When I was in high school, I devised a thought experiment that I discussed extensively with my friends. It was called “Cop Immunity”. My question was whether someone would take the deal of having total immunity to all interactions of all kinds with the police in the rest of their individual lives. Police as a general force would still exist in society and change the incentives of others, but if one took the Cop Immunity deal, then they would have no further positive or negative interaction with oneself. One could no longer call 911 or be arrested. This would be a one-shot, one-instance deal, just for the person being asked the question and would have zero impact on anyone else.
The results were roughly split. Even at my elite private high school which I attended on financial aid, a good number of people were willing to accept the trade-off. And it wasn’t so they could go on a spree of committing crimes, though certainly the ability to exceed the speed limit with impunity was discussed at length. We boiled the question down to whether a given individual had more to fear or dislike from police interactions than they did to gain from them, or to feel protected by them. I always said I would take Cop Immunity in a heartbeat.
This, of course, was years before Albuquerque became a shooting range for the local police. It was before the killings of Oscar Grant and Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It was before we had a consciousness that police were regularly doling out the death penalty for all manner of crimes or the mere suspicion of same. I can only imagine that re-running the Cop Immunity survey now would poll around 70% at the Academy and upwards of 95% in most racially diverse and/or non-white communities around the country. We, as a nation, are losing faith in the very notion of law enforcement officials as anything other than belligerents.
The reasons should be obvious, but the largest single factor completes the double-entrendre of this post’s title. If you Google the phrase cop immunity, you’ll turn up countless descriptions of the police themselves being immune to any sort of punishment or sanction which they feel obliged to regularly dole out. The police are not only the law, but they are above it, prompting the age-old query of “who guards the guardians?” The entire notion of police forces, especially armed and dangerous ones, is that the threat of accountability and enforcement will inspire better behavior than people relying on their own judgment. Yet this principle is immediately abandoned when it comes to police actions themselves. Those who decide the fate of police officers accused of wrongdoing are almost always on the same police force as those accused, or part of the same system which views itself as unified on the same team with the same goal. Decades of politicians styling themselves as “tough on crime” have corroded the checks and oversights necessary to create a sense of accountability within the police forces of America’s cities. And the cumulative result is that it is harder to be indicted for police actions than it is to get out of Gitmo. When the police take action, there is no external disincentive lingering in their mind about what might befall them if they cross the line of excessive force.
Now, yes, sure, there are probably good cops out there. My father always raised me with an awareness that those who became cops and those who became criminals were often cut from similar cloth and that it could sometimes be arbitrary which side of the line they wound up on. There are similar temptations of both positions – the hunger for freedom and power over others, the tendency toward violence, the comfort with tense situations and intimidation. Nonetheless, tons of cops are probably sincere and trying their best. But tons of people are too. The underlying assumption of a society with a police force is that this is not enough. We must also have hard and violent disincentives to bad behavior to convince everyone to abide by the principles we find acceptable in a just society, so our assumptions go. Yet the bias has gotten so extreme toward those enforcing this standard that no one (until this year’s eruption of protest and dissent) seems to care to apply that standard to those doing the enforcement. The point is that it is not an innate criticism of the police to say that they require the same disincentives to bad action that we burden the rest of society with. It is just an application of the same basic principle that got us to create a law enforcement infrastructure in the first place.
Indeed, though, given the power imbalances between police and normal citizens, it is easily arguable and possibly obvious that the police require greater disincentives to bad action and abuse than do the general public. Power corrupts, after all, and the feeling of imposing one’s will on mere lay people day after day seems to have the cumulative effect of encouraging abuses. Rather than the status quo of extreme protections and perpetual benefit-of-the-doubt being afforded police officers, it seems much more sensible that they should be subject to much stricter scrutiny and examination than those they are trying to police. After all, they enjoy every structural advantage. Unlike a scared suspect, they can call for backup. They have bulletproof vests and, often, tanks and armored vehicles. They will get the bias of the general public (possibly until now) in the retelling of the story. They are seen as representing the state, representing the “good guys”, having the legal and moral authority. Any system hoping to make these people capable of doing actual good in the world would consistently hold them to an incredibly high standard.
The counter-arguments I see to this most frequently, either among my few conservative friends on Facebook or in horrifically described terms by some Southern poker players, are about the rule of law. The assumption underlying all of these arguments is that if police are charged with enforcing the law, they are automatically right and that anyone who has run afoul of their enforcement must be a criminal. Like so many tough-on-crime politicians, they present the perspective that we have nothing to fear from those who are merely trying to keep society safe and orderly. And everything to fear from those hell-bent on disrupting this order.
There are numerous problems with this line of argumentation, but the biggest one is that it is a non sequitir for justifying the kinds of actions being defended by cop-supporters in 2014. I can grant every part of that argument – that everyone who gets shot or injured by the police is a willful active dangerous criminal (of course this is absurd, but go with me for a second) – and still find the police to be unforgivably corrupt and overly violent. Because to make this argument valid, you have to believe in the death penalty for shoplifting. You have to believe in the death penalty for selling individual cigarettes tax-free. You have to believe in applying the death penalty, or an extreme amount of physical pain and torment (something that actually isn’t a sanctioned punishment for anything in the theory of our society), to every single crime. And, of course, to meting out the death penalty on the grounds of suspicion of that crime, with the responding officer as judge, jury, executioner, and pardoner of the executioner.
Not only the mainstream media and rabid conservatives, but several moderate friends of mine (on Facebook) have offered discussions of Michael Brown that mitigate the death penalty enforced on him. He was “bad news” or a “thug” or “did wrong” or “wasn’t perfect”. I don’t know if we know enough about him to say any of that, but even if he was a serial robber at gunpoint and was raging around the neighborhood, show me where we justify an immediate and singly decided death penalty for that. Let’s assume he was a terrible criminal who had harmed thousands. Still not something any state in the union would exact the death penalty for. And having a publicly known standard that police have the right (through lack of criticism or formal sanction) to enforce the death penalty on suspects at will for any crime at all is to create and codify a police state.
The truth is, though, that we can’t even grant the basic arguments that still lead up to this shocking discovery that America is simply a police state. Because most of these people who run afoul of murderous police officers are not even criminals. And those who are tend to be criminals in the trivial way in which we are all criminals. The fact is that the United States of America has an utterly infinite and unknowable legal code, one that includes ignorance of the law being no defense. At any given moment, all of us, every single one of us, are violating countless statutes and aspects of these standards. Notable ones are obvious, like speeding and jaywalking, which are much more about protecting the safety and health of our community than, say, the prohibition on selling cigarettes without charging sales tax. But the house or apartment in which you live violates many aspects of code for which you have not reported it. Maybe you use the technically illegal drugs that everyone you know seems to use. Or you are aware of such use and have failed to report it. You are aware of illegal immigrants to the country and have failed to turn them in. You have given some change to the homeless panhandler on the street or fed the meter for someone who is about to get ticketed. You have let your own meter expire, or failed to pay it for five minutes. You have failed to report your Internet and out-of-state purchases in itemized detail on your state tax return.
These are all crimes. We are all criminals.
All of us. I defy one of you to search the last year of your life in America and declare it entirely free of criminal acts.
This is why so many people see this as a racial issue, in whole or in part, and why the African American community in particular is rightfully outraged. The fact that we are all criminals is trivial and should be obvious. There is no we/they dichotomy between those who uphold and skirt the law. That argument is the propaganda levied by those wishing to justify the actions of a police state. And the fact is that while whites and those in affluent neighborhoods tend to get a free pass for their criminality, minorities and those in poorer neighborhoods tend to get a rigid and thorough enforcement. Immunity to law enforcement is an extension of white privilege and wealth privilege, where people in the favored categories enjoy less scrutiny and far fewer instant death penalties if they do come under suspicion.
The reasons for this are manifold and complex, stemming from a variety of influences in our nation and its history. There is a lot of individual and institutional racism. There are heavily promoted narratives which the media and politicians extoll daily, narratives about who is dangerous and who is the “criminal element” and what parts of town are unsafe and the desperation of the poor and the underclass. There is just the tiniest bit of truth in the reality that property crimes are more likely to be committed by those without property and those who society has continually oppressed remain without property and little kernels of this reality create a massively inflated fuel for self-justification of the principle that informs bias and profiling. But this is also just one part of the story in the world in which we are all criminals. Minorities are imprisoned vastly more than others and a massive number of these incarcerations are due to drug crimes. Drug crimes are not disproportionately committed by minorities, but they are vastly disproportionately enforced on them. This suits a narrative that society likes to tell itself about justice and safety and danger, but it’s just the delusion of an unjust and biased system trying to get itself to sleep at night.
It’s not a coincidence that most of these cases of police murder with impunity have African American victims, any more than it is that such a vastly disproportionate portion of the prison population are African American men. We have a seemingly inexhaustible source of narratives for the “Scary Black Man” in American society, an endless appetite for this concept in the news, campus police reports, trials, courtroom dramas, movies, and nearly every other cultural influence that exists. Police exist in this world too and react accordingly. And even if a cop or his police department are not overtly racist (most of them do overtly profile and are overtly racist), when the standard that society gives that cop is “act with impunity, trust your fear, you will never face punishment for enforcing the death penalty on a suspect”, then the consequences are all too predictable.
I cannot sufficiently emphasize that it does not matter whether or not these people are criminals. We are all criminals. The extent to which we are subject to the whims of the police state depends on whether the police are trained to fear us as particular individuals. Every one of us could be arrested tomorrow for something and then face the rabbit hole of the state’s overwhelming bias and support of the enforcers.
Your legal standards do not matter. They need to be changed and rewritten. Just as law has been shifted to facilitate corporate greed and impunity to dominate individual citizens, it has similarly been written to codify a police state that will never hold cops accountable. That needs to be thrown out and revamped. And until it is, every single instance of a cop getting away with murder only emboldens the confidence of every other scared or malignant cop to enforce the instant death penalty at his or her will. For a democracy to function, it cannot be a police state. There must be police accountability. Until a high profile murderous police officer is not only charged, but actually punished, this will only escalate.
As will the justified outrage of the society falling under the police state’s bootheel. It is the consequence not only of this ongoing series of injustices, but also of creating a legal standard which criminalizes everyone and then selectively enforces the law based on fear and bias. If this doesn’t bother you, it’s only because you are lucky enough to somehow enjoy your own version of Cop Immunity. And you are too unfeeling to care for those who don’t.