If the public is starting to sour on the police, there’s a good reason for it: the police soured on the public a long time ago.
Not all police, obviously – like just about any class of people, there are good and bad cops. But as an institution, American police have made so many harmful things common practice that it sounds increasingly naïve to think the good trumps the bad.
Recently, the story of Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh – a toddler blown up in May by a SWAT team in Atlanta, just released from the burn unit of an ICU and still struggling with a sensitive prognosis – cast a new spotlight on the horrifying trend of reckless, excessive police force.
Truly, the story as recounted by the boy’s mother is one of the most complete, emotional, and grippingly terrifying accounts of the growing epidemic of police violence – just the kind of straight-up, knock-you-in-the-fucking-stomach write-up that’s needed to accomplish what statistics and “neutral” reporting cannot. Her bravery in using the language she does to describe her pain and helplessness is admirable.
There is no defense for the actions of the officers who blew up Bou Bou. They broke into the home to arrest a drug suspect, a relative who was later picked up for simple, small-time marijuana possession. SWAT teams routinely break into homes at night in search of small amounts of drugs, guns drawn and grenades detonating, as though the sleeping pothead inside is wearing battle armor and holding a bazooka.
Until it happens to you – or until someone like Alecia Phonesavanh comes along to write about it so vividly – it all seems remote. But it could happen to anyone. An anonymous tip is enough to send police on a reckless, bloodthirsty hunt into your home, even if it’s not the right address. In Phonesavanh’s case, police found no drugs in the home, nor was the suspect even there. Instead, they put a hole into the chest of a 2-year-old boy sleeping in his crib and ordered his innocent, distraught family to shut up.
Even if the suspect had been home – hell, even if the suspect was home and lording over a $2 million pile of cocaine – their actions are overblown and extremely dangerous. These are grown men with the deadliest weaponry on earth and the moral compass of a high school bully, officially sanctioned to use that weaponry any way they see fit against a population they’re taught to regard as the enemy.
Police officers like to say that excessive force is necessary to protect themselves in the field, because they never know what they’re going to come up against. Their solution to that mystery has been to just assume there’s danger and barge in like terrorists, effectively transferring all of the risk in a police action onto the public, guilty or otherwise.
It’s actually an extraordinary cowardly and harmful thing, but it’s a chance SWAT teams are increasingly willing to take. They create a situation of fear and carnage and then command everybody to remain calm under threat of gunpoint. Many have died in SWAT raids for mistaking police for burglars and drawing a home protection gun on them.
Because of the easy and widespread proliferation of military-grade equipment throughout America (thanks in large part to organizations like the NRA and weapons manufacturers), police in big cities need to have well-armed and well-trained SWAT teams to deal with the occasional hostage situation or right-wing gunman. But police violence has been used in everything from drug warrants to checking on barbers licenses, and make no mistake about it: even if no shots are fired, kicking down a door and pointing a rifle in someone’s face is an act of obscene violence.
There are those who will doubt Phonesavanh’s story, and it’s easy to see why they might since it sounds so extreme. Sadly, it fits the narrative of forced police entry perfectly – anyone who pays attention to this kind of thing, let alone has been the victim of it, would feel their heart wracked with pain and have no reason to doubt Phonesavanh’s story.
Whether he makes it or not, baby Bou Bou is not collateral damage in a noble war. He is a senseless throwaway of a police culture that cares about arrests and revenue more than protection of the public. The cultured belief shared by the nation’s police force that everyone can be arrested for something and everyone can be treated with violent cruelty has led to police becoming public enemy #1 for many Americans.
Sadly, consequences for officers committing these kinds of atrocities are nearly nil. At the harsh end of the spectrum, they may receive paid leave or a transfer; more often nothing happens at all and they never lose the support of their brothers and sisters in blue. It’s a dangerous kind of nepotism that perpetuates bad feelings between police and the public when, if anyone should be critical of the SWAT team’s actions in Atlanta, it should be other police officers.
If all of this was happening in Turkey, the American intelligentsia would be outraged. Instead, the only mainstream national news story appeared in USA Today announcing Bou Bou’s recovery – happy news, to be sure, but by focusing on it the media can effectively absolve police of any wrongdoing or chalk it all up to an innocent misunderstanding. Meanwhile, politicians and police chiefs offer weak statements like this one from attorney Sally Yates: “Federal and state authorities are coordinating to get to the bottom of what happened.” What happened is obvious – police exploded a hole, deliberately or blindly, into the chest of a sleeping 2-year-old, and under lame pretenses at that. No further investigation is necessary. This kind of political hand washing – looking at both sides, promising investigations, offering condolences – only ensures that nothing ever gets done.
America is not a warzone, no matter how badly police want to turn it into one. The tactics used on mere suspects of minor crimes are only truly warranted by an extremely small percentage of the criminal population. Most people – even drug dealers – are not gun-crazy, suicidal madmen who would endanger their families in a fight with the police.
As mother Alecia Phonesavanh writes, “I used to tell my kids that if they were ever in trouble, they should go to the police for help. Now my kids don’t want to go to sleep at night because they’re afraid the cops will kill them or their family.” Don’t wait for this to happen to you – take action immediately to get the police back on the public’s side. Write letters, confront loved ones on the force, go to the media with any instance of police abuse, keep the cell phone cameras rolling, and rein the police back in as public servants, not public menaces.
About the author: Kyle Schmidlin is a blogger and musician living in Austin, Texas and the founder of Third Rail News.