Why do the police always respond so defensively when misconduct is revealed? Kate Bradley looks at the climate of concealment and impunity that facilitated the killing of Michael Brown.
When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, it took four days for Officer Darren Wilson to be named as the shooter. Police Chief Thomas Jackson cited “safety concerns” as his reason for not sharing the information. However, the police also refused to share several other key pieces of information, including the results of Brown’s autopsy, the number of injured protesters, and why two reporters were arrested while investigating the incident. The sparsely filled-out incident report was reviewed and finalised ten days after the event.
A full cover-up hasn’t been possible this time. However, we have to ask: how often do cover-ups occur in this climate of concealment? In the US since July 2014, at least four unarmed black men have been shot by the police. How many cases of police negligence and brutality never come to light?
In order to put an end to police brutality, is not enough to criticise individual police forces. In similar situations, institutions across the world respond in comparable ways, protecting their agents and themselves through elaborate mechanisms of obfuscation. Information is withheld or destroyed; red herrings are issued (such as the video of a robbery released following Michael Brown’s shooting, later shown to be irrelevant); media attention is directed towards cross-examining the victim and their family.
At its core, this problem is institutional, and yet every case is treated as an aberration in an otherwise functional system. This helps powerful institutions to protect the status quo against reforms which do not serve their interests.
Particularising the Case
One of the ways in which institutions defend themselves is by particularising each case of violence. This way of approaching responsibility is built into the justice system: in an investigation or trial, a suspect is examined and ruled guilty or not guilty of a crime, seemingly resolving the problem. In the sense that only one person shoots a gun, of course one individual is responsible for a given crime, and a refusal to prosecute them would be inexcusable. Nevertheless, the punishment of individuals is always an act of scapegoating, since individuals who are in positions of power (such as police officers or soldiers) are always acting on behalf of a higher authority (in a mindset known in psychology as the agentic state). Certain powers have been granted to them by their position, and so whenever a pattern of behaviour emerges amongst them, one has to look at their governing systems to really understand their actions.
Dr. Philip Zimbardo is a US psychologist who is an expert in cases of institutionally-sanctioned violence. During the 2004 Abu Ghraib torture scandal, Dr. Philip Zimbardo offered evidence which suggested that the sexual abuse and torture of the prisoners in Iraq was perpetuated by the indifference of bystanders, the systematic dehumanisation of prisoners, the vagueness of rules on prisoner treatment, an active cover-up of photo evidence and a general sense in the soldiers’ minds that they were above the law.
The authorities particularised the Abu Ghraib case, trying to show that it was the psychological instability of the soldiers to blame for the abuses against Iraqi soldiers and civilians, implying that higher authorities could take no responsibility for the crimes. Yet Zimbardo shows that many of the so-called “rotten apples” were completely psychologically healthy before they went to war, arguing compellingly that it was their orders, their management, their rulebook, their environment and their stressful lives which caused their behaviour.
Officer Darren Wilson has also proved difficult to demonise: he has no record of disciplinary action and has not tried to defend himself publically in the wake of the shooting. Can we truly claim that this incident, alongside the many other similar killings this year, is a unique case? No. The behaviour of these police officers cannot be divorced from the systems in which those officers were trained. It is wrong to argue that people are “cop-hating cowards” for noticing the frequency of police aggression towards black people in the US. In order to solve this problem, we must work out the depth of its roots, or, like a weed, it will keep coming back.
Institutional Violence and Structural Racism
In the US, policing is becoming increasingly militarised: Greg Howard points to this as a cause of police violence in some states. He writes that “the worst part of outfitting our police officers as soldiers has been psychological. Give a man access to drones, tanks, and body armor, and he’ll reasonably think that his job isn’t simply to maintain peace, but to eradicate danger.” The eradication of danger involves the murder of people perceived to be dangerous. There is no room in this worldview for a recognition of the role of racism in shaping these perceptions, or of the wider context for the violence: that of a class-divided, hierarchical society which continues to subjugate non-white people through racism and economic oppression.
Police forces which do not attempt to tackle the racist assumptions of their officers are partly to blame for manifestations of racism; it is even worse where police forces perpetuate racist assumptions by hiring racist officers and not attempting to reach racial equality in their own departments. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell claims that Ferguson’s police department contained 50 white and only 3 black police officers, even though the area is 67% African-American.
Some commentators speaking from non-white communities blame themselves and their peers for social problems faced in places like Ferguson. Outlets like Fox News choose to feature these opinions prominently, providing a seemingly authentic “black voice” to support essentialist racist claims. While systematic racism and economic oppression exists, putting pressure on people to transform their own circumstances will change very little, despite Barack Obama’s panegyrics to self-motivation. Without structural reform, US schools will continue to provide less opportunities for young African-American and Latino students, Western culture will continue to depict black people as violent underachievers, the police will continue to discriminate against black and Latino communities using methods such as the “Stop-and-Frisk” tactics in New York, and the penal system will continue to mete out longer prison sentences and more death penalties to non-white people.
When faced with crimes like the shooting of Michael Brown, we can’t let ourselves be misled by institutions which seek to diminish their own responsibility in continuing racialised violence. At moments like this, it is in the police force’s interests to cover up their complicity. It is not in ours.