The Attorney General’s comments on police brutality blame communities for their lack of trust in law enforcement. Liam Glen writes on the problems in American policing and the futility of Barr's approach.
The New York Times has christened Attorney General Bill Barr “the Man from 1980” for his controversial statements on religious freedom and presidential power. His hardcore conservative rhetoric has not evolved since his days in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
On December 3, Barr proved this assessment correct yet again. While giving the Third Annual Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing, he could not resist making some inflammatory comments.
Specifically, he attracted a whirlwind of controversy while speaking on the need to respect law enforcement officers, ending with the ominous statement, “if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
To Barr’s critics, this amounts to a thinly-veiled threat. It paints law enforcement as a protection racket whose services are conditional on communities showing the proper respect.
A more charitable explanation is that Barr was referring to the so-called Ferguson Effect, the idea that increased scrutiny of police actions makes them unable to do their jobs and thus increases crime rates.
Without hard evidence of this effect, however, it primarily serves as a way to shut down concerns about police violence in minority and low-income communities. On their own, such remarks are troublesome. Coming from the head of the US Justice Department, however, they are cause for major concern.
Bad Apples and Bad Barrels
Barr laments the fact that communities do not seem to trust police, but he is utterly incurious about the cause of this mistrust. High-profile instances of excessive violence, usually against unarmed black men, are blamed on a handful of “bad apples.” But the statistical reality tells a different story.
Across the board, police use of force is employed against black people far more than one would expect based on national demographics. While its exact effects on policing are disputed, no one can seriously dispute the ubiquity of implicit bias in American society.
These problems persist no matter whether individual officers are good people or not. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, whose Stanford Prison Study demonstrated that even ordinary people are capable of acts of evil, responds to talk of bad apples by bringing up “bad barrels” that encourage immoral behavior.
In an atmosphere that encourages officers to view minority populations with suspicion, to use excessive force, and to make unnecessary arrests, nearly anyone would find themselves conforming.
Unfortunately, this pattern repeats in police departments throughout the United States, be it through toxic cultures that encourage disrespect for citizens or policies like arrest quotas that get in the way of officers actually solving community problems.
The Illusory Blue Line
But this type of introspection is offensive to Barr. To him, the police are above criticism of any kind. Officers are always in the right, and they deserve nothing but respect from those they protect.
This is reflected in another line from his speech, which he has used at least once before when speaking to the Fraternal Order of Police, “We are fighting an unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society. While there are battles won and lost each day, there is never a final resolution – a final victory is never in sight.”
This stark rhetoric paints police aggression as a necessity, the only thing preventing complete conquest by the forces of evil. Consequently, that previous speech contained numerous references to the law enforcement as a “thin blue line” that keeps society from collapsing in on itself.
This mentality shields the police from any semblance of accountability. Instead, they are justified in any action. Reveling an incredible lack of self-awareness, the thin blue symbolism is often accompanied by the skull symbol representing the Punisher, a murderous vigilante from the Marvel comics.
The image of the bad boy maverick who refuses to play by the rules is an enduring one in American popular culture. But the reality is much less romantic. Due process, rule of law, and the principle of innocent until proven guilty exist for a reason. When a single person may act as judge, jury, and executioner, they will inevitably make fatal mistakes.
In theory, no one will disagree with this. But in practice, any criticism of American policing is met with reactionary backlash. They ignore that in most of the rest of the developed world, less aggressive policing strategies are in fact accompanied by lower crime rates.
Of course, lenient policing alone will not solve endemic problems in American society. But when trust in public institutions declines, there is a dilemma which Barr and his like refuse to acknowledge.
The status quo obviously cannot stand, especially when something so essential as law enforcement is at stake. But simply telling communities that they would be better off if only they showed respect will not make them change their behavior. Whether one likes it or not, the only way out of this situation is for institutions to make themselves more trustworthy.