Several years ago, a friend of mine was pulled over by the police a few blocks from her house in Milwaukee while driving home from the airport following a business trip. Her crime? A few unpaid parking tickets. When my friend expressed dismay that they would bother to pull her over for such a minor infraction, the cops called for a paddy wagon. When it arrived, they told her to exit her car, handcuffed her, and shoved her into the van. Stunned, my friend first offered to write a check for the unpaid tickets. When that didn't win her release, she became agitated, asking about her rights as a citizen and suggesting that they must have something more important to do than arrest her.
That's when one of the officers turned around to address my friend: "Does anyone in the world know where you are right now? You better shut up or they're going to find you face down in the river."
My friend is white. She has a Ph.D. She earns a decent living at a world-renowned university. And for the remainder of her ride in the back of the paddy wagon, she had very good reason to fear for her life.
Americans are known the world over for their suspicion of state power. The War for Independence began as a tax revolt and coalesced around fears of a tyrant's "long train of abuses and usurpations." Today the liberal left warns about government surveillance and overweening executive power. The post-Reagan conservative right rallies around the slogan that government is the source, and not the solution, to our problems.
But then why do we increasingly allow the cops to behave like unaccountable overlords?
Yes, Ferguson is about race. (I've explored that aspect of it myself.) But it's also, and maybe more fundamentally, about our disproportionate deference to the cops.
I should be clear that I'm not at all a cop-hater. I have great respect for the crucially important, often dangerous work they do to keep order in an often chaotic country.
But that doesn't mean that cops deserve an unconditional benefit of the doubt, which is what we too often give them.
As Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, grand juries nearly always decide to indict — unless the perpetrator is an on-duty law-enforcement official. In such cases, the jury goes in the diametrically opposite direction and nearly always lets the perp off without a trial. This is true even when the act of violence leads to death, even when the confrontation was the result of police error, and even when the victim was (like Michael Brown) unarmed and therefore of no serious threat to the officer in question.
How often does this happen? Chase Madar of The Nation reports that last year there were 461 "justifiable homicides" in the United States — that's how the FBI (revealingly) categorizes deaths at the hands of law enforcement — which is "the highest number in two decades, even as the nation's overall homicide rate continues to drop." Since those figures are tabulated based on data voluntarily submitted to the FBI by local law enforcement, the true numbers are probably higher. (A crowdsourced website and wiki page attempt to compile more accurate data, while muckraking journalists do their best to publicize acts of police violence when they happen.)
This means that the police killed at least 461 people last year — that's an average of more than one person per day for every day of the year. And because grand juries nearly always side with law enforcement, those deaths were, by definition, "justifiable homicides."
If you're a cop in the United States, you can quite literally get away with murder.
Let me be clear: this doesn't mean with any certainty that all, most, many, a few, or even any of those 461 deaths were unjustified. Maybe none of them were.
But here's the dumbfounding fact: we just don't know.
The refusal to indict the perpetrators — the granting to cops of an a priori presumption of virtue that no one else in our culture enjoys — guarantees that there will be no trial, no public presentation of evidence, no verdict, and therefore no accounting made of how many people end up dead (or seriously injured) by mistake or malice at the hands of law enforcement.
How on earth can a nation that claims to care about individual rights to life and liberty permit such a travesty to continue?
It's especially galling when the solutions are so obvious.
For starters, we might put video cameras on cops to record their interactions and altercations with citizens.
Then there are the incorrigibly pro-cop attitudes of ordinary citizens, which have to change. Of course there's nothing wrong with admiring and expressing gratitude for the work police officers do. But shouldn't it also be part of our civic education to inculcate a healthy suspicion of people we empower to enforce order on our streets with live ammunition? Shouldn't we expect that citizens impaneled on grand juries will usually opt for indictment in cases where a cop is implicated in the death of an unarmed man or woman, if only to establish the facts and enable our society to take public stock of what happened?
Otherwise we're in the land of ominous conspiracies, mysterious disappearances, and well-armed, unaccountable agents of the state.
And that sounds downright un-American to me.