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Op-ed

Excessive use of force has a long, shameful history in American policing | GUEST COMMENTARY

A protester raises his arm as he becomes emotional during a rally and march in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023. The Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) organized the march in response to the death of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police following a traffic stop. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group via AP)

Here we go again. Another unnecessary and unprovoked death of a young Black man at the hands of police. This time in Memphis, Tennessee, with the brutal killing of Tyre Nichols by five members of the police department’s since disbanded Scorpion Unit.

When will it stop? It won’t, not until the underlying cause is addressed. That will take a concerted effort over a long period of time, though it is an effort that has only been attempted piecemeal and sporadically over many years and has never addressed the root cause of the problem — a subculture predicated on violence.

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When the current protests subside and politicians and pundits turn their attention to the next issue of the day, what will happen? If history is a guide, not much. Maybe a commission, a task force or some legislation that addresses a few concerns on the margins.

“The need for strengthening police relationships with the communities they serve is critical today in the Nation’s large cities and many small cities and towns as well. … minority groups are taking action to acquire rights and services which have been historically denied them. As the most visible representative of the society from which these groups are demanding fair treatment and equal opportunity, law enforcement agencies are faced with an unprecedented situation on the street which require that they develop policies and practices governing their actions when dealing with minority groups and other citizens.”

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Those words could easily be the opening statement to any commission’s report on the current incident, characterizing the need for police reform. However, the quote comes from the “Task Force Report: The Police,” which was published by the Task Force on Police from the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in 1967.

Similar language can be found in the 1972 Attorney General’s First Annual Report under Civil Disorders. More recently we saw similar findings and commentary following the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota by Officer Derek Chauvin. Each of these reports contained recommendations for reforms intended to improve policing and prevent that which we find before us again today. Yet here we are faced with the aftermath of the same horrific act by police in 2023.

Looking back the behavior was not new news in past incidents. Following the riots of the 1960s, the Kerner Commission Report of March of 1968 found that many factors contributing to the disorder of the 1960s were rooted in white racism exacerbated by bad policing practices. Unnecessary or excessive uses of force by police was often the catalyst that led to rioting in major cities around the country.

The problem is one of a subculture steeped in violent behavior. Back in December of 2013, I wrote the following in a Department of Justice COPS Office publication, Community Policing Dispatch.

“Police chiefs and sheriffs may want to ask themselves — if after hiring officers in the spirit of adventure, who have been exposed to action oriented police dramas since their youth, and sending them to an academy patterned after a military boot camp, then dressing them in black battle dress uniforms and turning them loose in a subculture steeped in an “us versus them” outlook toward those they serve and protect, while prosecuting the war on crime, war on drugs, and now a war on terrorism — is there any realistic hope of institutionalizing community policing as an operational philosophy?”

In the words of the late John Timoney of the New York City Police Department, “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it … and those who study policing know we don’t study history.”

Until police leaders study history and begin to take on the task of changing the police subculture we will continue to see these incidents and the public’s diminishing trust and confidence in our police.

Karl Bickel (KarlBickel@comcast.net) is retired from the Department of Justice. He was previously second in command of the Frederick County, Maryland, Sheriff’s Office; an assistant professor of criminal justice and veteran of a major city police department.


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