Why Police Brutality Is So Hard to End - And What It Will Take to Stop It

Human Rights

The Baltimore uprising seemingly scored a major victory on Friday, when Baltimore’s chief prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, announced the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death have been charged with murder, manslaughter and other counts.

Still, activists have planned protests across the nation this weekend to keep the momentum going. It would seem that the outrage at acts of police brutality has reached a tipping point. Protesters will not back down, until there are concrete signs that justice will be done in these cases and that lawmakers will reform the system that enables police to brutalize and kill people without recourse.

The events in Baltimore in the past week are on a continuum of responses to decades of police abuse targeting black and brown citizens. Freddie Gray, Eric Garner and Walter Scott are just the well-known faces of a pervasive trend. Black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by cops than their white counterparts; in central New Jersey, 99 percent of police brutality complaints are not upheld; black people are targeted in SWAT raids 42 percent of the time, way out of proportion to their presence in the population; and black drivers are 31 percent more likely than white drivers to be pulled over.

Meanwhile, police officers are rarely prosecuted for killing and brutalizing unarmed black men, like Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and are often acquitted if they do have their day in court. Think Rodney King. One of the reasons it is so challenging to end police brutality is because police officers are still held in such high regard by the public. A recent poll reveals that 52 percent of white Americans believe that police officers are treating black people fairly. Only 12 percent of black Americans think that.

It is not as though reform, or at least an effort to root out bad cops, has not been attempted. Efforts at the local level to create legislation that punishes bad cops are usually met with fierce opposition from powerful police unions and the politicians who curry favor with them and white voters. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was a vocal opponent of police brutality long before Freddie Gray was killed, and proposed several bills to the Maryland General Assembly to address the issue. The language would have allowed for the police commissioner to fire bad cops and suspend them without an internal administrative review. These bills did not make it out of committee after police unions around the state obstructed them, claiming they would prevent cops from having due process.

Rawlings-Blake took some heat this week after using the word “thugs” to describe some of the unruly youth who took to Baltimore’s streets, a comment for which she quickly apologized. But it is not as if Rawlings-Blake doesn’t care. She is up against a state government that appears to categorically reject the urgent need for real reform.

In New York City, where mass protests have taken place over Eric Garner’s death, and now Gray’s, activists have been demanding that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio use his office to end “broken windows,” a hyper-policing practice started under Giuliani, that has been demonstrated to disproportionately affect black and Latino residents. Under broken windows, 81 percent of the people receiving criminal summonses are black or Latino. The policy of arresting people for minor offenses was what led Officer Daniel Pantaleo to apprehend Garner for selling loose cigarettes on a street corner, subsequently putting Garner in the chokehold that took his life. But even though de Blasio hammered the last nail in the coffin of stop-and-frisk, he has not shown much interest in ending broken windows completely.

Both de Blasio’s police chief Bill Bratton and NYPD’s powerful police union oppose any change to broken windows. And when a police union opposes something, it can be pretty difficult to get it done. Across the country, police unions wield an extraordinary amount of power and many have proven they will use their power to defend bad cops. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf wrote a detailed account of how police unions work with local prosecutors to reinstate officers accused of abusing their power in secret proceedings that protect labor rights instead of the general public. In Arizona, police unions support a bill that would keep officers’ names secret for 60 days after they use deadly force.

If police brutality were just a matter of a few bad apples, it would be a lot easier to solve. But it isn’t. Protecting bad cops is built into the fabric of police culture, and is a structural issue that has to be corrected with structural solutions.

So what, exactly, can reverse this trend of police officers killing unarmed black people and rarely facing the consequences? Marilyn J. Mosby, the Baltimore prosecutor handling the Gray case, is leading by example by bringing charges (including murder and manslaughter) against the officers who are involved in the Gray's arrest. And in New York, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s office charged Officer Peter Liang with manslaughter, police misconduct and other charges after he shot unarmed Akai Gurley in November. Certainly, more prosecutors across the country need to follow their leads. But being DA is often an elected office, and whether or not cops get indicted often seems to depend on who the voters are.

But there is more that can be done. Activists and other reformers are demanding that state legislatures pass sweeping laws holding police officers accountable. At least 13 states are reviewing bills that will require officers to wear body cams. This is progress, but it's not nearly enough. An officer who is convicted of killing an innocent person or being abusive should lose his right to work in any law enforcement capacity, as well as his benefits. Jon Burge, an ex-Chicago cop who was imprisoned for lying about torture practices in the city’s jails, is allowed to keep his $54,000-per-year pension. Most reasonable people would agree that bad cops should not be able to keep the benefits of a uniform they violate.

Police reform is possible, and in very slow ways, some are seeing a glimmer of hope that it might be coming. But protesters and activists know they have to keep up the pressure. Protests across the country are demanding local and state governments seriously tackle abusive police practices and punish officers who violate the public’s trust. Until that happens, it is likely that more cities beyond Baltimore will see uprisings of their own.

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