Donald Trump stomped into Minneapolis on October 19, 2019, to hold another of his campaign-style “Keep America Great” rallies. Prior to his rambling speech, he invited Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the local police union, to take the stage and address the large crowd.
“The mayor said the President wasn’t welcome, but the Police Federation of Minneapolis begs to differ,” Kroll warned. “The Obama administration and the handcuffing and oppression of police was despicable. The first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around … he decided to start let cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of [on] us.”
Kroll wore a bright red “Cops for Trump” T-shirt and discussed how Trump supports police departments across the country as they encounter increased scrutiny following years of high-profile police shootings.
He encouraged police officers to wear “Cops for Trump” symbols on their uniforms even though local ordinances ban police from wearing uniforms that support political candidates.
With the increased visibility of police officers killing unarmed people of color, the wide-scale demonstrations of outrage throughout the country, and spotty investigations by the Justice Department into allegations of racial bias in policing, a few law enforcement agencies are attempting to improve relations with the communities they are meant to serve.
The Dallas Police Department, for example, for many years has undertaken steps to improve its community relations with remarkable results.
Racism in the hiring practices and policies of police departments represent much larger forces in our country. Police killings of black and brown people cannot be dismissed as simply the actions of a few individuals “bad cops.” Oppression exists on multiple levels in multiple forms.
These officers live in a society that not-so-subtly promotes intolerance, imposes stigma, and perpetuates violence. The incidents must be seen as symptoms of larger systemic national problems.
“The ruling class has…needed people to control those on the bottom. Some of the largest male occupations are police, security guards, prison wardens, immigration officials, deans and administrators, soldiers, members of the National Guard and state militias, and, of course, the father of the family as the disciplinarian.” –Paul Kivel, You Call This a Democracy?
The current demonstrations throughout the country protesting police brutality highlight the longstanding tensions between cops and the communities they are meant to serve. An essential question that must eventually be answered, however, is: “Whose interests do they actually serve?”
In communities where police killings occur most frequently, officers come primarily from similar socioeconomic classes of the people they patrol (middle and working-class), while not necessarily from similar ethnic, cultural, racial, or gender backgrounds.
What we are witnessing is an intra-class conflict in the service of the wealthy ruling class.
While the vast majority of police officers enter law enforcement to assist the public and support their own families, as guardians of ruling class interests, officers from the middle and working classes serve, often unconsciously, as enforcers for the ruling class through surveillance and control, and by keeping the potentially unruly hoards at bay.
The concept of “social reproduction” asserts that social institutions reproduce social inequities that exist in the larger society, especially in terms of socioeconomic class and race. While officers enter law enforcement with completely good intentions, they bring with them their past socialization.
So, where did they learn these attitudes that they are reproducing? They most certainly did not invent or create these negative belief systems. Rather, we all are born into a society that teaches us these biases.
These systemic inequities are pervasive throughout society. They are encoded into the individual’s consciousness and woven into the fabric of our social institutions, resulting in a stratified social order privileging dominant groups while restricting and disempowering marginalized groups.
Though usually subtle, the process by which systemic racism reproduces itself into law enforcement can also at times express itself quite blatantly. Take, for example, the North Miami Beach Police Department in Florida.
What members of the Florida National Guard found a few years ago when they showed up at a shooting range for their annual weapons qualifying training shocked and angered them. Before they arrived, the North Miami Beach Police Department conducted sniper training at the site using mug shots of African American men for target practice, and for some reason, they failed to remove the pictures.
For Guard Sergent Valerie Deant, this was extremely traumatic. One of the hanging mug shots was of her brother, Woody Deant, with a clear bullet hole in one of his eyes and another in the center of his forehead.
The Police Department took Woody Deant’s mug shot in 2000 after his arrest for drag racing that resulted in the death of two people. He served a 4-year prison sentence and today is a respected member of his community.
North Miami Beach Police Chief, J. Scott Dennis, defended the practice of using actual photographs in target practice because, he argued, it is important for facial recognition drills. All the faces profiled were of African-Americans.
A Florida news station contacted a number of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to determine whether this type of training is a widespread practice. Every law enforcement agency contacted stated they use only commercially produced targets, rather than photographs of human beings.
Why did Chief Dennis believe it to be a good policy to further target (literally and figuratively) people who have paid for their past mistakes? Does this not, in fact, promote racial profiling and produce further distrust of police departments by the communities they are meant to serve?
Does this practice produce some sort of sadistic thrill on the part of the trainees? And if so, does it transfer when shooting real people?
By challenging social institutions such as law enforcement agencies, we are taking a necessary step in reducing and, one day, eliminating cultural bias to ensure that they work for everyone. But this is not enough.
White privilege is perpetuated and enhanced on many levels: personal, interpersonal, institutional, and society-wide. We much look into the mirror at ourselves as well. Especially for white people, we must come to realize our social conditioning and the ways we have internalized racism.
At this crossroads in our collective national consciousness, we have an opportunity to address the legacy of a divide on which this country was founded and move forward from the abyss and into a better future. If not, we will continue to repeat our greatest failures.