Americans believe a lot of lies about the police. In fact, most people can agree on this. They just disagree about what those lies are. Is the typical cop a cold-eyed executioner with a brutal disregard for human rights, or a selfless hero who risks his life to protect the community? Depending on who you are, you probably think one of those descriptions sounds utterly ridiculous. And you’re right. You recognize an obvious caricature when you see it. Just as the average Trump voter is neither a cross-burning Klansman nor an amiable unemployed plumber who just wants his job back, the average police officer is also a more complicated creature, a “sausage of angel and beast,” in the words of poet Nicanor Parra.
But “complicated” does not necessarily mean “good,” or “righteous,” or even “defensible.” After a certain number of rapes and murders by police, it becomes much more difficult to believe that “a few bad apples” are responsible for the flood of dead bodies and terrible headlines. The cases come from every part of the country—huge East Coast metropolises, laid-back liberal enclaves on the Pacific seaside, and even the sleepy small towns of the Midwest. Isolated incidents stop being isolated when they happen every week. Something is clearly wrong with America’s law enforcement.
Is this because cruel people become cops, or because becoming a cop makes people cruel? I used to think the answer was obvious, until I watched my friend kill a man on Facebook Live.
Jeronimo Yanez, better known as the cop who shot Philando Castile, was one of my best friends in high school. We played on the same baseball team and hung out in the same Chipotle parking lot. We went to senior prom together. On graduation day, we rolled our eyes and laughed while our parents took ten thousand pictures.
We drifted apart in the years that followed, as high school friends usually do, though once in a while he’d pop up in my newsfeed. My eyes would linger for a second over this CliffsNotes version of his life. Went on a fishing trip—cool. Got married—good for him. Graduated from the police academy—wait, he’s a cop now?
Huh. Weird. What else?
Oh, here’s a photo of Jeronimo holding his baby daughter. Here’s one of him with a classroom full of smiling third-graders. Here are a dozen generic snapshots of an ordinary human enjoying some small and unremarkable pleasure. Five minutes with Photoshop, and that could be your face blowing out birthday candles.
Then, one day, my feed became an endless stream of articles saying that Jeronimo was a murderer.
The people who shared these stories were outraged and heartbroken. Some of them said that Jeronimo was a heartless racist who killed a man and deserved to burn in hell. Many agreed that his acquittal on all charges was yet another mockery of justice in an America that has become a brutal police state where government-sanctioned killers are all but immune from legal consequences, even when they execute an old man eating chicken in his own backyard.
To these people, I would say one thing:
You’re right about the police, and you’re wrong about Jeronimo.
Before we continue, I have to make an apology of sorts. There are inherent problems in telling a story like this one, not the least of which is: why spend thousands of words talking about a cop who killed a human being and then walked free? Don’t “writers of conscience” have a moral obligation to elevate the stories of the oppressed above those of the oppressors? Isn’t Philando Castile, the man who was killed, the person whose story we really ought to be telling? Isn’t profiling his killer a waste of time, at best, and an implicit rationalization of police brutality, at worst?
These are all valid points, but they’re not the only valid points. Our first duty is to mourn the death—and celebrate the life—of Philando Castile. But we should seek to understand why Jeronimo Yanez pulled the trigger. We need to do the difficult and uncomfortable work of exploring how this particular “sausage of angel and beast” was made. Was Jeronimo rotten from the start, or did he become contaminated by a toxic environment? We can’t respond to this tragedy, or the broader tragedy of police violence in America, without a good answer to the question. Understanding what made Jeronimo shoot Philando Castile is not an act of indulgence. It’s a tactic for preventing future violence.
Although I never met him, I have to think that’s something Philando Castile would want. Before his life was snatched away, he made a reputation as a man of incredible kindness and compassion. His family and friends have spoken about him far more eloquently than I could. His pastor, Danny Givens, said, “you felt seen by him…. you felt like you mattered, like you meant something to him at that moment.” His friend and co-worker, John Thompson, recalls that “if kids couldn’t afford lunch, he would pay for their lunch out of his own pocket. And that was against school policy. And I mean kids can’t afford lunch right now. They miss Mr. Phil at that school. They miss him. I miss my friend.” Another colleague, Joan Edman, put it simply: “this man mattered.”
I believe that Castile’s death was a violation of the fundamental agreement that underpins any society—namely, that its members agree to not slaughter each other—and therefore that it is what most people would consider “a crime.” By definition, that makes Jeronimo Yanez a criminal. Critics of the criminal justice system are fierce and convincing in their call for criminals to be treated as human beings. I draw certain conclusions from that, but I understand that others will draw their own. You’d have a point if you said, “but Yanez isn’t actually a criminal—he’s already been humanized by a system that literally let him get away with murder because he was scared.” This is true, and it is terrible. Yet even if you believe that he’s an inhuman monster, and you hate everything that he represents, it’s still generally a good idea to know your enemy, if only to fight him more effectively.
It is neither my intention nor desire to portray Jeronimo as a sympathetic figure. I just want to give a truthful description of the person I knew, because I believe that his story can help us understand why America’s police problems cannot be solved by “smarter” or “nicer” cops. This is the most dangerous lie about the police. If they could turn my friend into a killer, there is a deeper evil at work.
I met Jeronimo Yanez on the first day of our sophomore year. It was September 2004 and I had just transferred to South St. Paul, proud home of the South St. Paul Packers. The school took its name from the historic Union Stockyards just down the street. Its slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants were slowly being replaced by respectably bland business centers, but a faint odor of boiling fat still wafted up from the riverside when the wind blew just right.
South St. Paul was the kind of blue-collar town that inspires entire Bruce Springsteen albums. Many families had lived there for over a hundred years. They traced their roots from the Eastern European immigrants who came to work in the stockyards, and who had built venerable social institutions (i.e. drinking establishments) with names like “Croatian Hall” and “Polish National Association.” Polka music was enjoyed, meat raffles were held, bowling leagues were well-attended.
Life was changing, though. New faces were starting to appear in town, in larger and larger numbers. Many of these newcomers were Latino, some were black, a handful were Hmong. They moved for the same reasons humans usually move—to find better jobs and houses.
Their new neighbors greeted them with that most typical of Minnesotan peculiarities: polite standoffishness. People waved hello when they drove past, but they rarely stopped to chat. A trip to the grocery store was an exercise in avoiding eye contact. In a tight-knit town where everyone knew everyone, an element of uncertainty had been introduced.
If that sounds like a lukewarm euphemism for “racism” to you, let me be clear—you’re right. But it’s not a complete picture. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once warned us against the danger of a single story. At the heart of Adichie’s argument is a loud and insistent truth: “it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.”
South St. Paul, like any place or person, has its ugly stories. Thirty years ago it was declared a federal disaster area after 12,000 meatpacking jobs were lost, an economic disembowelment that was subsequently treated with Band-Aids. These days, its police chief is cheerfully preparing for an imminent race riot. The meth hasn’t helped much, either.
All of these stories are true, and the picture they paint of South St. Paul is not a flattering one. Look at the facts in isolation, and you might wonder if there’s any hope for a town like this. If you’re a neo-Calvinist tough guy like National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson, you might go even further—doesn’t this backwater dump “deserve to die”?
But there is a lot of good in South St. Paul, too. Like the International Baccalaureate program, which provides a world-class high school education while letting students earn a college degree for free at the same time. Or the girls’ hockey team, which was featured in Sports Illustrated after helping to popularize the sport with girls across the nation.
Or, believe it or not, Jeronimo Yanez.
In the words of Adichie, Jeronimo was a man who engaged with all the people and all the stories of the world he lived in. If you’d had to pick a utopian police force from a pool of the most kind, helpful, community-minded people, Jeronimo Yanez would have been the first name on your list.
More than a decade after he graduated, he’s still beloved by his former high school teachers. They speak about him with a warm, quiet sadness that is earnest and heartbreaking. He was a “respectful, kind, and hard-working student,” according to Christopher Bakken, who teaches English and American literature. “I know his family well and I teach with his father, and I know he’s been raised to be a great man.” Bakken said Jeronimo was the kind of guy who got along with everybody. He remembered how “kids really seemed to gravitate towards [Jeronimo]” at school.
Jeronimo’s natural charisma was irresistible. Former classmate Shannon Alexander recalled how “he would always dance before or after football games, surrounded by the players.” His sense of humor was infectious. “One night at Chipotle we were sitting in the car, waiting for our friends,“ said Alexander, “and I started dancing to this song. Jeronimo burst out in laughter, making fun of my moves. To this day I remember his laugh and the shoulder move I was doing. He still owes me a dance lesson.”
In a town where racial tensions often ran hot, Jeronimo was a peacemaker. He charmed everyone from the angriest rednecks to the fiercest gang members. He was friends with the black kids, the white kids, the Hispanic kids, the Muslim kids, the rich kids, the poor kids, the gay kids, the goth kids, and just about anyone else he met.
“Jeronimo was always the kindest, sweetest, and most humble of all people,” said Donny Geng, long-time baseball coach and a living legend in town. “He always had the biggest of smiles and always went out of his way to include others.”
Everything these people said is true, and here I’ll add a memory of my own. It’s about Jeronimo and a man we’ll call Bill. Bill was a developmentally disabled adult whose family lived down the street from Jeronimo’s. Every summer, Jeronimo and Bill would spend their days exploring the town together. They’d buy snacks at the gas station and wander down the tree-lined sidewalks. Jeronimo was Bill’s guide and caretaker, and his friend.
One day, I was driving to baseball practice when I saw the pair of them crossing the road in my rearview mirror. Jeronimo pointed at something—I couldn’t tell what—and it made Bill clap in delight. Then the light changed. Cars began to creep forward. Bill and Jeronimo hurried to reach the other side, Jeronimo with his hand raised toward the oncoming traffic, protecting the precious and delicate life of his neighbor.
That’s the kind of guy Jeronimo was.
Go to any police academy in the country, and you will not find a recruit with more natural patience, compassion, or friendliness than Jeronimo Yanez. He is a gifted communicator and thoughtful listener. He is a good person with a loving family. He is smart, funny, and hard-working. He is the Platonic ideal of a nice cop.
He’s also a murderer. It seems reasonable to suggest that the system has failed.
This is the part of the story I’ve been afraid to write. It’s the part that will probably ruin a lot of relationships with wonderful people who I love and respect. But it would be an insult to Philando Castile and his family to deny the obvious, which is that Jeronimo is a murderer by any sane definition of the word.
That Jeronimo would grow up to be a murderer was not inevitable. In fact, at no point during Jeronimo’s childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood did it even seem the slightest bit plausible. He didn’t drown cats for fun, he didn’t pick fights after school, and he didn’t drunkenly grope co-eds at frat parties. But the defining characteristic of Jeronimo’s personality wasn’t just the absence of maliciousness—it was the presence of goodness. He had a genuine desire to befriend the people he met and to help them in any way he could. For the first two decades of his life, this impulse was recognized and rewarded by people with authority: his parents, teachers, and coaches. It also gained him the respect of his peers. Living in this kind of environment taught him that social status and admiration were earned through kindness and generosity.
When he joined the police, he began to hear a different message. He was taught to see enemies everywhere. According to prominent police advocates like Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, cops face “a trifecta” of threats to their physical and professional security. “There’s a hostile element in the community at large. There’s in many instances a lack of support on the part of elected officials and police management. And there’s this ubiquitous social-media effort to discredit all police officers because of the extraordinarily rare misconduct by a very few,” says Pasco. He’s not the only powerful official to push the narrative of cops as long-suffering victims. “There unquestionably is a creeping apathy among the public about the work and role of its dedicated police officers,” said New York’s police commissioner James O’Neill. Just a few months ago, the nation’s top-ranking law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, sang a similar tune: “Unfortunately, in recent years law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed… [a]mid this intense public scrutiny and criticism, morale has gone down, while the number in their ranks killed in the line of duty has gone up.”
The myth of the persecuted policeman is the foundation of the modern American police army (and make no mistake, it’s a goddamn army, with the line between the police and the military steadily becoming blurrier). They are taught to think of themselves as warriors from Day One at the academy. As one long-time police trainer said: “This nation is at war, whether one choses to admit it, or not.” The same trainer writes, with all apparent seriousness, about the decades-long struggle of the “police survival movement.” If you find yourself thinking he sounds delusional, you’ll be reassured to know that his only goal is to “engage in a nonpolitical, factual discussion of this issue and give you my educated answer” to the question of whether or not police officers should be taught to think of everyone they see as a potential enemy combatant.
This man, as depressingly (and terrifyingly) stupid as he may be, does have a point. America is at war—it just happens to be a class war, and the cops are protecting the bad guys.
Police officers always have been, and always will be, the servants of the rich. When the rich feel threatened, they demand more protection. Sometimes this means hiring more servants (“we need more cops on the beat!”), and sometimes this means arming those servants more heavily (“the gangsters have Molotov cocktails, so our cops need flamethrowers!”). But the elites’ message to their cop-servants is always the same: the streets are crawling with murderous, criminal scum. You (and your gun) are the only thing that stands between civilization and utter chaos.
As the brutal money-gods of American capitalism destroy what little remains of our social safety net, inequality will continue to worsen. Already, more than 50% of the world’s wealth is owned by 1% of its population. It’s a fine time to be grotesquely wealthy, but the precariousness of the situation is lost on nobody (hence the recent popularity of nuke-proof bunkers and remote private islands). In the meantime, the rich seek to secure the loyalty of their police minions by lavishing them with flowery praise and expensive new weapons to keep the unwashed mobs at bay. Through a combination of bribery and brainwashing, America’s ruling class recruits people from humble backgrounds like Jeronimo’s to do the dirty work of suppressing dissent and protecting the lives and property of the rich.
The end result of this program of turning people into officers: Jeronimo Yanez shot Philando Castile to death in front of a four-year-old girl. We all saw it happen. Even his lawyer said it was tragic, in a bizarre moment of guilt-laced honesty. The jury’s decision is a lie and everyone knows it, at least until the lie passes into history and becomes truth. If that happens, the Castile case will be just another sad chapter in the long and bullshit-rich saga of police reform.
“Police reform,” as the phrase is used in the contemporary United States, generally refers to the idea that while American law enforcement may have its flaws, there’s nothing that can’t be fixed by two silver bullets: technology and training. Proponents of reform are fearless in their determination to ignore a growing mountain of evidence that these simply don’t work. Training and technology cannot, and will not, solve any of the real problems with policing. Reforming the police in this timid and impotent manner is like taking Tums for your stomach cancer. But that doesn’t discourage its advocates from cheerfully prescribing it every time a kid gets shot.
Consider the body camera, the zombie cockroach of police reform ideas. Touted by Study A, discredited by Study B, body cameras are hotly debated every year, to little effect. In 2015, the Obama administration authorized a three-year, $75 million program to provide the wretched things to cops across the country. Like many of Obama’s policies, it made sense as long as you didn’t think about it too hard. A body camera means evidence. Evidence means accountability. Accountability means objectivity. Objectivity is good.
It’s a nice idea—the only problem is that it doesn’t actually work. Let’s even leave aside the Big Brotherly implications of a vast police surveillance network with cutting-edge facial recognition tools running at all times (and if that idea doesn’t alarm you, you probably don’t realize that you commit three felonies a day without even trying). The deeper problems with body cameras are obvious to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of how buttons work. What’s to prevent a cop from turning off his body camera right before he shoots someone? The plausible deniability here is an attorney’s wet dream. If an accident occurs at the wrong time, say, in the heat of a tense confrontation between heavily-armed officers and a frightened teenager, what’s a cop to do except shrug his shoulders and fire away? Why would someone who can’t be trusted to operate a firearm responsibly be any better with a camera that could potentially incriminate him?
But let’s take it a step further and give police the benefit of the doubt, and imagine a scenario where a responsible police officer is using their body camera exactly as it’s intended. Imagine that the officer pulls over a car for some minor traffic infraction, like driving with a busted taillight. First he radios the dispatch and checks in. Then he switches on his body camera before exiting his vehicle, just like he should. He walks over to the driver and asks for his license and registration. The driver obeys. As he hands the officer his papers, he politely informs the officer that he is carrying a firearm. The officer panics and shoots the driver.
Later in court, he claims the man was reaching for his gun. The judge asks to see the body camera video. The officer complies, as is his legal obligation, but the video is inconclusive—he was filming the driver from the shoulders up. It’s impossible to prove the driver wasn’t doing something suspicious with his hands. The jury acquits the officer on all charges.
In this case, the equipment functioned perfectly. All the proper procedures were followed. The evidence was presented in a court of law where it could be evaluated by a jury of the police officer’s peers. The system worked like clockwork, and none of it made the slightest difference. The body camera-clad officer did everything right except not killing a person.
Advocates of police reform have a rebuttal, as you might expect. They concede that the technology, great and powerful as it is, can’t solve every law enforcement problem by itself. If you really want to fix the police, they say, you also have to train them better. Luckily, there’s no shortage of training programs for American cops who get itchy trigger fingers at the sight of anyone under the age of 60 who’s not wearing a three-piece suit and carrying the latest issue of The Economist.
Few industries are as lucrative and fast-growing as the sensitivity training industry. Police departments can choose from a veritable smorgasbord of bias-reducing programs: plenty of racial sensitivity training, LGBTQ sensitivity training, and Muslim sensitivity training, of course, but there’s also training to help cops resist the natural urge to shoot people who are blind or disabled.
The only problem is that none of this works, either.
Police training courses often exist in name only (or at least, as watered-down versions of already watered-down concepts). For example, back in 2010 over $1.5 million was awarded to Minnesotan police departments for training on “basic civil rights, community-based policing, and racial and ethnic sensitivity.” (The money came from a brutality lawsuit against the Metro Gang Strike Force, a multi-jurisdictional law enforcement team infamous for robbing and beating people of color.) Seven years later, not a single course has been offered. Among the many officers who were supposed to receive training but never did: Jeronimo Yanez.
Nevertheless, the program has managed to spend $215,000. Much of that went into the pockets of Neil Melton, former head of the Minnesota Peace Officers Standards and Training Board. He earned more than $8,000 a month from July 2014 to August 2015, during which time he managed to train a grand total of zero officers.
The straight-faced cynicism at work here is breathtaking. Though the program was originally designed as a weeklong intensive course at state colleges and universities, it recently underwent a “significant change of focus” and is now planned to be offered online, so as to “reach more officers in an economical way”.
You might be tempted to argue, “Yes, but that doesn’t prove that every police training course is such a useless moneypit. Many of them actually exist, with instructors and books and everything. Some are even taught by doctor-experts with impressive research credentials. Every day, the brightest minds of academia are developing new tools to help police officers overcome their prejudices.”
The most influential of these tools, the scam that launched a thousand seminars, is Harvard’s famous Implicit Association Test (IAT). It was the brainchild of Project Implicit, an organization founded in 1998 to “educate the public about hidden biases.” The IAT is commonly used in police sensitivity training courses across the country. It is the fraying, pseudo-intellectual twine that binds together the rotten planks of the platform for police reform.
Back in 2001, the University of Washington hosted a workshop called “What’s Wrong with the Implicit Association Test?” Its conclusion was that there were, in fact, at least ten things wrong with the IAT, ranging from its basic assumptions to its methods of measurement. In 2008, the American Psychological Association published a feature questioning whether the IAT’s mainstream popularity was merited by its actual science. In 2017, the Chronicle of Higher Education covered an exhaustive study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia, spanning more than 20 years and 80,000 participants, that concluded “the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought” and also that “there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior.”
Translation: trying to fix the police by eliminating their subconscious biases is like trying to housetrain your dog by teaching it English.
In his brilliant and scathing expose on the IAT, Jesse Singal explains how the test “went viral not for solid scientific reasons, but simply because it tells us such a simple, pat story about how racism works and can be fixed: that deep down, we’re all a little—or a lot—racist, and that if we measure and study this individual-level racism enough, progress toward equality will ensue.” The government loves programs like these because they “easily produce heaps of qualitative data”, which can be used to create an illusion of progress, while simultaneously allowing its beleaguered PR teams to “promote an interesting and provocative story line about race in America.” As Singal notes, “It might be advantageous to various people to say implicit bias… is the most important thing to focus on, but that doesn’t make it true.”
Look at the evidence and it becomes clear that police training programs that focus on eradicating the implicit biases of individual officers are based both on shoddy science and shoddy reasoning. Subconscious racism and structural racism are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not equally influential. Singal quotes a Stanford sociologist who says, “I think unconscious racial prejudice is real and consequential…. but my sense is that racial inequality in America is probably driven more by structural factors like concentrated poverty, the racial wealth gap, differential exposure to violence, the availability of early childhood education, and so on.” Poverty? Wealth gaps? Exposure to violence? These problems can’t be solved in a week-long seminar. By focusing on the elimination of implicit bias, America’s police forces are neglecting the cause of the disease to focus on its symptoms.
This is not a sign of stupidity but of slippery bureaucratic cleverness. Police reformists don’t deny that “big picture” changes are necessary. In fact, they’re swift to admit some kind of action—or at least the appearance of action—is needed. According to these reformists, the solution is “community-based policing.” The premise of community-based policing is that people distrust the police because they just don’t know the officers well enough. Get the cops out of their cars and have them walk around the neighborhood a bit, and you’ll rebuild that trust. Throw some barbecues, kiss some babies, and watch the good vibes grow.
Behind closed doors, law enforcement rolls its eyes at the mere mention of the term. The Wire famously mocked the ideas behind it. Community-based policing is the kind of fuzzy nothing-ism beloved by progressives from L.A. to D.C., and distrusted by almost everyone else. The cops aren’t wrong to despise it. Despite its shiny cloak of modern science and statistics, the reality is that community-based policing is based on a Dickensian pipe dream: “if men would behave decently the world would be decent,” as George Orwell put it.
The only people who don’t seem to recognize the absurdity of community-based policing are the politicians who advocate it. Although they like to portray themselves as advocates of “common sense” and “family values,” they appear to see nothing wrong with the fact that their vision of community-based policing still tolerates the murder of community members with no justification or legal consequence.
Take Rep. Tony Cornish, a politician and police chief from southern Minnesota. In an op-ed titled “A fair trial with a reasoned verdict, and constructive work under way,” published shortly after the jury acquitted Jeronimo of all charges, Cornish claimed that “the media [threw] officer Yanez under the bus” while “pandering politicians” made “ridiculous divisive comments” about the case. It’s obvious from the first excruciating sentence that Cornish is the kind of pompous tyrant whose brutality is matched only by his cluelessness. “I have decided that someone with knowledge of both police tactics and the law should speak up,” he writes, as if quoting the right subsections of the right reports could magically un-murder a person.
According to Cornish, “there was justification for the initial stop” and Jeronimo’s subsequent actions were “not uncommon or out of the ordinary.” He was adamant that because “Philando Castile did not follow Yanez’s commands and continued reaching for something,” killing him was “not unreasonable according to the law.” Cornish said that the Yanez case ended with “a reasonable verdict” that correctly interpreted the “’justifiable taking of a life’ statute.” He warns that “it is scary to think of changing the law to make it ‘easier’ to convict anyone, cop or civilian.” (To the best of my knowledge, however, this principled freedom fighter has not penned any op-eds against Minnesota’s new anti-protest laws.) Cornish states that there is “[no] reason to abandon the best criminal justice system in the entire world,” because “law enforcement is listening.” After all, “they have put much more emphasis on ‘community policing’.” He proudly informs readers that the Law Enforcement Coalition “came in with a request for more training and will receive $13 million for training in dealing with suicidal people, mentally ill people, crisis intervention, and special training in ‘implicit bias.’” This is the institutional equivalent of the old “I’m sorry about the sexual assault, but don’t worry, I’m going to rehab” defense. [Note: Between writing and publication, Rep. Cornish was forced to resign over sexual harassment allegations.—Ed.]
It’s Cornish’s closing statement, though, that should terrify you: “We may attempt to reform both police tactics and the criminal justice system, but we have to be extremely careful on what we all interpret as ‘justice.’” Even Cornish isn’t quite clueless enough to simply scrawl IT’S NOT MURDER IF A COP DOES IT in bright red crayon across the bottom of the page. But he might as well have. Evidently, “community policing” is a system where a certain amount of collateral damage by way of murdered civilians is to be expected, and to expect anything better is taking some lofty ideal of “justice” too far.
In a decent society, people like Cornish wouldn’t have authority over a pumpkin patch, let alone a community of human beings. If these are the architects of reform, then the pillars of American justice have already crumbled beyond the point of repair. We need to start thinking about more radical solutions.
Nicer cops are not the answer. Neither are tech-savvier cops. Pretending that police reform can lead to meaningful change is comforting but delusional. Police reform has proven useless because none of its proposals have directly addressed the fundamental problems with American cops, namely that they beat and kill the people they’re supposed to protect at alarming rates, and they spend an insane amount of money in the process.
This can be attributed to three main causes:
1) Cops have too much contact with citizens.
2) They’re too heavily armed.
3) They’ve been trusted to ‘police’ themselves.
Each of these issues must be resolved for American law enforcement to shed its well-deserved reputation for brutality. And if we want to make meaningful changes, we have to start by forgetting everything we’ve been taught about cops.
Look at any children’s book about jobs, and you’ll notice a common theme: the police officer almost always appears next to the firefighter or paramedic. Before you know how to read, you’re already being indoctrinated with the idea that police officers are just as noble and benevolent as the people who protect you from being burned alive or falling into deep, scary wells.
But cops have more in common with jailers and dogcatchers than they do with emergency first responders. Cops exist to control and punish people. Even their staunchest backers admit this. The only real similarity between a fire department and a police department is the word “department.” Their actual purposes could scarcely be more different. If a firefighter is perfectly efficient, he saves more people per fire. If a police officer is perfectly efficient, he controls more people per punishment. The barometer of success for a cop is how well he limits people’s freedom.
Thus, the essence of community-based policing (ordinary citizens having more daily contact with police) is little more than authoritarianism with a smiley face. Instead, we should seek to minimize the amount of interactions that people must have with cops. Traffic stops are a prime example. This is the most common scenario for a police-citizen encounter, and cops have been trained to approach each one as a potential ambush. Traffic stops frighten everybody and serve the best interests of nobody except municipal accountants. Every time a cop pulls someone over—or has any interaction with anyone at all, for that matter—the chances of violence skyrocket.
This is why it’s so important to disarm the cops. We should start by taking their tanks. Then we should take their sniper rifles, their attack helicopters, and their bomb-delivery robots. The sheer quantity of high-powered weaponry is astounding. From 2006-2016, American police departments spent over $2.2 billion on surplus military equipment. That is an almost inconceivable crap-ton of bayonets, M-16s, mine-resistant vehicles, and other things that no police department in the nation has any reason to have.
But it’s not just military gear that cops have embraced. They’re also learning to think like soldiers. They take training courses with names like “On Killing”, where they learn how “to overcome the powerful resistance to kill,” a description of such cartoonish villainy that you wonder if it’s taught by a guy in an Emperor Palpatine mask. (The one that Jeronimo Yanez took was called “Bulletproof Warrior”.)
As long as cops have powerful weapons (and are trained to use those weapons whenever they feel threatened, which they are told should be “always”) innocent people are going to die. It is ridiculous to think that you can arm your police with a military-grade arsenal, tell them that everyone they see is a potential threat , and not have bloodshed in the streets. (Oddly enough, this was the part of the reasoning behind the original SWAT units: people realized high-powered weaponry didn’t belong in the hands of cops on the beat, and they had the authority to prevent cops from acquiring such weapons.) It may be a necessary evil to have some units of armed police, but they should be few, small, and lightly-armed with pistols, shotguns, and rifles (after all, “good guys with guns” seem to do just fine with these). In the event that unarmed police had to confront armed suspects, they would do what cops already do: call for backup.
And when those backup cars pull up, they should each be carrying at least one person who isn’t a cop. Every police unit should have a civilian observer present at all times. This is because the police, even according to polls of police officers, have proven themselves utterly incapable of policing themselves. Citizens need to have direct oversight over cops in the street, cops behind desks, and every cop in between. They need to be able to monitor police actions in real-time and intervene on behalf of their fellow citizens. They need to conduct their own investigations and inquiries, instead of relying on the “internal discipline” of a corrupt institution.
Cops will protest that this would make their jobs much more difficult. They’ll claim, quite rightly, that these observers are likely to be antagonistic and meddlesome. The more-literate types will pen angry op-eds, wailing that their mightiest efforts risk being stifled by rules and regulations.
But that’s the entire point of having actual, real-time oversight by a third party. A cop’s job is to coerce people on behalf of the state. We should be doing everything we can to make that job as difficult as possible. Cops are a fact of life, and it’s probably good for your mental health to just accept that. But we should treat the existence of police officers with vigilant and begrudging acceptance, nothing more. At the same time, we should take positive and concrete actions to mitigate the effects of this necessary evil. Creating a vast new workforce of active, engaged citizens to serve as police observers would be a good first step.
Imagine if your local police department stopped buying armored fighting vehicles and used that money to hire your elderly neighbor who can barely afford her medication, or the nice young couple next door with a mountain of student loans and a baby on the way. Might that be a more effective method of “outreach” than giving the K9 unit a Twitter account? And wouldn’t it be much easier to “build relationships with the community” if the community wasn’t cold and starving?
A serious overhaul of American policing requires a revolutionary attitude toward the country’s institutions. We have to see things clearly. We have to understand that law enforcement, at its absolute best, is a nuisance to be tolerated with gritted teeth. The police are inherently coercive and violent by the very nature of their work. Every American, especially those of us who love personal liberty and individual freedom, should be intensely distrustful of anyone who is authorized by the state to lock us in cages. We should do everything we can to limit their power over our lives.
None of this brings Philando Castile back. None of it absolves Jeronimo Yanez of the guilt he’ll carry till the day he dies. Nothing can ever cleanse American law enforcement of the innocent blood in which it is drenched.
But we still have to scrub.
A fund in Philando Castile’s name, “Philando Feeds The Children,” raises money to provide free school lunches to children who cannot afford them, continuing “Mr. Phil’s” legacy of generosity. You can donate here.