There were many strange and perplexing moments during and immediately after the trial of Amber Guyger, the former Dallas police officer found guilty of murdering Botham Jean, an unarmed neighbor, after she mistook his apartment for her own. But none was more disturbing than testimony from Texas Ranger David Armstrong, the lead investigator in the case.
Under oath, Armstrong said that he didn’t believe Guyger had committed a crime. “I believe that she did perceive him as a deadly threat,” he said. (The jury had been cleared from the courtroom when Armstrong made that stunning pronouncement.)
Forensics made clear that Jean was sitting on his couch eating ice cream and watching TV. How could he possibly be mistaken as a threat?
Lee Merritt, the attorney for Jean’s family, has recently said that he wants to “change the culture of policing in America.” He and activists with similar goals, including those known for their work with the group Black Lives Matter, face a daunting challenge. The “culture of policing” in America is infused with racism, weighed down by stereotypes, and infested with officers with a victim mentality. This nation has spent centuries demonizing black and brown people as lawless, and police departments reek of that conditioning.
Just take a look at offensive Facebook posts written by police officers in several cities. Not only do they encourage reckless violence and mock due process, but they also demean people of color. (The posts were revealed with reporting by Chicago-based Injustice Watch, a nonprofit journalism organization focused on criminal justice, and the Philadelphia-based Plain View Project.)
Over recent decades, it has been tempting to believe that police agencies could be transformed with more diversity in hiring. If they recruited more women and more officers of color, those agencies would not only more closely resemble the cities and towns they serve, but would also be more likely to shake free of the bigotry and stereotypes that lead to so much injustice in the so-called criminal justice system — or so progressives believed.
That has not proved true. Women (including Guyger) and officers of color simply take on (or bring with them to the job) the same unfortunate habits of mind that have long permeated policing. For the record, Armstrong, who defended Guyger’s actions, is black.
Nor has it turned out to be true that equipping police officers with body cameras — or cameras on the dashboards of their cars — forces them to behave more professionally. Countless videos exist of police officers brutalizing suspects — beating them when they are already handcuffed, slamming them to the ground though they are compliant or even shooting them when they pose no threat. In some of the more infamous cases, such as that involving the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald by then-Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, officials simply try to suppress the incriminating images rather than weeding out bad actors.
One of the more malignant features of police culture is its adherence to a “no snitch” rule. In cities where poor neighborhoods are crime-ridden and law-abiding citizens, including children, are often the victims of violence, law enforcement authorities bemoan a culture in which no witnesses ever dare report evidence to the police. In many public statements, police officials have not only pleaded for information but also criticized the culture that discourages any cooperation with investigators.
And yet, police officers have a “no snitch” culture that would put gangbangers to shame. In those rare cases where police misconduct is thoroughly investigated, the resulting reports often show multiple officers who knew of the misconduct but at best, failed to report it or, at worst, lied to cover it up. Such was the case in the McDonald shooting, where other officers on the scene lied about the circumstances that led Van Dyke to fire his weapon at McDonald 16 times.
The work of trying to transform police culture is worthwhile, but the change is certainly not at hand. The Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, and a smaller group, the International Union of Police Associations, has already endorsed him for re-election. Other law enforcement unions will likely do the same. That says a lot about police culture.