Washington Evening Journal
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The death of a black man named George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has prompted protests across the country and even in our little corner of the world here in southeast Iowa, with the Black Lives Matter protest in Fairfield drawing an estimated 400 people.
Since Floyd's death on May 25, we've seen Minneapolis and numerous other cities rocked by senseless arson and looting that serves no purpose but to destroy the property of innocent people. And we're talking about more than property destruction. Many small business owners can't afford insurance, so the loss of their shop is a threat to their livelihood.
I think it's important to make a clear distinction between rioters causing mayhem and the peaceful demonstrators, who make up the overwhelming majority of the protesters. In fact, I've seen several videos of black protesters confronting the (often white) vandals who are using the protests as an excuse to commit mischief.
Unfortunately, I've also seen plenty of acts of violence by police against peaceful protesters, pepper-spraying individuals already lying on the ground, hitting protesters with batons in Los Angeles, firing tear gas at demonstrators in Washington, D.C. to clear a path for a presidential photo op. One particular instance that has generated a firestorm occurred in Buffalo, New York, where a 75-year-old man can be seen attempting to talk to police in riot gear when a couple of officers push him, causing him to fall backward and hit his head on the ground. Though blood can be seen coming from his head, officers do not stop to help him but continue walking.
Before we go any further, we must remember that just as we should not malign all protesters because some in the crowd are looters, we should not malign all police officers because some use excessive force. We shouldn't base our attitudes on policing on the most viral videos of police misconduct. These are anecdotes, not data.
That said, some anecdotes can tell us more than what's captured on film. They can tell us about prevailing attitudes and standards of behavior. For instance, many of the videos of police misconduct occur when the officers are surrounded by other police, in large crowds where there are many witnesses, and in some cases even journalists holding video cameras have been targeted. In Minnesota, where the protests started, Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske and photographer Carolyn Cole were tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets even though both were wearing press credentials and identified themselves as journalists. Even if we're talking about just a handful of 'bad apple” officers who are guilty of this excessive force, it's clear from their behavior that they expect to get away with it.
What can we do about that? Lots of proposals have been floated in the two weeks since these protests began about how to reform policing. Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Libertarian Justin Amash of Michigan and Democrat Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, have co-sponsored a bill to end qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations. This bill is supported by a left-right coalition of both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Republican Liberty Caucus, but we'll see if it has legs once it reaches the House floor.
Peter Suderman writes in Reason Magazine that police unions fight for language in their contracts that makes it difficult to hold officers accountable, by giving them privileges not afforded to the rest of the public.
'For example, the contracts often prevent officers from being questioned quickly after incidents and often give them access to information not accessible to private citizens,” Suderman writes.
Writing for the blog Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok suggests delegating work now given to armed police officers, such as road safety, to unarmed agents he calls the 'safety patrol.”
'Put the safety patrol in bright yellow cars and have them carry a bit of extra gasoline and jumper cables to help stranded motorists as part of their job - make road safety nice,” Tabarrok writes.
Tabarrok argues that many violent encounters between the police and public start with innocuous traffic stops but turn deadly when, at some point, the officer feels their life is in danger and shoots the driver, which is what happened in the killing of Philando Castile. By reducing these interactions between armed officers and the public, we can eliminate these tragic events.
Although my interactions with law enforcement have been nothing but positive, not everyone has had that same experience. By taking steps toward greater accountability, we can repair relations between law enforcement and the wider society.