In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown and the ongoing protests in Ferguson, which have included curfews, arrests and another man killed by police, we are discovering an unnerving pattern of systematic abuse by some of those who are sworn to protect and defend their communities.
In Jennings, Missouri, where Brown’s shooter Officer Darren Wilson first got his start as a cop, the police force was so corrupt and racially motivated that the entire department was disbanded and the town started from scratch. Many of those watching the Brown investigation worry that the same motivations caused the Ferguson and St. Louis County officers to pull together to protect one of their own rather than truly investigate what happened at the scene when Wilson shot an unarmed African American young man.
The problems of abuse of power or racial profiling isn’t limited to Ferguson, Missouri, or the midwest, however. We’ve already seen cops assaulting women in holding cells and using illegal choke holds. In just the few weeks since the Ferguson shooting, even more stories are rolling in. A department is swearing that a 22-year-old African American man who died of a gun shot wound in the back of a police car actually killed himself — despite the fact that he had his hands handcuffed behind his back at the time he was shot. In South Carolina, police beat a man in a Walmart after tasering him twice, even as onloookers filmed them. In another Walmart, in Ohio, an African American man was killed by police while he held a toy rifle. And in Texas, a woman and her young children were pulled over by cops pointing guns at their vehicle, allegedly being mistaken for suspects in crime, despite the fact that the car’s model and color didn’t match the description and there were more people in her vehicle than in the alleged suspect’s car. The only similarity? The suspects and the family were both African American.
Has police brutality, racial profiling and other forms of violence and discrimination grown out of control in our system? If so, what can we do to stop it? Already, suggestions of police wearing camera equipment at all times, as well as ensuring that cameras are mounted on their dashboards have been bandied about. But as Ferguson showed us, you can have the equipment and still have problems if your police aren’t interested in the extra surveillance. The Ferguson police department blames the lack of use of the equipment on not having the financial ability to install it, but a $3,000 installation is nothing compared to the ongoing costs of investigating an officer in a high profile shooting, or cleaning up after weeks of protest in the town.
Maybe the answer lies outside of the system itself, with the people being “policed.” That’s what three teen siblings in Georgia are doing with their new app, “Five-O,” which they have dubbed a sort of “Yelp” for the police system.
“Five-O, which is in beta testing…isn’t the first app that’s intended to hold police accountable,” reports the Washington Post. “The American Civil Liberties Union chapter in New Jersey released an app in 2012, for instance, that let people record police interactions, and provided legal information. Five-O also provides a ‘Know your rights’ primer, using information from the ACLU. People can provide detailed information on Five-O about an interaction with a police officer, including where it took place, as well as their own race and gender. It lets people around the country rate their local law enforcement, and includes message boards as well.”
With cell phone video and picture-taking at most people’s fingertips, an app like Five-O could provide something that is desperately needed in our current system: accountability. As long as officers know that when they do commit discrimination, unnecessary violence or other violations within the line of duty, they can count on their own departments to keep them anonymous, or at the very least keep them unidentified until they are able to cover their trail as much as they can, they don’t have the same obligations to the public that they do otherwise.
After all, there is a reason they have badge numbers.
Police first and foremost are public servants. Their job is to protect, and their fall back is to enforce. That line has become far more blurred recently, and it needs to be reestablished. Between cameras, cell phones, and even Five-O, maybe we can take baby steps back to a place where police and the pubic are no longer enemies first, and partners last.
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