There are roughly 800,000 sworn law enforcement officers in the United States.
In the wake of the February 2020 murder of George Floyd and a series of other recent high profile police homicides against African-Americans, a recent Gallup poll shows that public confidence in the nation’s police has sunk to its lowest level in decades. Less than half of the Americans surveyed said they had “confidence” in law enforcement police.
Historical Use of Police Force
Since the establishment of the first police force in Boston in 1838, police forces have existed to protect the ruling class from the working class, especially along racial lines. This was evidenced by the brutality the police used to control the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, the Ludlow massacre of 1914, the Great Steel Strike of 1919, and the Hanapepe massacre of 1924.
More recent evidence that the police serve the interest of establishment is evident in the Trump-inspired brutality the police exhibit in controlling the Black Lives Matter protests across the country in the wake of the George Floyd murder. While we occasionally hear about an officer performing a heroic act exceeding their professional duty, we more often than not hear about an officer or officers killing Americans for little or no reason at all.
The problem is that there is no measurable way to tell the difference between “good cops” and “bad cops.” Career law enforcement officials would have us believe that there are just a few “bad apples” in law enforcement ranks, and removing them would open the door to credible “policing reforms.”
Narrative of a Few Bad Apples Persists
In a May 31, 2020 interview with CNN” s Jake Tapper, President Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said, “We have got great law enforcement officers, not – not the few bad apples, like the officer [Derek Chauvin] that killed George Floyd. But we got a few bad apples that have given – given law enforcement a bad name.”
Historic Systemic Racism
The police reform issue, we believe, runs much deeper than identifying and removing the bad apples. It is the barrel of rotten apples, infected with historic systemic racism, that stands in the way of meaningful policing reforms. This proposition is supported by the 100 studies, surveys and investigations Washington Post opinion columnist Radley Balko has compiled showing just how prevalent systemic racism is in policing throughout this nation.
1977: Police Officers Not Held Accountable
Take, for example, a June 13, 1977 headline in the Washington Post that read, “Police in Houston Pictured as Brutal and Unchecked.” Houston was the nation’s fifth-largest city and boasted of being a conservative “law and order” city. Famed Houston criminal defense attorney, Percy Foreman, who represented high profile clients across the country, saw the “law and order” disguise for what it was. He told Post reporter Tom Curtis precisely what he thought of the city’s police department:
“‘We are a police state,’ Houston’s celebrated criminal defense lawyer, Percy Foreman, says simply.
“He amplifies: ‘This is the case here more so than in any other city in the United States, and I’ve practiced in just about all of them. It even transcends the police state situation that prevails in some of the totalitarian countries.
“‘You must understand that there is no difference between human nature here in the U.S. and what existed in Germany, or Czechoslovakia, or where have you. The only brake on brutality and sadism and an I-am-the-law attitude, the only brake on that here is the Constitution of the United States.
“‘If a district attorney elects not to enforce it against police officers, as [is] traditional in Harris County, nothing can be done to turn the situation around.'”
2013: Police Brutality Goes Unpunished
Fast forward to a September 4, 2013 headline carried in the Texas Observer, “The Horror Every Day: “Police Brutality in Houston Goes Unpunished.” This Jo DePrang written article pointed out that half of all police stops by the Houston Police Department were against African-Americans, although they represented one-quarter of the city’s population. DePrang added that the police openly engaged in “racial profiling” that resulted in searches of vehicles of African-Americans at rates four times more often than white drivers.
Again, fast forward to January 2020, when a local television ABC News affiliate ran this headline on its online news site, “6 former HPD officers charged with 15 felonies linked to deadly botched raid.” What has become known as the “botched Harding Street raid” left a married couple dead at the hands of the police who were acting like a quasi-military force. One of the officers charged in this group, Gerald Goines, was indicted last year for felony murder in connection with the botched raid.
Evidence that the police exist—and have always existed—to protect the ruling class from the working class can be found cases like the Harding Street raid and killing of Beonna Taylor, who’s family has yet to see justice. There is no way Houston police would have conducted a “no-knock” police raid on any residence in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, it just doesn’t happen.
This no-knock, no-nonsense “law and order” style of policing was endorsed by budget increases to police departments in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Austin was the only department to see a recent budget reduction.
Calls for Investigations and Studies Fail to Yield Results
In an August 12, 2020 article in The Crime Report, criminal justice experts Gregory D. Squires and James Austin asked:
“Are there any studies where scholars/investigators have systematically followed a random sample of police officers over a period of time and documented their behavior – both good and bad? Is there a dataset containing the number and percentage of officers who have had complaints against them upheld, which shows only a tiny percentage have had conflicts with the communities they serve?
“Do we have surveys of various police departments and communities they serve that show no differences across cities in terms of police-community problems and where just a handful of officers are involved in those issues that have arisen?
“The answer to these questions is simply ‘no.’
“There has been scholarly research and investigations about the ‘blue code of silence,’ ‘blue shield,’ ‘blue flu’ and more recently about a ‘Ferguson effect’—where officers refuse to fulfill their sworn duties—which does suggest there is a dark culture at play.
“Going back at least to the 1968 Kerner Commission report which examined police practices nationwide, Peter Maas’s biography and subsequent movie of New York police officer Frank Serpico’s attempt to root out police corruption in that city in the 1970s and, more recently, investigations into the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, the Michael Brown shooting in St. Louis and many other incidents, the U.S. Department of Justice, among others, have called for wide-ranging reforms on hiring and training of police, de-escalation techniques, use of force, and more.
“Charges of systemic racism have been leveled with increasing frequency in recent weeks, culminating in calls to defund and eliminate police forces as presently constituted. But countering those claims is the still-dominant ‘few bad apples’ narrative.
“Clearly, we need to find out how many bad apples there are.”
The “bad apples” will not be discovered, much less rooted out, while state and local police departments—and more recently federal law enforcement agencies—remain mired in their historical mission: protect the ruling class from the working class, white folks from people of color. The police must exist to “protect and serve” all peoples—not just those who look like those living in the ruling class.