December 15, 2014

Police Misconduct as a Social Problem

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Are you angry about the legal system’s decisions about the cases in which have police killed unarmed black boys or men? Or are you angry that people are angry about that?

It is not clear whether the rates of unarmed black man being killed by police are increasing, but we are seeing more media coverage when it happens. It’s about time.

Is this a problem of individuals? Yes, on the one hand. It’s a problem for them personally if it happens to them or someone in their life. But it’s also a problem for society. One of the key tenets in sociology is that the personal isn’t just personal, it’s societal, and it’s political. The things that we experience are linked to larger social structures.

When the same thing happens to multiple people, it’s a societal pattern. When it’s a negative event, like specific groups of unarmed people being treated more severely than other specific groups of people, it signals major social problems in that society. It’s about time, then, to standup, notice, and deal with it.

When we talk about racism, it isn’t about blaming individual whites. When we talk about inequality, it isn’t about blaming this person or that person. Blaming individuals isn’t helpful – identifying how it all works is helpful if we see a problem and want to understand how it came to be.

Yes, adjudicating those responsible for specific situation is important. But, as we’ve seen, that doesn’t always have a positive result for that one case or for addressing the root of the problem. Law enforcement is part of the legal system. One wonders what it takes to get a court of law to find error in the actions of the police. Although that may be the wrong question to ask.

A court of law addressing the cases one by one may not be the right place to solve our societal problems. The source may more likely be in the structure of their training and job. Thus just taking each case one at a time does nothing to stop the situation from reoccurring.

The Advancement Project is an example of an organization addressing the structure of how police do their job, in an effort to deal with our societal inequalities and how it affects lives. Constance Rice, one of its directors, recently discussed on NPR  how the job of policing can be structured so as not to encourage so much violence and fear. 

While one person may be able to make some type of change based on their power or charisma, they don’t do it alone. They gather other like-minded people and create non-profit organizations. They get elected and make policy. They lobby the powers-that-be to make decisions in their favor.

Of course, this is more often done by those who already have power. They don’t support, lobby, or fund social change, they often do so to keep the status quo. That’s how they keep their power and advantages.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Take a look at social media.  I’ve seen a lot of posts about #blackboysmatter and those I’ve mentioned above. Some talk about marching on Washington D.C. to “stop the violence,” and not all of those posts are from black people. Some new hashtags have emerged that could help to frame the discussion, in particular, #blacklivesmatter and #icantbreathe. They are helping to publicize how difficult life is if you are black in America.

#CrimingWhileWhite has also popped up as a trending hashtag. These posts are examples of white privilege, all the ways in which white people have experienced leniency when interacting with police. This hashtag focuses the attention back on white people and how easy white lives can be.

People may not be speaking up because they may be afraid of losing what privileges that they think they have. We may not have privilege in society to the extent we think we should but we often have hope of it. However, the structure of our society – and basic logic - does not allow for everyone to be in the privileged group. People fear the unknown. Changing society is a scary prospect. It may give us a society we don’t know, but can we afford keeping the society we have now?

Social movements change society yet they are successful only when they build coalitions across divergent groups of people to solve these wide structural problems. The Freedom Riders are but one example. The Chicano Civil Rights Movement coming together with the Women’s Movement and the Black Civil Rights Movement all fed into the Civil Rights Movement as we know it.

After the unrest in Los Angeles following the acquittal of officers charged with beating motorist Rodney King in 1992, the Los Angeles Police Department was restructured and leaders created Enterprise Zones to promote business in the affected areas in Los Angeles. As a result, there are now more large grocery stores in areas that were food deserts.

We all need to pay attention and listen to others who have experiences different from our own. Why? Because inequality is a societal problem – thus it is everyone's issue.


What is lacking in our society today has nothing to do with the need for police reform. In my lifetime (I will be 50 in four months) I have come to realize the majority of Americans care about instant gratification, results without effort, and choice without consequence. Michael Brown--a young black man--robbed a store, attacked a police officer, and was killed as a result of the choices he made. How is this the fault of our society or the police that we rely on to protect us? How is it not appropriate to ask why Michel Brown is not accountable for the choices he made?

Less than one percent of our nation's citizens are relied on to protect and serve the rest of us as law enforcement officers. I have been privileged to serve in law enforcement both in the military and in my community for over 20-years. I can say without reservation that I have worked with some of the best trained most dedicated professionals holding the line in the history of our nation.

As a whole, law enforcement is a progressive profession that constantly searches for ways to do the job better, safer, and smarter. Police officers are not looking for ways to get away with killing people of color as your article and some uninformed people in our society suggest. For example, the claim that the police are killing black men at an alarming rate is false.

Data collection reported in the FBI's Uniform Crime Report reveals that blacks (mostly men) are overwhelmingly responsible for the killing of black homicide victims. Of all reported homicides where the race of the offender is known, blacks are responsible for almost half of the killing. Keep in mind that African Americans make up less than 14% of the total U.S. population. The biggest problem that young black men have is not the police; it is other blacks--mostly young and mostly male. The suggestion that the police are killing people at an alarming rate is likewise false.

Nationally, the police make approximately 45-million police/citizen contacts every year. Annually, law enforcement is involved in only 300 to 400 lethal force events that result in the suspect's death. On average the police across our nation are assaulted by criminal suspects more than 50-thousand times a year. Over two thousand of these assaults are with firearms. Intelligent voices like yours are almost always silent on the matter of any aspect of the assaults on police problem.

If you are interested in a debate about what kind of change we need to pursue, perhaps we can start with a recognition of the real problems - a lack of respect for the family unit and the awful reality of black on black crime and its destructive impact on the black community as a whole.

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