This past week has sped by so quickly for me–as is evident by the fact that I’m writing this on Monday rather than the usual Friday–so I only heard in passing about the incident between a police officer and a high school student in South Carolina, and I only managed to read anything about it yesterday. But I did hear a discussion about a related issue on the radio later in the week, and during this talk, the interviewee discussed the issue of police violence, in particular in relation to persons of colour. Racial prejudice in the police force was something which needed to be addressed, he said.
And I thought at the time, isn’t it weird how we talk about police as this separate entity? We see them as a group of their own, the them to our us. But of course they’re not. Not only are they part of our society, living and working and dealing with similar issues to the rest of us, but they also reflect the opinions of the wider public. We expect police to behave in a certain way, just because they uphold the law, but the majority of us are also law-abiding. So what makes them so different?
It’s true that we hold them up as role models, in the same way that we expect other certain members of our society to be good role models. Members of clergy, teachers, those in management, politicians–for better or worse, we expect these people to have high ethical standards. I think that’s why we’re so disappointed when any of them is discovered to have been involved in unethical activities, from child abuse to money laundering.
So while perhaps it’s not a bad thing to expect the best of our politicians, priests, or police, we have to be aware that they’re not living in a vacuum. We might want them to represent the best of who we are, but I don’t know that that’s possible. For one thing, we’re asking them to be humble, while giving them power. This means they are in a position where they are supposed to serve, but they also have the capacity to make life difficult for others, to exert control over others. Who hasn’t seen a police car in the rear view mirror and automatically worry that they might pull you over, even when you know you’re not doing anything wrong?
It’s also true that within a society, there exist subcultures, and those are as likely to occur in social or cultural groups, as they are within organisations such as police departments or schools. In such environments, certain behaviour is considered acceptable, where it might be frowned upon in the wider community. There’s no doubt that in certain police departments, racism might be more prevalent than in others. But the underlying prevalence of racism in the rest of the society means that this not such a an unusual situation. It just seems like it, because we expect that police are Not Like Us.
So when police are racist, we shouldn’t be surprised. We should see it as a reflection of our own racism. And if we’re going to change the attitude of police, then we need to change our own. It’s good to have respect for those who work hard to keep the peace and ensure that the law is being followed. But we shouldn’t put them on such a high pedestal that we lose sight of who they are: human beings with as much potential for good traits as for undesirable ones. If we demand that police improve their regulations and their behaviour in terms of respect for everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin or their position in society, they we need to ensure that we’re doing that ourselves, on a daily basis. We need to nip racism in the bud wherever we see it, rather than expecting our policy-makers, and those who carry out the policy, to take care of it for us.
With regards to the incident in South Carolina, there are so many other issues going on. Why police are needed in schools in the first place; why the police officer was so angry and why he let himself get so wound up by the student’s actions; why breaking the rule of using a mobile phone in the classroom escalated so quickly to the point that a teenager was thrown upside down and dragged across the floor. And yet the conversation has largely been about the police officer. Obviously that’s important! But it’s not the only problem. It simply serves to highlight all the others.
We tend to like to see these incidents of police violence in a vacuum, because that way, it’s easy to put all the blame on someone else. On the officer in question, on the police as a whole. But nobody likes to talk about the big picture–the undercurrent of prejudice which exists for so many and which means they’ll struggle to finish high school, or get the job to which they aspire. Police officers, as much as they might try to overcome it, and as much as some do, still belong to the society which allows this prejudice to flourish.
In every way, police should be held accountable for their actions when something like this occurs, as well as when they do the right thing, which is, for the majority of them, and for the majority of the time, what they do. But as usual, if we want anything to change, we need to start at home, and I imagine for many people who are outraged about this, they’re just not prepared to do that. After all, it’s ever so easy to criticise from the end of the internet, and when you’re not on the other side of the line.