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When It Happens In Your Neighborhood
Policing in America
Near the corner of Nelson Ave. and Griggs St., Grand Rapids, MI, on April 4, 2022, a few minutes after 8:11 a.m., with a police officer’s pistol, Patrick Lyoya was executed. He was a refugee who came to the U.S. with his family as a teenager in 2015. Recently, there had been some run-ins with the law: he had several convictions for drunk driving and a domestic violence charge from a few days earlier. His autopsy showed that he had been drinking already. However, when Lyoya was pulled over that morning, Grand Rapids Police Officer Christopher Schurr didn’t know any of these things. The incident, of which there are several videos, begins when Officer Schurr notices that the license plate doesn’t match the car Lyoya is driving, and turns on his lights. It is raining steadily. After both cars stop, Lyoya gets out of his car. The officer gets out and immediately takes an agitated tone, asking Lyoya first to get back into the car, then asking for his license. Lyoya seems confused. He talks to the other passenger, but then starts to walk away. Officer Schurr tries to grab him, but Lyoya pushes him off and runs. Schurr calls for backup, and then chases after Lyoya. He is able to jump on him and push him to the ground. They struggle, and eventually Officer Schurr pulls Lyoya up, grasping his arms from behind. After a moment, Lyoya manages to pull himself free and Officer Schurr takes out a taser. Lyoya repeatedly pushes the taser away, managing not to get tased. The video is interrupted and when it picks up again, the two are on the ground, with Lyoya flopping like a fish and still pushing the taser away, while Officer Schurr repeatedly says, “Let go of the taser!” Up to this point, the encounter is comedic. Officer Schurr is very aggressive—he has good cause to detain Lyoya, but makes little attempt to communicate; meanwhile, Lyoya mumbles and resists in an annoying and non-threatening way, but is unable to escape. In a movie, this would be great physical comedy. Everything turns in a moment: on top of Lyoya, Officer Schurr reaches for his gun, holds it behind Lyoya’s head for a beat, shouts “Drop the taser!” again, and then pulls the trigger, firing one shot. Lyoya is motionless and Officer Schurr does not immediately try to resuscitate him. The whole sequence lasts about five minutes on video. Officer Schurr is currently awaiting trial for second-degree murder.
Words like “execution” and “murder” are preceded by “allegedly” in journalistic practice up until there has been a conviction, so I should clarify that I’m not really concerned with this incident as a legal matter. Rather, as a moral matter, I won’t equivocate. Patrick Lyoya was murdered. By a policeman as part of his job. We don’t need to see Lyoya as a saint, or condone his foolish behavior, or believe that the officer was not correct in trying to arrest him, or second-guess their chase and scuffle. The officer had no reason to fear for his life and there was no imminent threat to public safety. Lyoya was simply not complying, and when Officer Schurr fired a bullet at point-blank range in the back of the man’s head, his intent could only have been to kill.
The murder happened five blocks from where I grew up. Certain things really drive it home: the lifeless body, face down, eating dirt; the phalanx of fire trucks and police cars parked up and down the street after it happened; the blood and brains spattered on the grass; his mother’s tears when she gets the call; the neighbors remembering every day when they pass the spot; when activists and apologists argue over the meaning of the death; when his ghost lingers on the lawn; when it happens in your neighborhood.
In late spring 2020, protests exploded following the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin. Initially, there were mass demonstrations and rioting in Minneapolis around the area where Floyd was killed, and these resulted in damage to many local buildings. This unrest quieted after Chauvin was arrested four days later, but soon protests sprang up all around the country (and in other countries). These went on sporadically for months, even becoming a nightly ritual in Portland, OR. Millions of people came out into the streets, and so, while these protests were generally peaceful, there was also rioting on a scale that the country hasn’t seen since the late 1960s.
There were demonstrations in Grand Rapids after the Lyoya killing, but it was actually during the Floyd protests in May 2020 that a small riot actually broke out in the downtown area. We can look to the Floyd case, therefore, as paradigmatic of contemporary public reaction to police misconduct, both for its national scope and for the variety of public responses. It’s instructive to think about them together:
Everybody had been stuck at home because of COVID-19, and so an outburst of protests in Minnesota was a reason for the rest of the country to get out of the house and express the turbulent feelings that had built up during the preceding months.
The U.S. has a long tradition of mass protests aimed at raising awareness of some problem; a majority of the Floyd protests fell squarely in this tradition.
Some of the protests devolved into riots, reflecting simmering community anger. This also has extensive precedent: the Rodney King riots come to mind, as do the riots that happened all over the country in the 1960s; even older instances track, like the Draft Riots during the Civil War.
Riots can attract characters who treat them as a chance to loot businesses or commit vandalism or violence; some of the property destruction during the Floyd protests can be chalked up to opportunistic hooliganism.
There were numerous instances during the summer where it might be more accurate to say that the police were rioting—using excessive force, intimidating journalists or bystanders, escalating situations where a crowd was marching peacefully. America also has a tradition of violent backlashes to protests or rioting by the police; examples would include the riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, the Kent State shootings in 1970 and the Selma riots in 1965.
The anti-police sentiment inspired a bizarre pseudo-anarchist experiment on Capitol Hill in Seattle that lasted about a month, and a long series often-violent protests in Portland that continued into the following year.
News reports about property damage caused where protests had turned into riots inspired some right-wingers to come out to “protect” businesses or just harass the protestors. The Kyle Rittenhouse killings in Kenosha, WI, were the result of this.
There is a lot going on here. Unfortunately, complex sociological phenomena inevitably get the most reductive treatment by culture war purveyors, and because they’re very loud, they shape public perceptions retrospectively. The most memorable slogan from Floyd protests was “Defund the Police.” This catchphrase was repeated and critiqued frequently during the summer of 2020. It has been interpreted by some to mean that local governments should divert some funds from police departments to social services, while a vocal minority have actually called for policing to be radically re-imagined or abolished altogether. Concomitantly, there were numerous editorials making related provocative arguments: that American policing was “invented” to support slavery; that policing is inherently a tool of social domination by a patriarchal, probably white ruling class; that property destruction is a morally appropriate response to contemporary social ills.
These most fervent arguments have had no broad effect on policy since 2020. In Minneapolis, for instance, some monies were diverted from the police budget in 2021 for other services, but later in the year a proposal to reorganize the Police Department as a Department of Public Safety was defeated; at the same time, the city has had to pay out nearly $150 million in settlements in recent years for police misconduct suits, including the Floyd murder. Opinion polls find that a majority of Americans actually want funding for police departments to increase—as a complement to various reform measures. There is no groundswell of popular support for shoplifting and mass property destruction.
Worse than the uselessness of these arguments: they inspire counter-slogans employed by reactionary talking heads and politicians. Rants about “Defund the Police” or “Black Lives Matter” or “Antifa” have become a staple of right-wing patter describing everything that’s wrong with America. This rhetoric is, of course, cynical and depraved. These people don’t care that the recent uptick in crime occurred when Republicans controlled the executive branch, half of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of state government bodies. And they actively support gun policies that have increased rates of violent crime.
None of this new, nor has this rhetoric had clear causal effects on electoral outcomes, but as millions took to the streets, the result was not a new civil rights movement, but, rather, the sour aftertaste of bad sloganeering accompanied by reactionary blame-shifting.
Policing in America needs to be reformed. We can argue about the magnitude of the problems that these high-profile incidents reflect; America is a huge country, and there are thousands of police departments, local, county, state and federal. According to a 2016 Department of Justice report on law enforcement employment, there were 1,076,054 full-time officers in the U.S. in 2012. This is nearly twice as many farmers as work in the whole country and only somewhat fewer than the number of lawyers. But these documented cases appear like clockwork every year, and for every video that gets released on Twitter, there are countless incidents of citizens’ mistreatment where no one was recording or it was just lucky that no one was killed. If the liberal order depends on the state holding a monopoly on violence, then any abuse of this franchise demands prosecution, reflection, accountability. In my view, efforts at reform should focus on two things: values and practicalities.
The first is more important: Why do we have police at all? Or better yet, what are police supposed to be doing, exactly? The more notional term for police is “law enforcement.” In the larger scheme of the legal system: legislators make laws; lawyers prosecute, defend, or sue; judges ensure that proceedings are fair and legal interpretations consistent; and the police enforce laws out in the world, collecting evidence, issuing citations, making arrests, preventing violence and property theft or destruction.
Another view of police is not just that they enforce laws, but that they guarantee social order, in real time. Innocents must be kept from harm, but also property should be protected, trash cleaned off the street, loud music turned down, drugs not indulged in, licentious behavior, at a minimum, locked behind closed doors. The police are out in the world, ensuring that these problems are managed, and their method is to require the compliance of the public where they anticipate some disturbance or have been called to it. The police are on the frontlines and they alone keep society from devolving into a chaotic, violent morass, with the rest of the government and the legal system as a support system for their activities. A variation of this idea is the “warrior-cop” trope, which has been popularized among police departments in recent years. Here the policeman brings social order through compliance, but he or she does so as a righteous warrior, kitted out with the latest high-tech combat gear.
These views of policing are all wrong-headed. It is true that the police have a formal role in the legal system as officers delegated authority to enforce laws out in the world. But to focus only on this formal franchise is to miss the larger social role that is police forces’ true reason for existing. Laws are just bits of language, words that have to be implemented in society through living, breathing institutions, words that have to accommodate themselves to reality. (I have written at length on my view of laws and rights in The Ineluctable Person. It includes a technical definition of laws, in context, with examples.) Policemen are meant to serve society as members of a social institution; laws, being words and not even institutions, much less the totality of society, help organize police activities, but are not predicative of their social role, which could exist in the absence of an effective law code. What’s more, police are only involved in criminal law. They have no serious role in administrative, civil or constitutional law—we don’t assign police officers to investigate civil cases, issue building permits, inspect elevators, interpret constitutional questions, etc. Police only get involved in other areas of law when some behavior could or may have already reached a criminal threshold of fraud, malfeasance, or corruption.
This larger purpose is not to ensure social order. The order of a society is multifarious and perishable; it contains contradictory values, both traditional and novel, and it is, ultimately, negotiated and renegotiated by every individual as they interact with small, shifting clusters of other individuals. In compelling behavior that conforms with certain values and not others, the police have to intervene adventitiously in people’s affairs, and force them into compliance with their instructions, possibly in conflict with their own perfectly legitimate values and interests. In practice, “compliance” means immediate, complete submission to any directive given by a policeman, regardless of circumstance. But why does the social order in the imagination of a policeman, a human being like all of us, have priority over anyone else’s ideas of order, if the issue here is order and not law? The idea has exactly the bad consequences that are this essay’s subject: if the police are primed to use their weapons at the first hint of non-compliance, incidents like Lyoya’s murder become inevitable, regular, and sometimes legal.
There is another possibility: the job of the police is to protect the public. This means, first, shielding people from bodily harm, because there can be no human dignity if a society cannot warrant bodily autonomy; second, it means securing property, because, in a healthy society, the artifacts of culture and their commission are worth preserving. This obligation to protect includes criminals and suspects. That is, the police have a duty to protect them too. The enforcement of laws, the formal mandate of police within institutions of government, are a tool for the police; violence can be a tool; compliance can be a tool—all of these tools are necessary at times, but they are not an end in themselves. The police may employ them for deterrence, or to keep situations from spiraling out of control, but the ultimate purpose of all these means is the protection of the public.
It’s easy to nod at the idea that the police should protect the public and miss the essential emphasis in this formulation. The ethos of the policemen should be to protect the public before his or her own life. The Uvalde school massacre this summer was an obvious case where the police did not abide by this code, and have been rightfully excoriated for it. Several officers were able to engage a gunman just as he was approaching the elementary school in Uvalde, TX, but after he went inside and barricaded himself in one of the classrooms—with the class still there—it took over an hour, with hundreds of officers from different agencies all standing around, before they breached the door and killed the man. The officers may have needed a few minutes to formulate an attack strategy after the gunman closed that classroom door, but the safety of the students and teachers behind it should have been their priority, not their own safety. The Lyoya killing presents a different scenario, but not one where Patrick Lyoya’s life is somehow intrinsically worth less than the victims at Uvalde. Officer Schurr’s most likely defense when he is put on trial will be that he shot Lyoya because he feared for his life or his person. Cops frequently use this justification: the possibility that an officer could be killed or beaten or shot, even if it is objectively unlikely, justifies the use of extreme force at the officer’s exclusive discretion. But a subjective fear of being hurt or killed shouldn’t carry this weight. Police officers are professionals after all, and they should be able to make better-than-average judgments about objective risk and be held accountable when their judgment fails; more importantly, they should be willing to carry a substantial risk of being injured against harming or killing someone who did not, in fact, pose a genuine threat to the officer or the public. Officer Schurr’s negligence is that he, apparently, didn’t see Patrick Lyoya as a member of the public he was charged to protect.
Upholding this ethos isn’t easy. Self-sacrifice is not usually a first instinct, especially where its object is not a family member or an innocent person or a noble cause. Police often have to weigh equities and dangerous contingencies in a matter of seconds. Many will get it wrong because they had incomplete information or were confused. An ethos is an ideal that we can work towards or aspire to, not a bright red line; the problem with American policing is that protecting the public is often not the paramount ethical ideal. This needs to change, and officers who can’t abide it should quit and find something else to do with their lives.
An upside of this ethos is that it should also alter the framing of how we react to police killings and brutality. Much of the talk during the Floyd protests focused on the fact that he was black and was killed by a white officer. African-Americans face higher levels police violence than white Americans, as well as other adverse social conditions, like poverty and low per capita college attendance. Many of these problems are a legacy of slavery and discriminatory Jim Crow laws, and one can draw a pretty straight line between them in population terms. However, if the role of the police is to protect the public, this has nothing to do with race, or gender, or class, or even citizenship. The police should protect everyone. The deaths of George Floyd and Patrick Lyoya are an outrage because they lived in the United States of America—or better yet, because they are human beings.
This brings us to the second point about police reform. Much of what passes for activism is unhelpful. Instead of doing whatever most improves outcomes, activists focus on curating rhetoric, assigning blame, or obnoxious public displays. A lot of things can get filed under “raising consciousness”—an academic lecture on the white supremacy, an article in The Atlantic about systemic racism, nasty Twitter replies to famous people, throwing soup at paintings—and none of them have any actual effect on public safety. Reform efforts need to influence decision-making, either in policy or out there on the street.
This means that reform is a matter of practicalities, and that specific reform proposals should have some empirical basis. What causes a police officer to shoot an unarmed man, or to hassle somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong? If the simple answer to that question is “racism” and the remedy is “anti-bias training”, then both the cause and the cure need to be established empirically. I will admit to skepticism. The reasons for these incidents, each of them, uncountable, many not well documented, are various, and the best strategies for improving outcomes long-term may be proximate, local, partial, slow.
There are some things that could be implemented at a national level. For example, the doctrine of Qualified Immunity holds that government officials can’t be sued in civil courts if their actions haven’t been previously “established” by the courts as unconstitutional. In practice, courts have ruled that “established” precedents have to match the exact set of circumstances, and this makes it difficult to hold individual police officers accountable for their actions. A quick Google search will yield numerous ludicrous examples of police misconduct made exempt by the doctrine. Because it is purely judicial, it could be altered by an act of Congress.
Many reforms can only be implemented at state or local levels. Police unions could be barred from involvement in situations where officers are disciplined or fired for misconduct. Social workers can be hired to help facilitate interactions when the police are called to deal with mentally ill individuals. Leaders can work to build a better culture within departments. And so forth. The good news is that a lot can be done to improve outcomes and the local interventions may be most effective. For this reason, activists should spend more time thinking about their own communities than about affecting sweeping change. To the extent that “systemic” problems are more than convenient fictions, they are nevertheless not monolithic constructs, nor are they abetted by a cabal of the wicked and corrupt. They’re echoes, tendencies, misadventures. A lifetime of hard work may only make safer one street, one neighborhood, one town. And that has to be enough.
I worry about American democracy and not just because a bunch of reactionary election-deniers are threatening to take over the government. The most heinous crime in a democracy is for the state to threaten the bodily autonomy and safety of individuals, or to abdicate responsibility where such harm is preventable. People can walk around with their codes of conduct and moral strictures and acts of conscience—for these codes and strictures and acts to have meaning, the same people need to know they can make their way through the world without fear of their physical self being violated arbitrarily. And, though every person must bend to rules imposed on them socially, the rules that have legal force should come from institutions, where, through a neutral democratic process, each person has some say.
The police, at all levels, are really important to the integrity of democratic institutions because they have the tools to defend that very autonomy from social or external threats. Their activities and their presence can restrain people’s worst instincts when they put the public at risk; just as importantly, their restraint, as a matter of respect for those institutions, is necessary for the laws of a democracy to be effected democratically. Policing is by no means the only area where American democracy has been in peril recently: the Trump Administration’s assault on the rule of law; tax loophole and soft enforcement against tax cheats; the War on Drugs; these are just a few examples where our legal and political systems have undermined our ideals. The problems with other institutions, however, are long-simmering, and do not depend on decisions made on the fly. The police stand closest to reality. The police, at any moment, have to answer for their “only if”—only if that guy weren’t swearing at me, only if the last black guy I tried to arrest didn’t take a swing at me, only if it weren’t dark out, only if I weren’t exhausted and my marriage weren’t imploding…
It matters, in a democracy, that police officers’ “only ifs” accord with their mandate to protect the public—everyone, even criminals. If the police can’t abide this obligation … then they’re just another bunch of thugs.