With the widespread protesting and rioting all across the Western world in the wake of the George Floyd death while being arrested by police, the evident belief is that if only we were less racist, these lethal encounters would not happen.
Is it true though?
Racism, to be sure, is an ugly thing. Judging anyone by their skin color or ethnicity is an affront to liberal ideas of fair play and judging people by their actions and character.
One might argue that if white police officers were not inherently racist, they would treat black suspects with more respect and, hence, reduce or, perhaps, even eliminate deadly encounters.
The thing is that studies have shown that the demographic characteristics of police officers have little impact on lethal encounters. Black cops are just as likely as white cops to be involved in encounters where a black person dies.
The issue is far more complicated than it would first appear. It is not simply a case of racism.
The issue of police brutality needs to be viewed in the broader context of state sanctioned violence.
It is the state, after all, that reserves a monopoly on violence.
This is a relatively modern development in thinking. In tribal societies with no written laws, wrongs are righted by individuals and their kin. This is where feuds develop.
The state was created in order to bring order and the rule of law. By reserving a monopoly on violence the state and its actors assert the primacy of law in the face of lawlessness.
That is why police are in such a special position. Police are the only agents within the state who are allowed to make arrests and employ lethal force in the course of carrying out their duties.
That is the primary reason that it is so difficult to obtain convictions against police officers accused of murder. There is no mens rea as the legal community likes to put it. Cops do not have a guilty mind when enforcing the laws. They are enforcing the laws and the state has given them the right to enforce the laws.
That, too, explains why the laws against perpetrating violence against police officers carry such harsh penalties. Assaulting an officer of the law is aggravated assault, not just simple assault. Resisting arrest is also similarly dealt with through harsh penalties.
In fact, the laws governing how we interact with the police are meant to discourage people from resisting police and force people to respect law enforcement officers.
Police officers are governed by the law as well, but there are significant differences. Most abuses by police are governed by administrative law – abuses of power. It is rare a police officer is charged with murder. It is even rarer to see that police officer convicted. (Mens rea.)
Most police are governed by rules of conduct and the penalties for breaches of those rules pale in comparison to criminal laws.
What does any of this have to be with racial injustice?
Everything. If lawmakers truly want to reduce the number of fatal encounters between police and citizens, it is well within their power to draft criminal laws that specifically make police accountable for how they treat suspects and how they make arrests.
Laws, not administrative rules, will do more to reduce police brutality than all the pious lamentation about racism.
The point is to level the playing field. Just as lawmakers have sought to discourage opposition to law enforcement, they should also discourage police from abusing the powers they have been given.
Such an approach works regardless of the skin color of the police officer or that of the suspected criminal.
We expect everyone in modern society to respect the primacy of laws. Make it so for everyone.
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