For two weeks now, outrage has convulsed America: pundits, preachers, protesters and at least one “severely conservative” GOP senator all raising their voices to condemn police brutality.
Yet, here’s the startling truth: No one has made a stronger case against the police than the police.
There is not space enough to talk about it all — the disoriented man tasered for no apparent reason in Fairfax County, Va.; the Kansas City cops who pepper-sprayed a crowd and threw a man to the street after he yelled at them; the Denver police who unleashed a hail of pepper balls on a car after the driver told them his passenger was pregnant — but one incident stands out. You’ve seen the video by now. A 75-year-old man, Martin Gugino, approaches a phalanx of Buffalo, N.Y., police Thursday night in front of City Hall. Two of them shove him. He flies backward and tumbles to the pavement.
Then it gets worse. The old man lies still, blood pooling beneath his head. One officer pauses as if to check on him only to have another pull him away. The officers who shoved Gugino are now facing criminal charges. In response, all 57 members of the city’s riot squad quit the unit, displaying a petulance so infantile it would not be out of place in a preschool sandbox.
And here’s the kicker: On Saturday, the police union in Brevard County, Fla., offered to hire the 57 Buffalo cops, promising on Twitter that in Florida they’d find “no spineless leadership, or dumb mayors rambling on at press conferences. … Plus … we got your back!”
Consider it all a middle finger lifted to the idea that cops are answerable to the communities they serve. Consider it a microcosm of what is wrong with modern policing.
How can you look at this sort of behavior, which is happening everywhere, and not read in it a sense of invulnerable arrogance, of authority unquestioned and unquestionable? Power without accountability is tyranny, plain and simple. Yet how tempting tyranny must be when you are shielded in your malfeasance by the deference of courts and politicians, by unions that make it nearly impossible to get rid of, or even meaningfully discipline, lawless cops, and by the infamous blue wall of silence, a code of omerta that would do Tony Soprano proud.
So shall we “defund the police,” to quote what has become a liberal rallying cry? Well, the slogan is obviously designed less to foster consensus than confrontation. But the idea behind it seems self-evident. Namely, that we must tear down the old model of policing and, as Camden, N.J., did to great success seven years ago, build something better in its place, something that actually does “protect and serve” — and uphold and improve — our communities.
And here, someone wants me to note that not all cops are bad. Hearing that, I’m reminded of a young man to whom I made that argument maybe 20 years ago. The man, who had been punched in the face while handcuffed, responded that he saw not a lot of difference between the cops who did bad things to him and those who allowed it by looking the other way, more loyal to one another than to what is right. How, he demanded, can they be called good cops?
It’s a question that resonates as you watch that Buffalo officer who started to help an injured man allow himself to be pulled away instead. Required in an instant to choose between being human and being a cop, he chose the latter, and they walked on by.
“How can they be called good cops?” I could not answer the young man’s question back then.
And I still can’t answer it now.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at email@example.com.