Good Cops Bad Cops. How Do We Hold Bad Ones Accountable?
OPINION: If we care about our good police officers, we must carve out the space to hold bad ones accountable
On Monday, a South Carolina judge declared a mistrial in the case of former police officer Michael Slager, who was charged with murder in 2015 after shooting and killing Walter Scott, an unarmed black man. Scott was shot five times in the back, caught on camera. Evidence was planted. This, too, was caught on camera. When these cases are not brought to justice, it is not just an injustice to the individuals and loved ones of those who are killed—it is an injustice to police officers who do their jobs with honor and integrity.
On Chopsticks Alley’s Talk Episode 2 Live Feed Show, we had a thoughtful discussion with San Jose Police Department’s Deputy Police Chief, Phan Ngo. Deputy Police Chief Ngo raised the point that more training is being rolled out in SJPD.
Nobody will disagree that training is crucial; however, with the current conditions of police killings, there needs to be more than training happening. Training is something that allows gradual progress and when lives have been taken, gradual progress alone is not enough.
The Deputy Chief recognized that there are circumstances of excessive force. Police officers across America recognize this. What they are not doing is publicly speak out about these cases of excessive force. Even worse, we watch as case after case is swept under the rug — “mistrials,” “no indictment,” etc.
There have been a notable number of tragic police shootings this year, which raises the concern that police officers are being targeted due to the actions of “a few bad cops.” But “a few bad cops” are not being indicted: to be specific, not a single police officer was convicted on murder or manslaughter charges for fatally shooting a civilian in the line of duty in 2015 or 2014. If it bothers us when all police officers are unfairly targeted, then we have to carve out the space to hold those “bad” police officers accountable.
Beyond that, if it bothers us that all police officers are being unfairly categorized as “bad,” then we should be just as bothered by the unjust profiling of black and brown people. For insight on what that looks like, black people are more than 3 times likelier to be pulled over than white people, despite the fact that police records have shown they are less likely than white drivers to turn up with guns or drugs when searched at traffic stops.
“Respecting the law” and “compliance” is not enough to prevent circumstances of excessive force. An unarmed Walter Scott was caught on film running away from an officer who then shot him in the back multiple times to his death. Eric Garner was killed after being approached by the police for selling loose cigarettes. This is why suggesting “just don’t sell loose cigarettes,” or “just comply” is not the answer to an institution of law enforcement that does not currently have the space to demand true accountability.
Since we are a Vietnamese publication, let me give an example that will hopefully resonate more with a Vietnamese person.
I would bet money that as a Vietnamese person, you know another Vietnamese family that has done some construction on their house that was not approved by city planners.
This is what you could consider a “petty crime.” Under no circumstances should petty crime ever be punishable by death, or even the threat of death. Additionally, red tape and money is the reason why people commit these types of petty crimes, and those are the reasons for most petty crimes. Put simply, sometimes it costs more to be compliant. And so, poorer communities will be less compliant. It has everything to do with socioeconomic class.
A compassionate system of law enforcement will recognize this, and moreover, as a compassionate people, if we care about our police officers, then that care needs to start with demanding accountability.
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She is an actor, organizer, and co-editor for Loa, a podcast focused on amplifying stories from and about Vietnam. She aims to provide perspectives that lie at the intersection of social justice, media, and performing arts. She was formerly an AT&T New Media Fellow at Brown University. During her time as an Urban Program Director for a commercial radio station in Southern New England, she DJed Soul and Funk music and reported on issues impacting local communities of color.