It's time to talk about that thin blue line...
It’s time to talk about how we ended up with a thin blue line.
Many Americans today find themselves acutely disillusioned with their local police forces. Those in our communities with additional life experience should be more upset about the evolution than the younger generations, if only because they have memories to call upon of a starkly different reality. I’m of an age that landed me on the tail end of that experience, so I too have memories of the days when a police officer was the first person to call for help. Whose youth was full of reinforcements from family, and the community about the respect and honor owed to our trusted community authorities. Like many other people I was told only the best people become cop’s, that they operated using the highest moral compass possible, and that they bore a burden that most do not yet would always rise to the occasion. I thought they would protect and serve, that they would help those in need, and that they would always come to restore peace and order. Back then, I believed every word of it. Today, I know better, both from my own experience and from my research. Today, I hesitate to call 911, because I don’t know if the person showing up will be a friend or a foe, and it’s just not worth the risk.
I’m certainly not the only one exploring this issue, both in mainstream and online media; however the coverage of the issue seems stubbornly stuck on simply trying to convince disbelievers, that it’s a reality. While I understand this is a vital element to engaging in dialogue, it has proven to be an uphill battle that we simply don’t have time for. Getting lost in statistical analysis, verbal duals over exceptions to rules, and individual experience driven debates is a tangential dialogue that will get us no closer to addressing the real issue. I do encourage people take the time to read the statistics, it will help to better understand the reality that many Americans live through every day. And, I will also note that I see the source of the uphill battle as mainly an issue of perceptions of the world, that are based on drastically different life experiences. Basically, we are all so separated from each other, that we lack understanding and thus empathy for those outside our world view.
But, I want to tackle this issue not from the view point of proving existence, but from the view point of why. Maybe the key to discussing this issue without making some groups of people uncomfortable is to turn the microscope away from those individuals. They are after all, just the administrators of the justice system. So, let’s focus on the structure and driving force of the system itself. Unraveling a why, is a deeper endeavor by far, and requires a willingness to go as far back in history as the question requires. This in itself is a practice that is so lacking in our society, that we have begun repeating historical mistakes at an alarming pace. For that you can thank corporations, generations of poor educational models, mainstream media, the entertainment industry, and of course governmental bodies. That is a tangent worthy of its own article, but those are just the mechanisms of support, the how, and they do not lead to why we might have a corrupted policing system.
Creation: It seems logical to start with creation; it wasn't until the mid 1800’s that the lawlessness in the country became unbearable enough to create a regulatory body. “The first official police department in the US was established in New York City in 1844, with other cities following suit.”
Corruption and Reform: Our American ancestors did not have to wait long, before they were called upon to demand reform from the blossoming justice system. Nor were they called upon to do so just once, instead history (and google) shows a repeating cycle of corruption and reform that started shortly after the creation of the institution. One that continues right on up to our current state of militarized police forces, which I assure you, is to the financial and tactical benefit of certain power structures. The history of corruption and reform peaks can be loosely summarized as such; Police are born in 1844, Corruption peaks in 1877, Reform peaks in 1913, Corruption peaks in the 1930’s, Reform peaks in the 1950’s, Corruption peaks in the 1960’s, Reform peaks in the 1970’s, Corruption peak’s in the 1980’s, Reform peaks in the 2000
Consequences: The end result of maintaining rather than completely reforming our justice system is that we will always end up here, in desperate need of reform. In our current day of apathy we also find ourselves unable to even have an honest dialogue about the fact we keep ending up in this situation. We will continue on in this cycle, always having to fight for our rights, rather than achieving the balanced justice system that people actually want. An additional consequence to note is a clear schism of realities that occurred in our historical timeline of corruption. Starting in the first reform period, the experience of the average white person (or financially successful person of color), began to diverge from the experience of the average person of color (& financially challenged white person). This separation of life realities is certainly a root of our society’s inability to reconcile itself with a universal truth. I also see it as a crystal clear example of how class disparities, are transposed upon racial disparities. The real consequences of both are that all are affected but some are inevitably affected more, based on the levels of disparities one is born into. Layer upon layer of disparities applied over generations, has brought us to a society that operates on a strict privilege system, one that still has white men at the top. This system separates us from each other by causing drastically different life experiences for people living in the same environment. It also drives us to fight among ourselves rather than uniting towards a common foe. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say it is a man’s fault to be born in white skin. They did not choose to start themselves off on the highest possible rung of the privilege ladder of life. Though, one could argue that they do have a birthright of sorts, one of service to leveling the playing field of a system that empowers them with the most ability to do so. Which brings us back to the police, for they have a similar responsibility born of inherited authority and power, but are also trapped in a system that rewards corruption and greed.
The Why: The why of our current police state, can be found in our simultaneous embrace of the British model, and our divergence from its crucial element of centralization. We instituted a broken system that is exceedingly vulnerable to manipulation on the municipal, county, state, and federal levels. Due to its decentralized nature it lacks consistent standards in both structure and application. Its autonomous application lacks the oversight, as well as the proper incentive and punishment system, needed to achieve the desired outcome. This is not to say each and every cop, and each and every level of policing is incapable of doing the right thing. But, very few of them have any incentive to do so. On the contrary, they are presented with a long standing historical pattern of corruption. One so normalized, that most enforcement bodies have in large part become complacent. Not unlike our political system, the police system is sort of running on auto pilot. I imagine those within it feel as powerless to effect change, as those of us on the outside of it.
What now: Now that we have identified that the system lacks the structure needed to carry out it’s true mandate for we the people, maybe we can begin to have a conversation about what we as a society really want from those we designate as peacekeepers. From there we can talk about the steps needed to remake an inherently broken system, into one that will not only support the individuals who choose to enter the field, but also demand they accept all of the responsibilities that should come with the authority we have entrusted them with. Solutions will become abundant, once we recognize it is the systems we give authority to that divide us, not really our differences as people. Actions and change will begin to happen once we can all sit down at the table and have some frank and honest discussions, about how to build systems of authority that run on integrity instead of corruption.
*Photo credit: Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_zarja'>zarja / 123RF Stock Photo</a>