Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
America’s original sin perpetuates. Like it or not, the notion of whiteness over blackness is enshrined within American history, and it still fundamentally underpins racial inequality in a land where all are meant to be equal. American police forces, the institutions once charged with enforcing segregation – perhaps inevitably – have been the most resistant to change.
Policing in the USA is fragmented to the point of farce. There are over 18,000 separate police forces throughout the United States, each with different standards of training and policing. In California, it takes between 24 and 48 weeks to become a fully qualified police officer. Yet, in North Carolina, training lasts just 16 weeks. That is half the length of time that it takes to become a qualified barber in the State. Clearly, poor training is leading to bad decision making during high pressure situations; in a country awash with guns.
At the beginning of their career, every single police officer in America takes an oath to ‘protect and serve’. But the anger that we are seeing today is rooted in decades of police violence towards black communities, where police officers represent instigators and people to be afraid of. Those fears are backed by statistics. In Minnesota, the state where George Floyd was murdered by police officers, the 6th most common cause of death for a black man is the use of police force; just behind heart disease and cancer, with suicide at the top of that list.
On social media and in the news, we are told that there is one Derek Chauvin for every 100 good cops. But the problem is far greater than a few bad apples; racial inequality is the bedrock of the American police system.
The first police forces were slave patrols, groups of armed men whose job it was to capture and punish runaway slaves. As slavery evolved into segregation, police forces were tasked with the enforcement of the Jim Crow laws from the late 19th century until the 1960’s, enabling lynchings and other violence toward generations of black people.
Police brutality is the product of a broken system. Powerful unions protect bad cops and qualified immunity (a legal doctrine in the US, that protects government officials from being held liable for discretionary acts performed while in their official capacity), gives officers the benefit of the doubt. In 2015, only 13 of the 104 cases where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in an officer being charged with a crime. If an officer avoids charges but loses their job, they easily find employment on a neighbouring police force.
Although the use of body cameras is now largely widespread in American police forces, in 2017 the US Department of Justice announced that it was shelving police reforms. This resulted in the scaling back of a programme created by the Obama administration, following the murder of Dontre Hamilton by a police officer, in Milwaukee, in 2014.
Ultimately, police violence stems from personal bias. Society won’t change in a day, but the institutional rot within the American police system is both measurable and fixable. The protocols in place can be adjusted and bad police officers can be placed on a register, and never allowed to wear a badge again. The anger seen at the protests following George Floyd’s murder is directed at society, not just the police. Racial bias exists everywhere, but when a police officer carries that human bias, along with his gun, the results are lethal.