The strengths and weaknesses of a democratic system
The tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in Minneapolis has triggered an ongoing cacophony of events that display, simultaneously, the strengths and the pitfalls of America’s pluralist, representative democracy. Not all of these events, starting with Mr Floyd’s manslaughter, can be explained exclusively by the lens of race.
It is indeed a testament to the enduring strength of the American constitution’s Bill of Rights that huge protests have erupted across the length and breadth of the country demanding accountability of police behaviour and not resulted in a widespread crackdown to shut these demonstrations down.
Most of these protests have included speakers who have viciously condemned powerful politicians, government ministers, the president, governors, and mayors while the newspapers and broadcast networks have openly carried these messages. That is how free speech works in a real democracy. Imagining such kind of citizen outpouring in places like Cuba, Bangladesh, or Iran would require a suspension of both belief and of evidence for an unbiased observer.
The furore and fervour generated by these protests is already having concrete policy impact with governors and mayors modifying police use-of-force protocols; in fact, the state of Colorado changed laws by entirely revamping the liability protections for police misconduct. The mayors, legislators, and governors in these cases are acutely aware that being indifferent to ramped up public concerns about policing can have costs at the ballot box; again, this is a reflection of a system where elections are largely free, fair, competitive, and reflective of the public mood instead of being decided weeks before the first ballot is cast and the first polling station “captured” by ruling party “student fronts.”
In once again reexamining the institutional and policy structures that have given rise to a level of police misconduct that is troubling for a first world democracy, the various levels of American decision-makers will be looking at the dimension of race, but hopefully they will be looking at more because race alone does not explain the phenomenon of high-handed policing in the various corners of America.
Some of the largest municipal police forces in America -- Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis (yes … the same Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed), and Boston among them -- are led by chiefs who are non-white; about a third of rank and file policemen and policewomen in America are non-white. The mayor of almost every big city in America is a liberal or progressive, often elected with tremendous support of minorities.
Studies are also muddled about the role of race: A 2016 Yale University paper by Roland Fryer found that race played a negligible role in police initiated shootings while a 2020 analysis of the data by Nature magazine found that non-white men were more likely to be stopped by police for the same suspected infractions as their white counterparts. Much more data is needed to get a fuller picture on race and policing in America.
Where there is more clarity in the police culture, regardless of the colour of skin clothed in that uniform. A culture of impunity -- though certainly not to the extent found in nondemocratic societies -- permeates contemporary police ethos in the United States, largely thanks to a 1967 Supreme Court decision creating, out of thin air, the concept “qualified immunity” that shielded police misconduct from most ordinary civil suits.
Complementing this problem has been the subservient nature of big city politicians -- many of them liberals -- who have ceded increasingly large chunks of management’s disciplinary authority to police labour unions whose main job is often to protect rogue cops from being disciplined by supervisors or taken to task by prosecutors who, being elected, are leery of annoying their law enforcement counterparts in uniform to begin with.
The pressure of the labour unions and need for cheap patronage votes by the mostly liberal politicians has also resulted in mediocre basic standards for recruitment into most police forces; it shocks many people to learn the most common requirement for recruitment into a city police force in America is a high school education, not a university degree.
In many smaller police departments, infractions with the law are no bars to recruitment and, often, policemen let go for misconduct in one department are hired by other departments in a veritable merry-go-round of rogue officers back on the beat.
None of this is to assert that race -- on part of both the police and the public -- does not play a major part in the painful legacy surrounding modern policing in America. Indeed, race is a significant issue; but so is a policing culture that has been shaped by bizarre judicial decisions, out of control public employee unions, and feckless politicians. For meaningful reform, all those issues have to be tackled holistically rather than piecemeal.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reachd at [email protected]