To Protect and Serve?

The same cycle of brutality needs more than the same old reaction. It's time to cut the bush, thorns and all.

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Since the statistics are not there to either confirm or dispel the notion, it becomes a question of beliefs. Do you believe police brutality is a deeply-embedded problem of urban police departments or not? I am sure that those of us who have been victims of police brutality and abuse believe it.

But for those of you who don’t, history should be a guide: There were more than 4,000 reported lynchings in a span of 50 years. The vicious execution of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago in 1969, the brutal beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the 41 bullets fired at Amadou Diallo, and the 50 bullets shot at Sean Bell. The more than 2,000 cases of killing by law enforcement in the 1990s chronicled in The Stolen Lives Project should show you that this is a ubiquitous, malignant cancer. The more than 4,000 and 2,000,000 results for police brutality videos on YouTube and Google, respectively, must finally reveal to you that merely calling for the cops to be fired and prosecuted is not nearly enough.

But that’s what continues to happen. Activists still keep making the same short-sighted demand that only serves as a Band-Aid as young, black males in America continue to bleed profusely from police cruelty. In Philadelphia, after four of the police officers who brutalized the three black men were fired on May 20, one Philadelphia activist told the New York Times, “The position of the citizens of Philadelphia is that the response…was not enough. We want all of the officers prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” Understandable goals: dismissal and imprisonment.

The next day, still waiting for the police murderers of Sean Bell to be fired and prosecuted, Rev. Al Sharpton urged New York’s mayor and police commissioner to “follow the lead” of the Philadelphia officials. Same obvious aims: dismissal and imprisonment.

We should be tired of the cycle: A video of police brutality surfaces. The black community demands that perpetrating cops be fired. Officers are fired, suspended or patted on the back. Non-dismissals lead to irritation. Firings produce satisfaction and a yearning for more. Black community then demands that officers be jailed. A lack of charges or exoneration generates sadness, anger and hopelessness. Convictions result in happiness and hopefulness that lasts about a week or so until the next video and the cycle begins anew.

This needs to stop! An additional set of demands needs to be put forth, involving a totally different way of holding the police accountable for their actions. One Human Rights Watch report published a decade ago remains relevant today, stating, “Police abuse remains one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the United States. The excessive use of force by police officers, including unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings and rough treatment, persists because overwhelming barriers to accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses.”

In an attempt to hold the police more accountable, many cities have organized citizen review boards to investigate allegations of brutality. But these have been around since the 1990s, and, based on the available statistics, the problem has only grown in that time, because these boards have no real power. In New York and Oakland, for example, after these boards find that someone has been abused, the disciplinary power still rests with the police commissioner.

The only way this problem will end is if these people who are supposed to be serving and protecting us come directly under our control. Every police department in urban America should be governed directly by the community they operate in. These police boards should be similar to school boards that control schools throughout America. This should be the loudest demand of black America every time there is an act of police brutality. We need a system that actually seeks to serve and protect us instead of brutalize and abuse us.

Ibram Rogers is a doctoral student in African-American studies at Temple University.