Racial Policing in America

By Gabriel Callaghan

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Liberals and conservatives alike are rightly outraged by police actions in Minneapolis – there has even been condemnation from Donald Trump. Sadly, this is not the first instance of an abuse of power by hot-headed American cops. Rather than focusing on the actual issues, the mainstream media is concerned with looting and commentary.

Plenty of American officers are incensed by Mr Chauvin’s actions because he has abused his oath to protect the public. However, policing in the U.S. is distinct from the UK and Ireland. This does not refer to the issue of officers carrying a handgun; rather, it is due to a culture of increasing militarisation. One small American town’s police department has a military Humvee and a dedicated S.W.A.T. team, for a population smaller than Collingwood College.

How does this benefit community relations? If the local police are militarised, residents will undoubtedly be afraid to talk to the officers. The training regime for state troopers wouldn’t seem out of place in a military environment.

Racial profiling is both deplorable and dehumanising. Plenty of U.S. officers do take their oath seriously, but some abuse their power. An important aspect of a police oath is to properly assess the situation while not making assumptions. 

George Floyd’s so-called ‘charge’ was the possession of counterfeit currency. Up to $200 million worth of fake notes are in circulation in the U.S., so many citizens will unknowingly have them in their wallet. The key issue to this situation is whether a white individual would have been treated in the same way, or whether the officer in question made racial assumptions about Mr Floyd. This is the problem when officers have a closed mind and hold deeply prejudicial views.

This is not the first time that police conduct has been questioned. The shooting of Charles Kinsey whilst helping an autistic teenager was one such example. Here, the police failed to adequately communicate reaching for their gun straight away. The issue with many police officers in the U.S. is that once they have formed a view, they will not change it even if it’s wrong.

There is only a need to draw a weapon when an officer’s life is in danger. In the UK, including Northern Ireland where all police officers are armed, a use of force report must be submitted when a firearm is drawn. A recent example of an armed man outside of Durham resulted in armed police being called. The police ordered the man to put the gun down more than ten times, before non-fatally shooting him with a single 9mm round, after he raised the pistol. The officers’ lives were in danger, so this action was completely justified as a last resort.

By contrast, a recent U.S. case revealed that a suspect was shot 76 times! These are the actions of a war zone and a pathetic power gesture.

Another shocking case exposed a Florida police chief, later sentenced to three years in prison, who instructed his officers to ‘frame’ innocent black men for burglaries. It can be difficult to prove that an incident is racially motivated in a criminal court, but it is clear to me that these men were targeted due to a racial stereotype.

Policing is the U.S. is political because sheriffs are elected by the local community, typically on the wishes of those with power who fund the campaigns.

After an arrest, the accused is booked into a local jail and requires a ‘bail bond’, money paid to the court to ensure future attendance. If a citizen is accused of a felony, this can exceed $20,000, which needs to be paid for their bail until the trial, otherwise the accused is remanded to jail.

Naturally, very few can afford this so the accused often resorts to a bail bondsman, who will charge a fee. The bail bondsmen profit when a citizen is arrested. Consequently, they will lobby for a sheriff who will arrest those unable to pay the bail amount, typically ethnic minorities who often hail from less affluent backgrounds. A police department receives funding when suspects are fined, and they receive higher funding when the accused does not pay because extra charges are presented.

The courts in the U.S. are also political. To become a lawyer in the U.S., one has to do both an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree. The college system is very expensive and African Americans are less likely to be able to afford higher education. Hence, the U.S. justice system is dominated by a particular social class and race. 

And the Supreme Court judges are appointed by the President – evidently at odds with democracy because they will not criticise the political system if they are nominated by a politician. The judiciary should be a check on state power and deliver its judgements ‘without fear, affection or ill will’.

Not all U.S. police officers are criminals in uniform. The majority are honest individuals who take their oath seriously and honourably serve their nation. However, the increasing militarisation of the police will undoubtedly destroy their image, legitimacy and public trust.

During a protest, the role of the police is to ensure that it is peaceful, not to violently break it up. Perhaps the U.S. should take some lessons from An Garda Siochana (Irish for Guardians of the Peace), the police in Ireland.  Policing occurs via consent of the population in Ireland and the Gardai are an intrinsic part of the communities where they work and live. Rarely do they wear a bulletproof vest or carry firearms.

A free country is not one in which the police are against the population.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the John’s Chronicle or St John’s College.

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