americans weren’t sectioned off to their own designated lands, I suspect that Native Americans would be disproportionately arrested and brutalized by police as well. But removed to their own and unfairly regulated by Bureau of Indian Affairs and the like, they are also a suffering community.)
This is not to downplay white people who have it hard. I have worked in homeless shelters and in a supportive housing sites. Poor and homeless white people were often my clients. I would never describe those poor white people’s lives as being privileged. Economic class is a factor that affects everyone no matter what race they are. But even so, even considering poor white people in mind, I have observed that police do treat black and brown people very, very differently.
That example of a tenant I talked about before, the person who was taser-ed and subdued to the floor because he was under the influence of a psychotic substance… I don’t think that would have happened if that man was white. I have not been a social worker for that long, but I still feel like I have observed a lot of police interactions with the poor homeless community, I think close to about a hundred instances. In the past 10 years, I have not ever observed a police be too aggressive or too abusive to a white person or an Asian person. Even with a Middle Eastern person I was surprised that the police responded calmly and without any aggression. Every instance I have observed of police officers using far too much force than necessary and in a lot of cases, any use of force was not even necessary at all, was when the call involved a black male or a Hispanic male. And yes, this was sometimes done by a police officer who is black himself.
So I definitely think policing is quite often racist against black and brown people. That policing is often racist is not really a point of contention for me. George Floyd being murdered for possibly using a counterfeit $20 bill I believe is only possible because George Floyd is a black male.
But so why is policing in America so racist?
I mean, as I have mentioned about the history of what happened to wealth and power holders since the slavery era, I think almost every facet of American life is anti-black racist, and so I think policing is especially susceptible to those facets.
The coronavirus pandemic presented quite an eye-opening view of how this racism plays out. Due to the pandemic, NYC ultimately ordered people considered as “non-essential workers” to stay at home and practice social distancing. Vast majority of essential workers in NYC are of course black and Hispanic. I am pretty sure many of those people would not be able to prove with documentation that they are essential workers. So many grocery store workers in this country don’t have government issued-IDs and many grocery stores don’t even give them employee IDs. So when this stay-at-home order came to be enforced, you have a situation in which majority of people arrested in Greenwich Village for violating social distancing orders are black and brown men. How is this possible? Almost all residents in Greenwich Village are white.
One innocuous explanation could be that maybe white people actually stayed home and adhered to the social distancing order. Most people with the ability to work remotely from home have been white people. But I think this explanation falls apart quickly when you observe how many white people in Greenwich village chose to violate the social distancing order. If you use a time machine to go back to April and use satellite imagery of google maps of Greenwich Village, you will definitely be able to see some white people out and about not practicing social distancing at all. There are also many white and Asian people in the area who are essential workers but are not able to prove with documentation that they are. These people should have been arrested too like black and brown people were. But they weren’t. Despite most of the residents being white, like 85-90% arrested in places like Greenwich Village were black and brown.
What happened in Greenwich Village, and across the entire NY state was racist policing. I think it’s very, very hard to explain it any other way than that.
So what happened there? Are NYPD cops racist?
I don’t think that’s a good explanation either. Because you have to remember, many NYPD police officers are black and brown themselves who hate the idea of racism.
This is why I spent so much time in the beginning writing about the media portrayals of black people ingrained deep within our subconscious minds, and about the historical fact that so many of the ancestors of our current holders of wealth and power were also holders of wealth and power during the slavery era.
This is how it plays out. Let’s imagine we are police officers patrolling the streets of Greenwich Village at 1AM. You see a white man wearing a business suit walking around and you also see a white woman in jogging clothes jogging on the sidewalks. Would you arrest them for violating the social distancing order? If you believe in enforcing the law and fairness of the law, you totally should. But let’s imagine what happens if you do. Oh, so turns out that this white man is a vice president of a company based in NY that donates heavily to the police precinct you work at. The white female jogger? Her father is on the board of directors of the police union. Are you still going to mess with them?
Or it could turn out that neither of these two white individuals are any of these things. But due to our preconceived biases about what kind of people white people can be, I do wonder if in the police officers’ minds, it might be feel too risky to arrest a white person for violating a social distancing order. But what are the chances of such a risk for arresting a black man wearing a hoodie with earphones on walking around at 1AM? Of a black woman talking loudly on her phone and walking towards a park?
Because of the racist history of this country, chances are high that your preconceived biases about this black man not being wealthy or influential enough are true. Your supervisor is expecting you to meet your arrest quota to prove to the deputy mayor that these social distancing orders are in fact being enforced. So who do you arrest? Textbook answer is that you should stop all of them and question why they are walking around at 1AM. Textbook answer is that you should fine them or arrest them if they can’t provide you proof. But if you are scared of the possible blowback from questioning a powerful and influential person by accident, you are of course not going to arrest that white man in a business suit and you are not going to arrest that white woman in jogging clothes.
I think this is the type of thing that happens all the time in USA. Police officers have a lot of power, yes, but they are also under a lot of pressure to meet their quotas, and they also feel constantly like their life is in danger. They will very often be put in situation in which the way they respond will be to rely on their gut instincts and subconscious biases. The end result can be so tragic and devastating for so many black and brown people in this country. On the same token, it can be so tragic and devastating for police officers who get injured or die as well.
I write all this to simply express that I don’t think police officers themselves are racists. I commend them for going out and doing what I think is one of the toughest jobs that exist. I don’t hate cops and I value their contributions to keep society functioning as efficiently and as peacefully as possible. On the one hand, I do blame us for relying too much on police, a lot of times for things we probably should be able to handle ourselves without getting the police involved. But most importantly, all this said, I firmly believe that the system of policing in America is broken. Even if the cops themselves don’t hold racist beliefs or thoughts, their actions will end up being racist. They have far too much power and authority entrusted to them because we rely on them so much for so many different things.
Just this week NYC imposed a curfew for “non-essential workers of NYC” to stay home between 8PM to 5AM. When my phone gave me an alarm text to inform me about this, my initial reaction was, “oh great, I fear this will be yet another way for NYPD to arrest and terrorize black and brown people in NYC.” In a system so broken, I fear we are still giving police more power and authority than they know what to do with.