Civil Unrest

The Police Do What They Do Because

New York City Police, traffic vehicle, showing department motto: Courtesy Professionalism Respect. Photo by Koli Mitra

“Please don’t cry, Ma’am,” said the white policeman to my mother, a brown woman. “These things happen all the time.”

The year was 1980.  The place was Alexandria, a suburban town in the state of Virginia, close to the US capital of Washington D.C.

My dad was teaching my mom to drive. She did well on the written test, she got her learners’ permit and was practising.

It was evening and she drove around town with my dad sitting on the passengers’ seat. Before going back home, they decided to pick up some milk from Seven Eleven (a chain convenience store). She was parking, when instead of the brake, she accidentally pressed the accelerator.

The car lurched forward, stopping just short of the glass panes of the store. Dad had pulled the emergency brake. Mom now pressed down hard on the brake. Fortunately, by the grace of God, no one was hurt, but my Mom was howling. When she slammed down on the brakes, she barely missed hitting a woman who had just walked out of the store. The thought that she could have hit this person completely rattled Mom.  

Dad called the police to report the incident, as is the custom. The police arrived shortly.

“The first thing that the policeman did was comfort me,” my mom recalled later. He told my dad, who was also shaken, “Don’t worry, Sir, these things happen. That’s why it’s called an accident.  At least, thank God, no one was injured.”

Throughout the writing of the report, checking of the documents and registering the case, my mom kept crying and asking the policeman, “Does anyone even do this? Does anyone step on the gas instead of the brake?” And he kept reassuring her, “Of course they do. Worse things happen.”  

For me, since childhood, the lasting impression of the police as compassionate and caring had been formed based on this one incident experienced by my parents. 

Over the years, reports of abuse of power by the police, everywhere in the world, opened my eyes and dimmed the blind faith to a considerable extent, but it didn’t completely decimate my faith that horrors like racism or power-drunk cruelty in general, were exceptions. Not rare, but still somehow “exceptions.” Errant behaviour, I thought, was limited to certain twisted and cruel individuals in an overall just system. Most cops surely care enough to make sure they treat people with compassion and respect except incidents when there is an imminent threat of violence.

But in the last several years, it has become increasingly difficult to hold on to that impression. Incident after incident of brutal, fatal confrontations with people who were unarmed and fully under the cops’ control have been visible to us in actual footage.

Watching Derek Chauvin, press down his knee on George Floyd’s neck, calmly, with hands in pocket, looking ahead blankly with a diabolic grin on his face, as his victim struggled for life and pleaded so that he could catch his breath, I felt that I lost my grip on that old faith about “exceptions.”

Video footage, reportedly from CCTV cameras of restaurants nearby, which were obtained and broadcast by news channels, indicated that Floyd was not being violent. He was not attacking anyone. He was not threatening anyone. He was not brandishing a gun or any other weapon. He was not even trying to escape. There is no explanation for why Chauvin did what he did. No remotely acceptable explanation, anyway. Chauvin was subsequently arrested and charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter.

There was a chilling element of entitlement in his expression, which seemed to suggest that he was quite confident he would get away with whatever it is that he was doing. And given the track record of the last several years, it wouldn’t be baseless.

But why? Is it the individual temperament that makes one cop good and another bad? Can their personalities determine how they will behave in certain situations? Of course we know there are legal rules limiting what they can do, yet those boundaries seem to be flagrantly breached on a regular basis.

What emboldens this breaching — not only of formal rules, but the basic norms of human decency? Is there tacit (or overt) endorsement, even encouragement from their superiors or whoever is supposed to hold them accountable?

“It would be incorrect to deny that administration plays a significant role in policing,” says a former top cop of Calcutta. “I have worked under different political regimes and my experience is that the focus varies.” He says that he has tried to infuse the idea of “being humane” into the training. “Police training traditionally does not take that into account as much as it needs to. Reforms are important.”

Indeed. The idea that policing is a public SERVICE rather than a control mechanism has declined steadily as state control has increased.

Earlier this month, Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter released a statement on George Floyd’s killing. Part of it read, “People of power, privilege, and moral conscience must stand up and say, ‘no more’ to a racially discriminatory police and justice system, immoral economic disparities between whites and blacks, and government actions that undermine our unified democracy. We are responsible for creating a world of peace and equality for ourselves and future generations.”  

In the year 1980, Jimmy Carter was President of United States.

The Author’s mother, Jharna Mitra, as a student driver in 1980. Photo by Prasun Mitra.

Comment here (your name & contact optional)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.