COMMENTARY: The Abuse Won’t Stop Until We Change Police Culture

UPDATED August 31, 2018

By Ron Harris and Matthew Horace

Another day, another week, another month, another viral video of police gone wild.  This time it’s Baltimore, a city already under a federal consent decree to reform its police department after a Justice Department investigation into the 2015 death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police found rampant, systemic abuse of black residents by cops.

Contrary to the usual response to such recordings, police and city officials acted quickly after Officer Arthur Williams was caught on camera Saturday, Aug. 11, savagely beating a defenseless DaShawn McGrier.  McGrier, a 26-year-old warehouse worker, suffered fractured ribs, a broken jaw, various cuts and bruises and spent two nights in a local hospital.

After a witness posted the attack on Facebook and Instagram that day, Williams resigned.  By Wednesday, he had been charged with first and second-degree assault.

The Baltimore incident mirrors images from so many other cities – Fort Worth, Texas; Philadelphia, Tulsa, Oklahoma; New York City, Mesa, Arizona; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cleveland, Chicago, Beavercreek, Ohio, Gwinnett County, Georgia; Bloomfield, New Jersey, Grandbury, Texas; North Charleston, South Carolina; Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

 It’s “déjà vu all over again.”

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In most cases, the officers are white, and the victims are black.  Consequently, there is an inclination to define police misconduct largely as an issue of race.  The Baltimore cop caught on camera beating the hell out of a black man,  T, however, was not white.  He was African American.  So was his partner, who stood by and watched without trying to halt the assault.

So are 42 percent of the officers within the Baltimore Police Department.  So is the current Baltimore police commissioner, as was the previous police commissioner, as was the police commissioner when Gray died of a crushed spinal cord following a ride in the back of a police van, as were six other Baltimore police commissioners in a city where police have been under the control of African-American political leadership for nearly 40 years.

Race is a significant part of the problem.  For police and much of society, black men are the boogeyman, a threat or suspicious just by their mere presence.  But it’s just a part of the issue.

 As we discovered through nearly 100 interviews with police, city officials and citizens across dozens of American cities, these incidents continue at a steady, pernicious pace because of a mindset and a pattern within most police departments that overrides nearly every significant effort to change them.  Until we, the citizenry, address that culture as well as our own attitudes about what police should and should not do, the shootings, the beatings, the harassment and the abuse of police power will continue.

In large part, our police departments are defined by a law enforcement culture that perpetuates an us-against-the citizens attitude in which defending fellow cops – no matter how inept, how malevolent or corrupt – is paramount.   Consequently, officers act with a sense of impunity, because they know that no matter what they do, their fellow officers will back them up, or at the least, won’t report them.

We saw this in Chicago four years ago when three officers lied on their police reports to justify the shooting of 17-year-old black juvenile by a fellow officer — even though they knew there was video of the incident that would contradict their statements.  So, the incidents continue.  Williams did what other Baltimore cops had done, including hiss previous harassment and arrest of McGrier.  This time it was caught on camera.

[/media-credit] Ron Harris
[/media-credit] Matthew Horace

Additionally, departments too often do a poor job of screening out applicants, allowing in men and women who have already been proven to be bad cops in other departments.  Such was the case of the officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and the former St. Louis cop who without justification ruined the life of Fred Watson in Ferguson under the color of law.

Or they give a badge and a gun to people who never should be cops.   In New Orleans, police hired a woman onto the force — despite her failure on psychological exams and strong objections from the department’s psychiatrist – who would later murder a fellow officer and two residents in a robbery.

 Additionally, the training they need is lacking.  in Baltimore, for example, the department’s own head of legal instruction at the police academy’s earlier this year said a third of the men and women heading to the streets lacked a basic understanding of the laws governing constitutional policing.

“We’re giving them a badge and a gun tomorrow, the right to take someone’s liberty, ultimately the right to take someone’s life if it calls for it, and they have not demonstrated they can meet [basic] constitutional and legal standards,” Sgt. Josh Rosenblatt told the Baltimore Sun.

Rosenblatt, who is trained as a lawyer, said many of them failed to understand the most basic tenets of being a cop. “Don’t illegally arrest people. Don’t illegally search people. These are not high standards.”

But even with better recruitment and proper training and even better pay, police will revert to the same unacceptable behavior as along as a culture exists in which they feel their first allegiance is to fellow cops and not the people they are paid to “protect and serve.”  Police and their conduct are defined by the public officials we elect to oversee them.  As we approach the mid-term elections in November, we must to send a clear message to candidates that unless they stand for an end to police misconduct and the seemingly endless stream of cop violating citizens’ rights, they won’t get or vote.

Ron Harris, a former national, foreign and congressional correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is currently an adjunct professor at Howard University. and Matthew Horace,  former law enforcement officer with over 25 years of experience across America, is a security expert and law enforcement analyst for CNN and Headline News.  They are the authors of The Black and the Blue; A Cop Reveals Crimes, Racism and Injustice in Law Enforcement

This article, without the accompanying video, originally appeared in The Pasadena Journal.

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3 Comments

  1. Optics have become a major issue in today’s policing because in some neighborhoods in Baltimore, residents see police officer’s as a badge, uniform, gun and a danger, not someone who has agreed to be the protector of their lives and property. In this, change is critical to heal police and community relations. Regardless of race, profession or social status many are victims of this cycle. Officer involved shootings and other controversies bring distrust and destroy police-community relations, making exchanges between the police and the community a potentially lethal one by spreading distrust. It’s important we break the cycle of mistrust requiring change and a change leader who has a record of building partnerships and trust with the community. It’s imperative we promote cultural awareness and diversity training, looking at police accountability and culture from different perspectives. Everyone in the police department must be accountable for understanding the law and following it. As the leader of the organization, I have always been personally accountable for bringing a professional culture where law and policy are executed faithfully, fairly and without exception. I utilize evidenced based policing data to measure results because it reinforces accountability. Accountability means everyone from me through the rank and file is required to take part in trust building and legitimacy with the community in everything we do. I make sure we exercise our authority by the rules while making a positive impact on crime and disorder with fairness in everything we do when resolving issues.

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