Addressing Police Brutality

Here is an excellent blog post St. Brandon Watson about how to fix the system that leads to police brutality.  My own reflections follow:

There is a long history of racist policing in the United States.  It is natural to assume that if the problem involves racism, the best solution must necessarily be to make a change that directly addresses racial issues.   However, often the solution to a problem can only be found by thinking more generally than the original problem.

A better solution (and one that might have a chance of success without immediately turning the issue into an intractable argument) is to make structural changes that increase everyone's rights and protections against arbitrary actions by police and others.

I'm sure that the majority of police officers are decent people who would not approve of going around murdering people, but the fact is if you give to some class of individuals what effectively amounts to the power of life-and-death over ordinary citizens, it only takes a small minority of abusive individuals to lead to serious problems.  That is why those who are entrusted with great power must also be held to a higher standard of responsibility.

Racism will indeed influence which communities and individuals are targeted by the police (although the extent to which specific aspects of the policing system are racially biased is a complicated sociological question without clear-cut answers).  But our goal here should not merely be to make it so that summary executions without trial are fairly distributed between different ethnic groups.  The goal should be to make it so that nobody in America believes themselves to have the legal power to execute unarmed and helpless captives without a trial (I'm not talking about how the police should respond to armed assailants, which is a different matter where judgment calls are unavoidable).

The only way to make that happen is to provide consequences for people who do such things.  And one way to try to implement that is by revisiting legal doctrines such as qualified immunity, which stack the deck in favor of government officials who violate people's rights.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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