Essay on police books – The Washington Post


When I wrote a book about Black men and the police in 2017, someone at the publishing house said it was a perfect topic from a marketing perspective because it would always be in the news.

The remark has proved sadly accurate. In the years before my book and in the years since, we have witnessed innumerable cases of Black people subjected to vicious beatings and unjustified killings. Technology has brought this brutality into our living rooms as Black and Brown people armed with smartphones have recorded cops doing the violent and racist things that we always said they did but that many White people apparently did not believe.

Now everyone could see it with their own eyes. The evidence was indisputable, like those grainy TV images from the 1950s and ’60s of police officers spraying water hoses and siccing dogs on civil rights activists. Except that this new movement didn’t need Dan Rather. It had Darnella Frazier, the teenager who recorded Derek Chauvin squeezing the life out George Floyd with his knee on Floyd’s neck. Nor did the movement need CBS, because the revolution no longer had to be televised. Darnella was on Facebook.

But the advancement in technology has not led to an advancement in racial justice. The police still kill more than 1,000 people each year, and those people are disproportionately Black and Brown. Attention has not yet meant progress.

Two recent books propose ways forward, but the limited hope they offer is overwhelmed by the depravity of the misconduct they describe, as well as the persistent failure of politics and law to hold law enforcement accountable. The reader is left wanting not so much to petition a legislature or file a lawsuit as to throw a brick.

The Riders Come Out at Night: Brutality, Corruption, and Cover Up in Oakland” is investigative journalists Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham’s deep dive into the brutal history of the Oakland, Calif., criminal legal system — one dare not refer to it as a criminal “justice” system after this searing exposé. “Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable” is law professor Joanna Schwartz’s rigorous examination of why, most of the time, dirty cops get away with violating their badges.

Winston and BondGraham make the case that a “reactionary” workplace culture within law enforcement agencies causes most reform efforts to fail. Even when the Justice Department takes legal steps after a federal investigation to order changes at a local police department, “back sliding is common. New abuses constantly surface,” the authors write. “Resistance to change imposed from outsiders, especially civilians, is baked into police culture in the United States.” Exhibit A for Winston and BondGraham is the Oakland Police Department, which has undergone more reform attempts than any other department in the country.

The book, a detailed history of Oakland told through the lens of policing, contains lots of juicy details. Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton arrived in the city as a boy, his family landing there as part of the Great Migration. His life has the epic rise and fall of a Shakespearean character — from killing a racist cop in what Newton maintained was self-defense, and being prosecuted for allegedly killing a sex worker who called him “baby,” a name he detested, to earning a PhD from the University of California, and later being gunned down on the streets of Oakland by another Black man. We learn that Robert Mueller’s failure to bring Donald Trump to justice in the Russia investigation was foreshadowed by his failure, when he was head federal prosecutor in Northern California, to hold accountable a gang of Oakland police officers known as the “Riders.” The book’s most dramatic storyline follows their vicious assaults on the Oakland residents whom they were supposed to be serving and protecting, and the heroic but unsuccessful effort of a rookie cop to bring them to justice.

But that’s just one of literally hundreds of abuses. At times, the detail becomes tedious and the corrupt cops indistinguishable. Winston and BondGraham intend their narrative as a cautionary tale for other cities and, ultimately, present changes undertaken by the Oakland Police Department as a success story. They write approvingly of the city’s most recent police chief, LeRonne Armstrong, a reformer who got the job after the previous chief, Anne Kirkpatrick, was fired for not effectively implementing court-mandated improvements. They claim, after 380 pages: “It is possible to reform the police. That’s one lesson Oakland can offer for the rest of the nation.”

Since the book was published, Armstrong himself has been fired by Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao after he allegedly gave special treatment to Michael Chung, a sergeant accused of official misconduct. Chung had backed his car into another car, causing $14,000 in damage, and fled the scene. His passenger in the car was his girlfriend, a police officer who reported to him. He had not disclosed this relationship, in violation of department regulations. In a separate incident, Chung fired his service weapon in an elevator at police department headquarters, failed to admit that he was the shooter and, in an apparent effort to avoid detection, tossed the bullet casing over the Bay Bridge. Chung was a rising star on the force and one of the highest-paid Oakland police officers, earning almost $500,000 in 2021 between his regular pay and overtime. For the hit and run, the only sanction he received, with Armstrong’s blessing, was training and counseling. After the elevator episode, Chung was placed on administrative leave.

After the incidents became a local scandal, Armstrong claimed he wasn’t aware of all the facts, but an independent investigation found that his comments were not credible or consistent with the evidence. The investigation attributed some blame to “a failure of leadership” and found “issues and shortcomings that go beyond the conduct of individual officers to the very question of whether the Oakland Police Department is capable of policing itself and effectively holding its own officers accountable for misconduct.”

“Still corrupt after all these reforms” might not be the coda Winston and BondGraham intended, but Schwartz would not be surprised. “Shielded” has its share of stories, too, told with enough passion and eloquence to support Schwartz’s faith in suing the bastards, that great American engine of social change. The book’s central argument is that civil rights litigation against individual officers would advance reform more effectively than the rare criminal prosecutions of trigger-happy cops or federal takeovers of local police departments. Similar lawsuits have worked for environmental justice and voting rights, but the main problem for policing is a judicial doctrine the Supreme Court made up called “qualified immunity,” which, in the context of law enforcement, frequently translates to “You can’t sue me, I’m a cop.”

Schwartz would get rid of that doctrine, placing more hope in local lawmakers and judges than in the federal government to lift the barriers that insulate police departments from civil rights suits. When a cop is found liable, Schwartz would also have some of the money come right out of the cop’s paycheck, as opposed to public coffers, which is what happens now in most jurisdictions. She believes that would be the strongest incentive for street officers to do the right thing.

“Shielded” was inspired by the national reckoning on race and policing after Floyd’s death. Because Chauvin’s conduct was so sadistic, it was tempting to think of it as idiosyncratic. Schwartz’s prescription would be most effective if the biggest problem were bad-apples cops. “We cannot wait for another viral video to restart our national conversation about police violence and reform,” she writes. But, inevitably, new videos of police misconduct have gone viral since Schwartz wrote those words, and they suggest a different problem: The system is working the way it’s supposed to work. Memphis cops brutalized Tyre Nichols as though they thought they were doing regular police work.

Last month, police officers stopped Nichols, a young Black man, for reasons that are still unknown. The original police report stated that Nichols was pulled over for reckless driving, but the Memphis police chief has said she has seen no evidence of that. In any event, that police report was full of lies, as was the police report for Breonna Taylor, which said she was uninjured though the cops had pumped multiple bullets into her body, and the police report for Floyd, which left out the fact that Chauvin had put his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

The Memphis cops yanked Nichols out of the car, refused to tell him why he had been stopped and physically assaulted him, including shooting at him with a stun gun. Nichols did what I would have done if I was being attacked by a gang of thugs: He ran. One cop on the scene said, “I hope they stomp his ass,” and when the police caught him, roughly eight minutes later, that was exactly what they proceeded to do. At one point when Nichols had been beaten so badly he couldn’t stand, one officer held him up so another could punch him in the head. Nichols died three days later. Five officers, all Black, were fired and are now charged with second-degree murder.

The most infuriating — and scariest — thing about the beatdown of Nichols is how rote the brutality seems. Nichols weighed 145 pounds, while each of the five officers implicated in his death weighs more than 200 pounds. Their heft seems part of the job qualifications for working in their special unit, which was called “Scorpion” (the department “permanently deactivated” the unit one day after the videos were released). Like other specialized squads all over the United States, Scorpion’s mission was to demonstrate to the citizens of Memphis that it was the toughest, meanest gang on the streets. Concerned about this style of policing, President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that “law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior — mindset.” The Scorpion cops were warriors on steroids.

In the videos released by the Memphis Police Department, Nichols does not appear to fight or otherwise threaten the officers; indeed, he is as polite as a man can be when he is being tortured to death. He says, “Please stop.” Maybe that’s why in the videos you hear the officers occasionally call Nichols “bro”; it’s their way of communicating that it’s nothing personal. The videos depict the police as not so much angry as hard at work, putting in time. As they beat Nichols, they pause occasionally to catch their breath. One cop stops to tie his shoes. Near the end of the videos, as a bloody and bruised Nichols is propped against a squad car, the cops do what a work team does when it successfully completes a project: fist bumps and congratulations all around.

Near the end of “Shielded,” Schwartz notes that the criminal legal system “desperately needs repair,” a claim that seems confirmed by the book’s exceptionally lucid and well-argued analysis. Still, when an apparently innocent citizen like Nichols is tortured and executed by armed agents of the state, reform seems not only unambitious but inadequate. And, of course, if the system is not broken — if it is working the way it is supposed to work — there is nothing to fix. The persistence of police violence, evidenced in all the viral videos and national reckonings, suggests that this is how many Americans prefer that some people be policed.

Paul Butler, a Washington Post contributing columnist, writes on issues at the intersection of criminal justice and race. Butler is the Albert Brick professor in law at Georgetown University Law Center, an MSNBC legal analyst and the author of “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.”

The Riders Come Out at Night

Brutality, Corruption, and Cover-Up in Oakland

By Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham

How the Police Became Untouchable

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