ACAB Explained: Part One

Letter to the Editor. "How the American policing system is built to abuse people of color and protect violent cops."

Police+spray+mace+at+protestors+in+Minneapolis%2C+Minnesota.

Independent.co.uk

Police spray mace at protestors in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and during a time when stories of police brutality are plastering headlines and social media pages, it is important to understand the complex ways the current law enforcement system fails to do what all officers swear: to serve and protect.

The term ACAB is often used by those upset with the countless black people who have died at the hands of police–but what does it actually mean? Many people understand the acronym to stand for “all cops are bad,” but the phrase actually means “all cops are bastards.” This distinction is important because saying “all cops are bad” immediately prompts some to counter with something along the lines of, “Well, not all cops are bad. There are just a few bad apples,” and of course it makes it seem like all cops are inherently bad people, which is not true. But if we dig deeper, ACAB doesn’t attack individual cops–it points out the many flaws in the policing system that enable violence, especially against people of color. 

To bastardize means “to change something in a way that makes it fail to represent the values and qualities that it is intended to represent”; essentially, it means to corrupt. All cops are bastards because they serve a corrupt system, not because of the quality of their own moral character. Many people enter the force to truly uphold justice and protect members of their community, and they try their best to do so. But the American policing system was built by white people, for white people. And it is incredibly difficult for individual officers to serve and protect people of color when the system that employs them takes the side of the oppressor, time and time again.

To bastardize means “to change something in a way that makes it fail to represent the values and qualities that it is intended to represent”; essentially, it means to corrupt. All cops are bastards because they serve a corrupt system, not because of the quality of their own moral character.”

The history of systemic racism in this country is too long and complex to explore in this article. However, it is important to discuss the role of the police force in early American history. The first organized, publicly funded police force was established in Boston in 1838 in order to protect the transport of goods to and from Boston’s port. But in the south, many primary policing institutions came out of a need to cage and abuse black people; they were slave patrols that continued into the Reconstruction era, and, arguably, continue in another form today.

To begin, from the time officers enter the force, they are taught that everyone around them is a threat, and that they should be ready to act immediately if they feel that their life is in danger. According to a 2015 survey conducted across 280 law enforcement agencies, de-escalation was one of the least prioritized skills, with new recruits receiving just eight hours of training, compared to 58 hours of firearms training. Far more time was spent preparing for the worst case scenario than to teach officers what they should be doing in all interactions with civilians who may be hostile: calm down the situation and reach for weapons as a last resort.

And here is where race comes into the picture. An officer is authorized to use force in response to a perceived threat, and many of those perceptions are distorted by racial biases, whether explicit or implicit. Implicit biases are those that a person may not be consciously aware of yet will affect how they interact with people of different races. The Harvard IAT is a way to measure these biases, and it has been used many times to study police officers. One study found that 96% of tested officers associated black people with weapons, while another observed that police officers are quicker to push a button labelled “shoot” when confronted with images of armed black suspects than when shown pictures of armed white suspects.

The dangers of this implicit bias can be seen in the case of Amadou Diallo, a 23 year old black Guinean immigrant who was shot 19 times by NYPD officers after they mistook a wallet in his hand for a gun. Officers are trained to shoot at the first sign of a threat, many have proven racial biases, and they are often asked to act quickly in high pressure situations. This is a recipe for disaster. Many other people work in a job where they deal with non-compliant, aggressive people every day: fast food workers, nurses, teachers. Yet they are taught to always be polite, to always de-escalate the situation. Why should a police officer be justified in shooting a 12 year old boy with a toy gun, in choking a man who was falsely accused of forgery? Maybe the difference between a police officer and a fast food worker is that only one of them has been told that killing is a viable option.

Officers are trained to shoot at the first sign of a threat, many have proven racial biases, and they are often asked to act quickly in high pressure situations. This is a recipe for disaster.”

And those are just the implicit biases. Perhaps much more frightening is the fact that an FBI report found that countless white supremacists have tried and succeeded in infiltrating police forces across the country. Why is the number of these “ghost skins”, as they like to call themselves, countless? According to the Guardian, “In the US, there is no federal policy for screening or monitoring the country’s 800,000+ law enforcement officers for extremist views.” In a horrifying case, a group of officers in Los Angeles in 1991 were the targets of a lawsuit because of their systemic abuse and killing of minority residents in the area. The officers were members of a neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang, yet they were allowed to join the county sheriff’s department. In 2012, an officer who had attended a KKK rally shot and killed a black teenager. Another report states, “Racism was so systemic at the Madison County Sheriff’s Department, the ACLU asserts, that the department’s blank arrest forms came with two words already filled in: ‘Black’ and ‘Male.’”

This hatred spreads via social media, where the people who post and view messages laced with dangerous extremism are rarely punished. An investigation by Reveal News found that hundreds of law enforcement officers were members of Facebook groups representing a plethora of dangerous ideologies ranging from Islamophobia to pro-Confederate sentiments. These extremists use social media platforms to spread their messages, recruit new members to their cause, and drown themselves in the voices of people who agree with them. 

Police officer is a profession in which we cannot afford to have murderers hidden in the ranks. The statement, “there are good cops too” is not a reassurance when the “bad cops” have the power and means to kill innocent people and get off with a slap on the wrist. White supremacists are attracted to this profession because they know how much damage police officers can do, how much power they hold. For many white people this issue is a matter of respect to the police. For black people it is a matter of survival.

For many white people this issue is a matter of respect to the police. For black people it is a matter of survival.”

The police system not only harbors violent officers and gives white supremacists a position through which they can enact their intentions, it also continually defends officers who have committed serious offenses. Many states have passed the “law enforcement officer bill of rights,” which grants cops privileges during investigations that civilians do not have. These include the right to a “cooling off” period before the officer has to respond to questions, which they can use to get their story straight and figure out how to best defend themself. They get the right to more comfortable interrogation times and environments, and before they are interrogated for an investigation, they are given access to the names of their complainants and their testimony. In addition, police misconduct records are confidential in 23 states and have limited availability in 15, so the truth of many cops’ pasts is hidden.

The culture in police departments is no better for accountability. Though 92.6% of officers surveyed in a National Institute of Justice report answered “strongly agree” or “agree” to the statement, “Your police department takes a very tough stance on improper behavior by police,” over half agreed that it is “not unusual for a police officer to turn a blind eye to improper conduct by other officers,” and 61% stated that officers “do not always report even serious criminal violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers.” This issue of accountability, both within police departments and the legal system, enables officers to avoid punishment even in gruesome killings, like that of Eric Garner or Tamir Rice, who was just 12 years old at the moment he was shot and killed.

This lack of punishment also gives officers the ability to abuse their power without fear of consequences through the use of excessive force, false arrests, and warrantless searches. Most people don’t truly know their rights, so they will consent to an unlawful search because they trust that they will not be taken advantage of–or they know that if they fight back, they could become another hashtag, another name in the book of humanity’s sins. Black people should not have to teach their children the right way to behave when they are confronted with an officer to avoid being killed. Put your hands on the wheel, announce when you are reaching for something, don’t leave your house without your driver’s license. Don’t talk back, don’t walk with your hood up, don’t resist. Black children learn beginning in their earliest years that their skin color makes them a target for the people who roam their neighborhoods with guns and who have the power, at any moment, to haul them away in handcuffs.

The official complaint filed against Derek Chauvin, George Floyd’s killer, states, “The defendant had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in total. Two minutes and 53 seconds of this was after Mr. Floyd was non-responsive. Police are trained that this type of restraint with a subject in a prone position is inherently dangerous.” Make no mistake; this was a targeted killing done in broad daylight, as three other officers (who, as of May 31st, have not been arrested) ignored Floyd’s cries for help.

Many people argue that officers are justified in being more hostile or violent to the people they question if they are serving in a high-crime area. But the graphic below shows that police violence and crime levels have no correlation.

This is not to say we do not need police officers, but we need to institute serious reforms to the policing system and the rest of the criminal justice system so that officers can actually serve and protect all citizens. ”

In an interview with the Washington Post, Justin Nix, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Louisville said, “The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black. Crime variables did not matter in terms of predicting whether the person killed was unarmed.”

At this point, you may be thinking of a parent, aunt or uncle, cousin, other relative, or friend that is a police officer. You may be very angry at the statement “all cops are bastards.” But ACAB does not target individual officers; of course members of law enforcement have families and friends. They show up for birthdays and hug their children and donate to charities, just like many other people do. But the moral character of an individual police officer has nothing to do with the fact that they work to uphold an order created by white people to oppress people of color. This is not to say we do not need police officers, but we need to institute serious reforms to the policing system and the rest of the criminal justice system so that officers can actually serve and protect all citizens. 

But when will this change come? If not with the deaths of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Sean Reed, Dion Johnson, Tony McDade, then when? How many more bullets, hands, boots, tasers, batons will scar black and brown bodies before people realize that we cannot continue to uphold this current order? We cannot afford to set a comfortable time and date for equality.