Can We Trust Law Enforcement?

I witnessed police brutality

Driving through Los Angeles in heavy traffic one afternoon, I heard helicopters flying overhead. Looking in my rear view mirror, I saw several police vehicles headed up the street I was on. It was a fairly typical scene in Los Angeles – nothing new.

The police cars all pulled into the parking lot of a shopping center to my right. I scanned the scene to see what might be going on.

I noticed a Latino man riding his bicycle casually through the parking lot.

One police SUV pulled up about 20 feet away. An officer jumped out of the vehicle and sprinted towards the man. The officer caught the man off guard and punched him on the side of the head, causing him to fall off his bicycle to the ground. The man got up and the officer began punching him in the face. The man put his hands up to block his face and try to deflect the punches. The office grabbed the man’s neck and shoulders to pull him down towards himself, and started kneeing him in the stomach. The officer then threw him to the ground, straddled him face down, and continued punching him in the head and body. 3 more officers then ran up, dog piled on the man and started punching him as well.

Traffic began moving again, and I didn’t see what happened afterwards.

I want to trust the police on this, but I just can’t

It was obvious the police had been chasing this man, since they all converged on this one parking lot. It was obvious the man presented no lethal threat, as no guns were drawn and no caution was taken. It was obvious that at this particular encounter, the man did not attempt to fight back, but instead got a beat down while trying to defend himself.

I want to believe that the police had a justifiable reason to use that level of force. I want to believe that perhaps there was a previous violent altercation with this man, and so they wanted to subdue him quickly. I want to believe that perhaps he had committed a violent crime, and so this kind of take down was necessary. I want to believe perhaps they did this to protect the public from potential harm.

But I didn’t see any request for him to surrender or get on the ground. I didn’t see him initiate any act of threat against the police. I didn’t see him fight back. I just saw a surprise sucker punch and a gang up on him. Whatever his crime or potential previous altercation, shouldn’t there still be a process of telling someone to surrender before attacking?

Have police officers been worthy of the trust we give them?

In most modern societies, we entrust the government with the task of law enforcement and give them the authority to use force. In political theory terms, this is known as a monopoly on violence.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. But maybe it is.

It essentially means that legally, only the government can use physical and lethal force, through the military and the police. It’s the foundation of the rule of law in most countries. Ordinary citizens don’t run around attacking people they suspect of crimes. We leave it to the authorities (the police) to investigate and arrest, and use force as necessary.

We trust them to hurt people for the common good, only as much as necessary.

Whether you agree with that or not, it’s how our society functions. So we’ve given law enforcement this trust, authority, and responsibility. Have they been worthy of it?

For the most part, I believe they have. In general, there is relative order and security. But then there are incidents like this, and much worse, that happen on a regular basis across the country.

Technology has forced transparency, but not accountability

I didn’t get a chance to video the incident. I was driving in heavy traffic and with my family in the car. There were bystanders that pulled out their phones and started recording, which I’m glad for, but they probably missed the initial punch and beating from the first police officer that I witnessed.

Technology has changed the public’s view of police by unearthing dirty secrets. We’ve always suspected that there would be incidents of racism and corruption, but never to this extent.

Camera phones enable every citizen to be a first-hand eyewitness and reporters before the news outlets can even arrive. Body cameras reveal a first-person perspective of what officers are seeing and doing. Social media enables a local story to be elevated to a national and global issue.

What would previously be a local news report based solely on what police tell the media, now becomes a global debate from actual footage captured by regular citizens and shared exponentially.

The damning videos of racial bias, falsely planting evidence, unnecessary force, and unjustified lethal shootings has quickly eroded trust in police. It’s not that this is happening more now than before – that would be a naive conclusion. The sad reality is that this has always happened, particular in poor minority neighborhoods.

But placing a camera phone in everyone’s hands has enabled the public to capture these incidents for the world to see. It’s shocking to realize the extent and the frequency that police corruption and brutality occur. But what is more unsettling is the thought of how much this has happened in the past that we will never know about because the technology didn’t exist to capture it.

Yet even as video evidence forces a certain level of transparency on law enforcement – a transparency that they have resisted – the lack of accountability for these actions is what ultimately severs the public’s trust.

Most officers are good, but is that good enough?

I believe most police officers are good people doing good work. For every viral video of police wrongdoing, there are many more of officers serving their community. In a previous career I worked with LAPD, and they were good people.

Yet the police department is not seen as individuals – it is seen as an entity. So each incident of corruption and police brutality affects the community’s view of police officers as a whole.

It’s unfair to good police officers. The profession is an inherently dangerous one and a traditionally noble one. Public trust is essential for police officers to perform their jobs well, and eroded trust makes their jobs more difficult and dangerous.

Yet the culture of protecting your own, though useful for camaraderie in the field, creates a toxic environment of shielding bad officers. Police sanction each other’s bad behavior. When it is exposed to the public, they run their own internal investigations. When there are convictions, they receive lenient sentencing.

The misguided attempts by law enforcement to protect themselves end up being the very actions that fracture their most valuable asset: public trust.

I don’t know the full story of what happened that day. I don’t have any background or context. I don’t know police procedure. I just saw what I saw, and something about this police beating seemed wrong. And I trust the police a little less than I did before.

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