For that first week or so after the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown, it seemed like there was momentum towards police reform. During the long months between the shooting and the grand jury’s lack of indictment of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, though, things got too complicated.
Conservatives initially interested in police reform backed off when it seemed as if Brown had the audacity to be a criminal and a jerk. Whether Wilson was at all credible – he certainly didn’t follow crime scene protocol, by the way – even if Brown wasn’t, will never be resolved. Certainly, whether Michael Brown was the perfect case to hold up against American police or not, there have been plenty of equally worthy ones before and after his death.
Not in Congress. Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson’s (D) bill to stop the Pentagon’s multibillion dollar 1033 program withered in the face of Republican disapproval (barring such civil liberty stalwarts as Justin Amash). But militarized statism is bipartisan. Indeed, as Reason’s Ed Krayewski noted, four Democrats who put their hands up in the "hands up don’t shoot" position on the House floor on December 1 sure seem to be against police excess. Weird then how in June, before Michael Brown’s death made reform briefly politically convenient, they voted against limiting the 1033 program.
President Obama is another government official who appears to be taking that self-serving tactic identified by John Stossel – namely jumping in front of a parade and pretending to be leading it – when it comes to police reform.
Earlier this week, Obama announced his hope to spend $360 million on new efforts towards community policing, transparency – not your strong suit there buddy – and training in the use of 50,000 new body cameras. The feds will cover half the bill. This – federalist or balance of power qualms noted and sympathized with – is an improvement, but it is also a weak acquiescence to the political issue of the moment. Tepid cheers should follow, but it barely scratches the surface in terms of getting somewhere substantial. There are still going to be some 600-700,000 sworn law enforcement officers who are not going to be on camera while they work.
And cameras as a tool for fixing police are just now facing a backlash. Certainly the lack of a camera on Darren Wilson makes it certain that nobody will ever be satisfied about what went down during his confrontation with Brown. However, Kelly Thomas, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner died on camera, and there have been no consequences. Thomas’ killers were acquitted earlier this year. Rice’s death is too fresh to know what may happen, but it doesn’t seem good. (This is because the child had an airsoft gun, and most of the time when someone is carrying something that looks enough like a real gun, cops are excused when they pump them full of lead.)
Garner’s death (via Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold) going unpunished is the current outrage. On Wednesday, the media and twitter erupted with the news that the New York Police Department cop who killed Garner would not be indicted. Much like that first week after Brown was shot, left and right were outraged together. The right maybe was focusing more on Garner’s accused economic "crime" of selling loose cigarettes, and the left was more focused on Garner being black, but the disgust over the lack of indictment so far seems genuinely bipartisan. This disgust could have more staying power than even Ferguson.
But what to do about it, or any police misconduct? Will 50,000 cameras do anything except add a few more grim YouTube videos to the catalog? Certainly it is better to have video evidence of bad police behavior, but Garner and numerous other cases show that there is so much more than that to worry over. A grand jury failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo, and failed to indict Darren Wilson. The three officers who went to trial over the beating death of the homeless, schizophrenic Kelly Thomas were all acquitted. The respect for police officers seems to overpower any sense of accountability for their actions, even when they end in death.
It’s not just prosecutors, or police unions, or militarized tech. It is all of those things. And it is a lack of eyes – electronic and otherwise – on police officers. But it is also the simple fact that nobody – not even the public – has any interest in holding the people with a legal monopoly on lethal force accountable for their lethal actions.
Though the backlash against Garner’s death and the subsequent lack of justice seems promising now, it’s easy to see how it could also peter out as a movement. It will fracture, like Ferguson did. The left will resent any focus on the very relevant laws against loose cigarettes. The right will accuse the left of playing the race card too much, and ignore some real inequalities in criminal justice.
Militarized police didn’t kill Garner with their war tech. But militarization is not just Pentagon castoffs. It is a mindset. It is a belief that there is a war on cops, and that the people they are ostensibly tasked with protecting are out for blood. It is a bizarre public doublethink which praises the bravery of cops, while allowing them to use even lethal force the moment they feel threatened. It is every law against drugs, guns, or untaxed cigarettes. It is stopping and frisking innocent men day after day.
And it is, too, the militarized tech that rolls out whenever a backlash does form. It has all the hallmarks of an occupation. It is the instinctual fury of the occupied people when they are faced with dour, robotic lines of riot cops coming into their neighborhood.
Platitudes about equality in the justice system are now coming from the highest office in the land. Perhaps Obama’s 50,000 new cameras will avert a few police-citizen disasters, and confirm the citizen’s side of things in a few more. But the state of policing is so much worse than that. We need to see police at work, and now we can. We can watch the crackdown on protests, the stops, the profiling, the brutality, and the deaths now – we just seem unable to do anything about it.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.