MOBILE, Ala. — As recently as a decade ago, I was naive about policing in the United States. Like Joe Biden, I believed that racism, brutality and the corruption they engender were the province of “some bad apples,” not the entire barrel. A few police forces, such as that of New York City, encouraged police violence against Black and brown citizens, I knew, with policies that singled them out as criminals. But most police agencies lacked such overt directives from their leaders.
Somewhere along the way, though, I started to look more closely. As more clear cases of police violence against unarmed Black men and women emerged from around the country, I saw the pattern: murderous white police officers were excused, defended, sometimes promoted. Then, Donald Trump ran for president, and every major police union endorsed a man who was explicitly racist, who engaged in scurrilous stereotypes against people of color, who described predominately Black neighborhoods as lawless war zones. My naivete melted away like ice after an Alabama snowstorm.
Since that abrupt awakening, I harbor no illusions about the ranks of America’s police forces. And I am not at all surprised that both retired and active-duty police officers were caught among the seditionists at the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6. Two police officers from Rocky Mount, Virginia, are facing federal charges. Two Seattle police officers are under investigation for their attendance at the rally/riot. A Houston police officer is expected to resign after he joined the mob inside the Capitol. (Surprisingly, the Houston officer is not white but of Vietnamese ancestry.)
According to The Appeal, a left-of-center nonprofit that focuses on issues of justice and equality, nearly 30 law enforcement personnel from 11 states have been identified as participants in the rally in support of Trump and his lies about the election, though most have not yet been identified among the hordes who smashed into the Capitol building. (That doesn’t include countless retired police officers.)
In addition, two officers from the U.S. Capitol Police, the very agency assigned to protect the building and its rightful occupants from marauding hordes, have been suspended for their alleged cooperation with the insurrectionists. At least 10 additional Capitol police officers are under investigation for their behavior during the assault, according to CNN. Never mind that some of their fellow officers were under brutal attack. One of them, Brian Sicknick, a 12-year veteran, died of his injuries.
The history of American law enforcement is rife with racism, including brutal attacks on innocent Mexican Americans and Native Americans. In his brilliant tome on the practice of peonage in the decades after the Civil War, “Slavery by Another Name,” journalist Doug Blackmon documented the ways in which law enforcement agencies concocted spurious charges against Black people, especially men, to lock them up and then rent them out to businesses.
Lynchings were often aided by law enforcement officials, who sometimes merely stood aside for violent mobs, but who often participated, torturing, brutalizing and burning innocent Black men, women and even children. As recently as the 1960s, Southern law enforcement agents enthusiastically participated in segregationist violence toward peaceful civil rights protestors. While Birmingham’s Bull Connor and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark became infamous for their brutality, they were by no means the only ones.
It is foolhardy to speak of extremists who have “infiltrated” police agencies. Instead, a hardy strain of racism is endemic to the ranks of police officers, many of whom believe they are called to control Black and brown citizens while protecting white ones. The “extremists” are simply those who make their mission explicit. (Proving irony is dead, the police official in charge of the New York City Police Department’s anti-discrimination office, Deputy Inspector James Kobel, retired under a cloud after revelations that he had posted racist and misogynist rants under a pseudonym on an online platform for police officers.)
Does this mean that the activists who insist that cities should “defund the police” are right? No, it doesn’t. Black and brown Americans deserve law enforcement agencies that will protect and serve them, too. But the ranks of many departments will have to be bulldozed before less-racist agencies can emerge.
Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007: firstname.lastname@example.org.