I am shocked, stunned, and maddened at the fact that Eric Gardner’s murderer will not even be prosecuted for a crime that was caught on camera. I am also deeply worried about the power of the state in a society where the message to police officers becomes anything that happens on the job will not be prosecuted under the law. You might lose your badge, you might lose your job, but we — as a society — will legally condone whatever you do.
I am not a person to typically denounce the tyranny of the state. In fact, I tend to believe that most problems can be addressed by state action. But this is a systemic flaw that must be addressed. If it doesn’t, it not only hurts those affected by police violence, but it sows mistrust in police and leads people to back non-state actors with their own incentives. Paramilitary violence will further escalate the situation if officers of the law are not held to account.
I am struggling with how to talk with my students today about all of this. It is our last class meeting and I had planned for the last day to be a working day for their final assignment. Apropos of the conversation on policy and agency, I feel like this needs to be addressed. I need to provide them with some way to see how they fit in this picture. Any ideas would be most welcomed.
I have also thought about what I think needs to happen. Within three weeks, three very different places have been in the news for police violence. The solution must be systemic, but I am somewhat at a loss to figure out what it is. I am sure that others know far more about this than me, but the following seem to me to be top priorities:
- Require state or federal investigations of all use of police force. Local prosecutors and local police departments rely on each other too much for there not to be a conflict of interest in trying cases. Local police could retaliate against local prosecutors for pushing too hard. State and federal prosecutors are, to a larger degree, immune from the need for a daily working relationship that can cause prosecutors to be biased in prosecuting police officers.
- Require police officers to wear body cameras. I have seen the case made that Eric Garner’s case shows that cameras will be ineffective. I disagree. The fact that everyone could see what happened shows how appalling the failure to prosecute this crime is. One or two events can be chalked up to bad actors; systematic evidence of police brutality becomes harder to ignore.
- Change the law regarding the justified use of force. Figure out some way to make the use of force a last resort. Police officers and police unions will hate this and fight it tooth and nail. But there must be accountability somewhere in the system to prevent the state from killing people.