Toxic Perceptions Of Authority In The Police Brutality Debate

“If you don’t want to be mistreated by the police, don’t break the law.”

That sentiment is expressed by somebody, often on Facebook, every time a police brutality incident gains national attention. Not always in so many words, but basically the same sentiment.

“If you don’t want to be mistreated by the police, don’t break the law.”

I recall specifically after the Eric Garner verdict was released, reading a Facebook comments section filled with comments basically saying the same thing, with slight differences in wording. I’m convinced that a good many of those commenters didn’t even bother to read the facts of the case before commenting.

“If you don’t want to be mistreated by the police, don’t break the law.”

I object to this line of thought because it grossly oversimplifies the very complex issue of police brutality. While many with this view might acknowledge the existence of corrupt cops or isolated police brutality incidents, it is often used to deny that police brutality is a problem. Granted, I’m uncertain of the scale of the problem, or whether corrupt cops are the majority or the exception to the rule. I just know that while there are many good cops, these incidents happen often enough that police brutality is a problem that needs fixing.

The bigger problem with this view is that it allows for those who hold it to make assumptions about highly publicized cases of police brutality. Even if they understand that some cops can abuse their power–which many do–they still might assume that, when these incidents make headlines, the victim must have done something to deserve the harsh treatment by the cop.

When that assumption is made about a situation such as that of Alton Sterling, who was shot in the chest by police while on the ground, on the basis that he allegedly had a firearm on him, that promotes a dangerous idea of police authority. If the gun was simply on him, if he wasn’t wielding it or shooting at anyone, that isn’t justification enough to shoot him.

The “breaking the law” part of this soundbite is especially problematic, as it implies that as soon as a citizen breaks the law, the police have carte blanche to do whatever they want to them. “Breaking the law” encompasses a wide variety of offenses, from traffic violations like speeding or running red lights, to crimes against humanity like rape or murder. Different crimes require different penalties; the punishment should fit the crime. And even if the crime is rape or murder, that alone doesn’t justify an officer shooting the suspect. We have due process of law in place to prevent draconian criminal justice systems like that. Those suspected of a crime, regardless of the crime, are entitled to a fair trial with a proper defense.

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