Public trust in American political institutions is vital to the country’s civic health. Today, however, the citizenry’s confidence in our governments at all levels seems to be weakening and very public incidents of police brutality are one important factor eroding that trust. Put more broadly, public institutions can help shape communal life, but unchecked problems within those entities can likewise foster a lack of citizen confidence, in turn enervating democratic possibility. Police and law enforcement agencies are significant to the vitality of American social life because they are the governmental arm charged with public safety. Moreover, individuals regularly interact with representatives of these institutions.
Police brutality—the verbal harassment, physical beating and shooting of civilians by law enforcement officers—deserves broad discussion and attention, given its implications for justice, governmental accountability and transparency. Who determines the response to police cruelty is as meaningful as the behavior itself. Law enforcement officials should be educated to exercise caution when applying force and to keep their eye on the big picture, that they are part of an institution designed to uphold democratic legitimacy. The danger implicit in police use of weapons and physical restraint arises when officers violate this tenet. As philosopher Hannah Arendt observed, such cases can lead to changed behavior sets and result in new imperatives: “In order to maintain the system, the empowered ones begin to act as rulers and resort to force. They substitute force for the assent of the people” (2013, 93). This essay outlines steps aimed at reducing police brutality and its corrosive impacts on citizen confidence and goodwill. It does so first, by sketching the history of modern police viciousness and next, by describing possible reforms that promise to mitigate the loss of life caused by law enforcement officials and restore social faith—across the socioeconomic spectrum—in the institutions they represent and, perhaps either simultaneously or as a byproduct, contribute toward re-instilling confidence in government more generally.
Contemporary Understanding of Lethal Force
Police brutality is not new. The Chicago Tribune, for example, reported on a police assault and abuse of an inmate in 1872 at Chicago’s Harrison Street Police Station (Tribune, 1872). The U.S. Supreme Court first articulated the current understanding of police department use of force 26 years ago in its unanimous opinion in Graham v. Connor:
The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation. The test of reasonableness is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application (1989).
Since that landmark decision, law enforcement agencies across the nation have argued that a reasonable use of force need not take into account an officer’s past conduct, provocation of individuals or escalation of a situation due to questionable judgment(s). This narrow interpretation of the High Court’s decision now dominates current state policies. For example, no state statute requires that police employ nonviolent means before lethal power is used, nor do any restrict deadly force only to situations in which serious, life-threatening injury to officers is likely. Finally, nine states (Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming) and Washington, D.C., do not place any statutory limitations on law enforcement officials’ use of lethal force. There are many possible explanations for a reliance on evaluating policing methods in light of specific incidents alone; one in particular not only places police brutality at the center of a wider cultural problem, but also helps to illuminate how institutions can reflect broader changes in society.
Notably, this transition to widespread embrace among police departments of what might be dubbed in-the-moment policing reflects philosopher Iris Marion Young’s general observation that the “triumph of a more individualist understanding of social relations … weakens or even destroys the idea of collective responsibility” (2011, 9). This view suggests that recent episodes of police brutality may be a symptom of a larger societal shift in which the nation is becoming more divided and individualistic as its prevailing norms demand that each person (or group) look out for him/her/itself.
That is, we must ask the question: Are we too tolerant of violence committed by police because we can rationalize it as not affecting our individual community or neighborhood? How we answer this question, I think, helps us articulate a response to a query posed by a recent American Theater Company play, The Project(s), “who gets to decide what a community is?” Embedded in police violence discussions are debates concerning identity, privilege, unchecked power, stakeholder accountability and leadership (both among community activists and public leaders). Ultimately, the present controversy concerning police role and actions suggests that our society is grappling with what we want our collective community to be. The dissonance between law enforcement official brutality and the persisting struggle concerning what constitutes collective social identity and responsibility has prompted much needed collective dialogue concerning how we define ourselves as a people.
Roadmap to Reform
In an attempt to address broad public outcry surrounding the recent rash of highly publicized incidents of perceived police brutality (including the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Michael Johansen, James Boyd, John Geer and Zachary Hammond), some elected officials and law enforcement agencies, including leaders in Missouri (Moxley, 2015) and Ohio (Dayton, 2015), have suggested reforms to curtail such incidents in the future. These recommendations largely relate to ensuring better police training and preparation for their roles. While such steps are doubtless necessary, improved education alone is unlikely to transform entrenched practices and views. As Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Cornel West have suggested, “Either you change the whole system, or you merely try to soften its harsh effects through ‘reformism’” (1998, 29).
Indeed, as these scholars have argued, the scope of a change influences its effectiveness. Saving lives and restoring law enforcement agency integrity and public standing suggests that the following steps should receive careful consideration as critical factors in any reforms undertaken:
- Place the primary responsibility for change on public and private, and especially local institutions, particularly law enforcement entities and mass media, that influence public norms and sociocultural practices. Although society must find ways to foster peaceful communities, institutional leadership must avoid callously caging people, figuratively or otherwise (Meiners, 2007). Law enforcement is a democratic institution supported by tax dollars and it should take seriously its responsibility to carry out duties that serve the public meaningfully.
- Utilize artistic processes, such as documentary theater, playback theatre, or writing circles, to promote inter-group understanding and reflection on internalized discrimination and to foster healing between police and those historically injured and disadvantaged by unjust treatment.
- Identify opportunities to share political ownership (namely economic resources, positions of authority and political representation) with members of historically disenfranchised groups. This would help curtail abuses of power by law enforcement agencies.
- Narrow the definition of when reasonable force legally may be employed, as Cordell (2014) has suggested, by drawing on the example of the Seattle and Los Angeles Police Departments. In Seattle, officers cannot use physical restraint, “against individuals who only verbally confront them unless the vocalization impedes a legitimate law enforcement function or contains specific threats to harm the officers or others” (Cordell, 2014). In Los Angeles the use of deadly violence must include, “consideration of not only the use of deadly force itself, but also an officer’s tactical conduct and decisions leading up to the use of force when determining its reasonableness” (Cordell, 2014). These changes are significant because they allow for fuller and more accurate understandings of misconduct that include officer responses to victim behavior.
- Patrol officers in departments across the United States are currently well schooled in how to use their weapons. That training is essential, but more emphasis must be placed on helping police develop conflict management and communication skills so they are better equipped to deescalate difficult situations so that weapons are not often used (Police Executive Research Forum, 2015).
- Law enforcement officers should be required to wear body cameras, the use of which should also be carefully regulated. Both Krupanski and Cordell (2012 and 2014, respectively) have contended that body-worn cameras (BWCs) promote transparency among police officers by holding them publicly accountable for their actions, which in turn decreases the likelihood of later civil litigation when a citizen-law enforcement interaction becomes tense. The police department of Rialto, California, with 115 sworn officers, became the first such entity to require BWCs in 2009. A study of such camera footage in Rialto found that this use of photography coincided with a 59% drop in use of force incidents and an 88% decrease in citizen complaints of police misconduct (Cordell, 2014).
- Cities and counties should establish independent civilian law enforcement review boards to hold officers accountable, instead of relying on internal police investigations alone. Civilian oversight of law enforcement is practiced in the European Union as well as South Africa, Canada and Belgium (Cordell, 2014). Readers can review a complete list of such review agencies in the United States at the “Resources” section of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement website (NACOLE, 2015).
Many of these reforms might give the impression that power lies in the hands of bureaucratic administrators. On the contrary, this essay cautions against this perceived imbalance of power, recognizing that the smooth operation needed to preserve the importance and necessity of democratic governmental institutions can only occur with public engagement. We all have a say in what a good community is. Police brutality fractures our collective social contract, but fulfilling this nation’s premises and promise require us to speak out when our representative institutions abuse their power and trust.
Arendt, Hannah. (2013) The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing.
Cordell, LaDoris Hazzard. (2014, August 15). Policing the Police: Training, retraining, and yet more training are not the way to stop police brutality. Slate. Retrieved August 22, 2014 from slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/08/we_know_how_to_decrease_police_violence_like_what_we_ve_seen_after_the_michael.single.html.
Govaki, Mark. (2015, April 23) Ohio Police Officers Need More Training Hours, Task Force Report Says. Dayton Daily News. Retrieved September 1, 2015 from daytondailynews.com/news/news/state-regional/ohio-ag-task-force-to-release-report-on-police-rel/nk2Rr/
Krupanski, Marc. (2012, March 7). Policing the Police: Civilian video monitoring of police activity. Global Minds. Retrieved September 14, 2014 from theglobaljournal.net/group/global-minds/article/643/.
Meiners, Erica R. (2007) Right to Be Hostile: Schools, prisons, and the making of public enemies. New York, NY: Routledge.
Moxley, Elle. (2015, August 6). Missouri Governor Calls for More Training for Law Enforcement Officers. KCUR/89.3FM. Retrieved on September 1, 2015 from kcur.org/post/missouri-governor-calls-more-training-law-enforcement-officers.
National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Detailed Oversight Agency Profiles. Retrieved August 24, 2015 from www.nacole.org.
Paparelli, PJ. (2015, May/June). The Project(s). American Theater Company. Chicago, IL.
Police Executive Research Forum. (2015, August) Re-Engineering Training on Police Use of Force. Retrieved August 21, 2015 from policeforum.org/assets/reengineeringtraining1.pdf.
Police Brutality. Chicago Tribune. (1872, October 12) Retrieved May 10, 2010 from archives.chicagotribune.com/1872/10/12/page/8/article/police-brutality.
Unger, Roberto Mangabeira and Cornel West. (1998) The Future of American Progressivism: An initiative for political and economic reform. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
United States Supreme Court. (1989, decided May 15) Graham v. Connor (No. 87-6571). Retrieved August 15, 2015 from http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/490/386.html.
Young, Iris Marion. (2011) Responsibility for Justice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Mary K. Ryan is a doctoral student in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) program at Virginia Tech where she teaches in the Department of Political Science. Mary received her M.A. in Public Service from Marquette University, B.A. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and is an alumna of Future Milwaukee, the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, and the Tufts Summer Institute of Civic Studies. Her research interests include: U.S. social movements; racism and white privilege; civic studies; moral philosophy; political psychology; anti-intellectualism in the U.S.; political theater; and ethical understandings of truth, responsibility and sympathy.