Eric Garner was standing on a sidewalk one summer afternoon in Staten Island when Officer Daniel Pantaleo appeared, and within a matter of minutes Garner was dead. Michael Brown was walking down the street one summer afternoon in Ferguson when Officer Darren Wilson appeared, and within a matter of seconds Brown ended up dead. These encounters were random in a sense, but they were produced by a political context that has established a precedent in which agents of the state can accost citizens, bark orders, cause fatalities, and get away with it.
Pantaleo might have applied a choke hold that the NYPD specifically prohibits, and the whole sick episode might have been viewed on YouTube the world over, but we learned yesterday that the cop won't be prosecuted. Nevertheless, you can rest assured that innumerable commenters will eventually start echoing the sentiments of Nicole Wallace, a panelist on The View who complained Tuesday that America shows insufficient respect for the heroism of law enforcement officers. As evidence for this claim, she cited the predominance of supposedly anti-cop media narratives that have percolated since Wilson was exonerated last week. One hears this storyline often: Despite their sacrifices, cops somehow get a raw deal, and are unfairly demonized by a public that simply doesn't understand all they do to keep us safe. This is crazy. Boatloads of "respect" are constantly being heaped on the men and women who wear badges, and the political system caters to them at every turn.
When politicians issue crowd-pleasing denunciations of "special interests," they are typically referring to a narrowly prescribed set of industries: oil, banking, pharmaceuticals. Rarely are police lobbyists similarly targeted for scorn. This might be due in part to law enforcement advocates not appearing to engage in conventional "lobbying" activities—they operate under the auspices of groups with innocuous-sounding names like "Police Benevolent Association" or "National Sheriffs Association"—but like other interest groups, these entities advocate single-mindedly on behalf their memberships, frequently to the detriment of the greater good.
Because of the political leverage accumulated over decades (if not centuries) by the police lobby, officers go about their daily beats with certain guarantees. For one, they will almost never be held personally liable for their bad conduct while on duty thanks to well-established doctrines like qualified immunity, which puts taxpayers on the hook for lawsuits filed as a result of police misconduct or brutality. They can also be assured that a robust formal and informal support network will be set into motion should they ever be accused of anything.
Pantaleo reportedly characterized his attack to grand jurors as a "wrestling move," and they apparently bought it.
Pantaleo enjoyed this privilege when New York City's powerful police union machinery kicked into high gear immediately following the choke hold incident, pushing an exculpatory narrative which contended that Garner had committed the high crime of selling untaxed cigarettes (a claim for which there is no evidence) and had a long rap sheet. Union bosses even absurdly denied that Pantaleo used a choke hold in the first place. Astonishingly, it worked: Pantaleo reportedly characterized his attack to grand jurors as a "wrestling move," and they apparently bought it.
Given their track record of successfully weighting legal processes in favor of officers, the police lobby tends to be very confident, so much so that its leaders exhibit little compunction about openly disparaging the rare politician who goes against them. In an interview with Bloomberg's Dave Weigel, Fraternal Order of Police executive director Jim Pasco mockingly referred to Hank Johnson—the Democratic Congressman who introduced a failed amendment in the House of Representatives aimed at stymieing the flow of militarized equipment to local departments—as a "real scholar" and "whasisname from Georgia."
This helps explain why even with robust bipartisan skepticism of police militarization, lawmakers have made zero progress in halting or even slowing it. Speaking on the House floor, Florida Republican Representative Richard Nugent— himself a former sheriff—dismissed concerns about transferring military-grade gear to police as obviously ridiculous.
How can we break this grip the police lobby has on the political process? For one thing, we'd need to develop alternate avenues through which elected officials could acquire political leverage. We also need to begin to think of law enforcement not just as protectors of the common good but an interest group like any other.
That doesn't mean calling individual cops "pigs" or "murderers," it means modifying how police are viewed in the macro. For instance, it's probably worth communicating to the American people that policing is not an especially dangerous job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, truck drivers are twice as likely to die while working—and transporting goods from one place to another is a pretty important activity. Without truck drivers, our economy would collapse overnight. So why does it seem so ridiculous that we would lower a flag to half-mast to honor a truck driver who died in the line of duty? Why don't we have a day to remember the truck drivers who gave their lives to our country?
Maybe if we stopped thinking of policing as such a hazardous job, we could adjust our policies and discourse accordingly. As of now, "officer safety" is regarded as indisputably paramount whenever we talk about the way cops interact with civilians; despite a precipitous nationwide decline in violent crime, officers and their union representatives routinely parrot the discredited notion that police must live in constant fear for their lives. As law professor and former cop Seth Stoughton told me over Twitter, "Within policing, the risks of intentional targeting are typically quite exaggerated." In fact, more than half of all police fatalities are caused by traffic accidents. Of course there is always a chance of some mentally deranged person consciously seeking to harm officers, but should this remote possibility dictate routine police behavior, or influence our perception of the risks inherent to policing? Probably not.
What if their overriding mantras were something along the lines of "serve the community" instead of "get home from your shift alive"?
Since policing is widely thought to be incredibly dangerous, and those who wear the badge are seen to be making a profound personal sacrifice, it's not surprising that politicians defer to the police lobby. This deference, in turn, means that departments across the country have more opportunities to secure federal grants for overtime and countless other perks.
The culture of police unaccountability and impunity is partly what fostered Wilson and Pantaleo's mindsets, and though that mindset doesn't always lead to death, it results in violent and unpleasant altercations far too often. A public employee who knew his job security was contingent on democratic review from the taxpayers he's supposed to be serving might not so readily pick fights. This also might make policing safer, as young men (of any race) are less likely to lash out at cops they don't perceive as assholes.
Police officers are endowed with enormous discretionary authority, and often must make split-second decisions about how best to apply their state-sanctioned powers of deadly force. In those pivotal milliseconds, which can determine whether a person lives or dies, basic instinct reigns supreme. No amount of racial sensitivity training or "National Conversations" are going to change how an officer reacts in such scenarios.
What needs to change, then, is the incentives that lead cops to aggressively confront people who aren't committing a violent crime. Maybe if a different set of incentives were in place when Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo embarked on their fatal exchanges, things might have turned out differently. What if their overriding mantras were something along the lines of "serve the community" instead of "get home from your shift alive"?
The only way to change this is through difficult, tedious governmental reform—not fancy speeches or racial sensitivity seminars—and the police lobby will ferociously oppose such efforts at every step. Maybe the American political system is just too calcified to allow for these reforms. If that's the case, we should prepare ourselves for many more Michael Browns and many more Eric Garners.
Follow Michael Tracey on Twitter.