All of Baltimore came to a halt on April 25 as protesters took to the streets to express their outrage over police mistreatment leading to death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. The public responded with violence and rage as a story all too familiar to the American public unfolded. Just a few months ago, the name was Michael Brown and the place was Ferguson; before that, Trayvon Martin’s death sparked protests across the nation. The message is clear: there is an epidemic of police violence against young black men, and political action is necessary.
Black lives do matter. Yet we in our country suffer under a police force infected with established and well-trained prejudice against minority groups. The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics states that 39.4 percent of the prison population is black, staggering when considering that only 15 percent of the entire U.S. populace is black. This kind of systematic, racial injustice holds the dream of American progress back. Without a solution, all Americans will be condemned to live out and repeat the strife of our racist past. But what is the rationale for the short-sighted, violent approach police officers across the United States take when approaching a black suspect? The brutal video of Eric Garner’s arrest and subsequent murder makes it abundantly clear that it has nothing to do with the safety of either the police officers or the suspect. Rather, the approach to both black suspects and related protests appears to be a display of authority. Practically speaking, it seems being “tough on crime” amounts to chokeholds, gunning down fleeing suspects and severing spinal cords.
The cause of the authoritarian mentality present in police forces is obvious. Increased militarization of the police force has caused officers to incorrectly prioritize their role in society. Rather than protecting their citizens, they oppress them in the name of public order. These conflicts between protesters and shield-bearing riot police serve only to further entrench distrust and animosity. Money spent equipping police departments with Hummers and other expensive military hardware would be more appropriately spent training the officers in restraint and nonviolent conflict resolution.This is not to say that all police officers are inherently bad. There are countless accounts of officers going above and beyond the call of duty to protect citizens. Many officers enter the force because they feel called to work for the greater good. No doubt, police play an essential role in society. They protect and serve citizens and keep the monopoly on violence appropriately in check. But the pendulum is beginning to swing too far toward violent authoritarianism. The actions of the bad are beginning to outweigh the actions of the good. The public, and especially minorities, now see police officers as the problem instead of the solution.
There is no easy solution, but it is clear that something needs to be done. This could include retraining police to focus on conflict resolution, demilitarizing the force or implementing accountability measures. Forcing a highly political, top-down approach will not work. The culture of violence ingrained in many U.S. police forces needs to be changed.
Thomas Birk is a freshman intended political science major.