As if we don’t have enough problems, come to find out that the Capitol Police are investigating their own officers’ complicity in the violent Capitol insurgency of Jan. 6. It stands to reason that if that police force is struggling with White supremacy and right wing extremism, so are our other law enforcement institutions, as well the military (remember that the Pentagon was concerned enough to do background checks on the National Guard troops deployed to protect the inauguration; they found a dozen with ties to White supremacy, two of whom had explicitly threatened lawmakers on their social media accounts).
According to the Washington Post, “National Sheriffs’ Association President David Mahoney said many police leaders have treated officers with extremist beliefs as outliers and have underestimated the damage they can inflict on the profession and the nation. ‘We saw the anti-government, anti-equality and racist comments coming out during the Obama administration. Shame on us for representing it as freedom of speech and for not recognizing it was chiseling away at our democracy. As we move forward, we need to make sure we are teaching our current staff members that they must have the courage to speak out when they know about another deputy’s or officer’s involvement.’”
These are intractable problems. Start with the fact that in addition to attracting civic-minded people who genuinely want to protect and serve their communities, they also attract authoritarians, bullies, and out-and-out racists who want a badge and a gun to enforce their own notions of law and order.
Go back as far as you wish, and you’ll find examples. In 1913, it was the lynching of Leo Frank in Cobb County, Georgia. Frank, a Jewish factory owner, was taken from jail with help from the sheriff, and lynched without a trial for the murder of a young White girl. (To devout racists, Jews are not White). A century later in Orlando it was a young Black man, Trayvon Martin, killed by a White neighborhood watchman.
Outrage, when it happens at all, is temporary.
Things again came to a boil last year when Black jogger Ahmaud Aubrey was murdered by a retired police officer in Glynn County, Georgia. The local police refused to intervene—the accused killer was one of their own. It was easy to say, “Well, that’s the Deep South.” Then George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis Police. This time it was different because bystanders had the now-ubiquitous smartphone camera. “He said-he said” conjecture was rendered moot in the face of video evidence.
Racist law enforcement knows no geographical bounds. It is said that in the South, they hate Blacks as a race, but love them as individuals, while in the North, they love Blacks as a race but hate them as individuals. I’ve lived in Nebraska, Tennessee, Ohio, New York, Georgia and California, and I’ve found that hate is hate. If anything, I found the North to be more virulently racist than the South.
If we are to tame these inequities, we’ll need a good strategy well implemented, for it is ingrained human behavior to establish a pecking order, and it is all too easy to enforce when police have so much more power than civilians. Courts naturally defer to sworn police officers, and police officers historically stick together.
One might hope that a combination of better screening and no-exception enforcement of organizational standards might weed out authoritarians, White supremacists, separatists, and extremists, but it won’t happen without a loud and sustained public outcry. An outcry that comes from the White middle, for it is way too easy to cast aspersions on identity groups like antifa or Black Lives Matter.
It would be a mistake to label me anti-cop. I still have my Fulton County Georgia Deputy Sheriff’s badge. I was honored to advise America’s first Black female sheriff, Jackie Barrett, on matters of public policy during my years in Atlanta. I’m decidedly pro-cop and pro law and order. As I’ve said before and will say again, law and order can’t stand on their own. The stool has three legs, and without justice, it topples, for law and order are meaningless when applied unjustly.
The work we have to do doesn’t involve new rules. We have rules aplenty. The big lift is stopping racism in the home and at the office—whether that’s the squad room or the barracks. It is a learned behavior that we have to stop teaching. I’m not without hope. I can see how far we’ve come from the Oak Ridge of my youth where the town square boasted “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” bathrooms and drinking fountains. Laws, social mores, and intermarriage have all played a part in our slowly-emerging ideas of equality. I can also see how far we have to go.