By Ruth Marcus
Every day — every night, to be more precise — more bad apples roll before our eyes. The video is horrifying; the camera unflinching. So, more Americans — white Americans, even Republican Americans, a majority of Americans except, it seems, those who work behind fortified barricades for President Trump — have come to understand: The problem of policing is not individual apples, but bushels full of them. It is a diseased tree.
A diseased tree with three infected and intertwined branches that each must be lopped off. The worst, by far, is systemic racism in police departments nationwide — and here perhaps the arboreal metaphor fails, and the disease is in the trunk itself, if not in the soil of our national history. The second is the embedded culture of brutality and tolerance of brutality among police officers. The third, connected to the second, is the militarization of police departments, with combat-style equipment designed for battlefields and heedlessly deployed in American streets, that reinforces this culture of violence and, as Trump would have it, “domination.”
Those who were inclined, who had the distance — and, yes, the privilege — to be inclined to give officers and departments the benefit of the doubt can no longer soothe themselves with the illusion that these are random, unrepresentative incidents. Technology in the form of omnipresent video cameras has conclusively ended that debate. Those who are white can no longer rest comfortably in the fiction that this is a problem confined to the other. The affected communities will no longer tolerate the murderous knee on the neck, nor should they; the ensuing outrage consumes us all. As it should. As it must.
And while there should be no doubt that police brutality has a racial cast, there is also no doubt that lighter skin offers no absolute immunity. Witness the violent assault Monday on peaceful protesters of every hue at Lafayette Square. Witness the unprovoked shoving Thursday of 75-year-old Martin Gugino by police officers during a demonstration in Buffalo: Officers push Gugino, shove a baton into him, his head hits the pavement, he is motionless and bleeding, and the officers march on. We are not all George Floyd now, because not all of us are at similar risk. But all of us are at some risk when police believe they can act like this.
The gratifying news is that the public gets it, more than ever before. A new ABC News/Ipsos poll finds that three-fourths of those surveyed believe Floyd’s killing is not an isolated incident but part of a broader problem in the treatment of African Americans by police. This number includes more than a majority — 55 percent — of Republicans.
The shift is remarkable. Just six years ago, after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the death of Eric Garner after he was put in a chokehold by New York City police, just 43 percent thought the incidents signified a broader problem, compared with 74 percent today.
No single measure will suffice to fix the situation; many individual steps can help. Training to create a police culture of intervention against out-of-control colleagues, not a blue wall of silence. Swift — and, where appropriate, criminal — consequences, as in the charges against the former Minneapolis Police Department officers in Floyd’s killing, or the immediate suspension without pay of the officers in Buffalo. Revamping police union contracts to end unwarranted protections for violent officers, including shielding their disciplinary records from public view and making it difficult to remove them. Restoring the Justice Department’s role — abandoned by the Trump administration — in reshaping the behavior of rogue departments. Reconsidering the doctrine of qualified immunity that has shielded officers from civil liability for their abuses.
And demilitarizing police departments. Under a 1997 law, more than $7 billion in surplus military equipment, from grenade launchers to armored vehicles, has been transferred at no cost to local police departments. Boys with toys are too tempted to use them, and these toys are lethal. As researchers Ryan Welch and Jack Mewhirter explained in 2017, even controlling for household income, population characteristics and violent crime levels, “more-militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more civilians killed each year by police.” In short, “Militarization makes every problem — even a car of teenagers driving away from a party — look like a nail that should be hit with an AR-15 hammer.” President Barack Obama issued an executive order in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests limiting what equipment could be transferred; Trump revoked it during his first year in office.
Which suggests another necessary element of the solution: a president who will help change the culture of brutal and racist policing, not reinforce it. Not send out his national security adviser to contend that the problem is limited to “a few bad apples that have given law enforcement a bad name.” Acknowledging the scope and nature of the disease is an essential precondition to curing it.