I was driving around the other day when I realized that the license tag on my car had expired. I didn't panic, because I didn't have to. If the cops pulled me over, I could feel assured as a white male: My life would not be in danger.
It was an expired registration tag that led the police to pull over Daunte Wright, the young Black man killed by Officer Kim Potter in suburban Minneapolis this month. And it was temporary license plates that prompted a chain of events that ended with police in rural Virginia pepper- spraying Caron Nazario, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, who is Black and Latino.
Race is the only explanation for Nazario's loathsome assault. The blue wall of silence, the code that calls on cops to protect one another against charges of brutality and criminality, compounded the attack: The two officers filed "near identical" misstatements about what happened, according to a lawsuit filed by Nazario.
Cops protect the state. They also are the state. We revere them for the first part. We fear them for the second. But there's actually a ray of hope on the police reform blotter.
The blue wall may be starting to crack. It was broken in the Derek Chauvin trial.
It's no small thing that several Minneapolis police officers, including Chief Medaria Arradondo, took the stand against Chauvin in his trial over the death of George Floyd. Fourteen officers in the same department signed an open letter last year saying Chauvin "failed as a human and stripped George Floyd of his dignity and life."
Maybe these acts of courage are isolated — mere dents in a wall that is institutional and pervasive.
Cops protecting bad cops is ingrained in the system. Many officers feel that only a brother or sister in blue knows the peril they face — and has their backs. That's true to an extent. Too many police officers act as if being the face of the law makes them above the law.
Some years ago, I wrote a book called "Breaking Blue," about what had been called the oldest actively investigated homicide case in the United States. It involved a killing in 1935, and a powerful cop running a fencing scheme was suspected of the crime. Three generations of police officers protected the accused in uniform. When Anthony Bamonte, a sheriff in eastern Washington state, finally appeared to solve the crime in 1989, he ran into fresh resistance from the inside.
"You never bad-mouth a brother," a former police officer wrote him in a threatening letter.
Smashing the blue wall is one thing that has to happen to fix the lethal flaws in modern law enforcement. Another will be just as hard, if not more so: acknowledging that racism, like the code of silence, runs deep in police ranks.
Defunding the police is not the answer. It's an absurd idea. A wave of violence and chaos quickly overwhelmed an area declared police-free in Seattle, where I live, last summer. Among the victims were several people of color.
"Defund the police" is even worse as a political slogan; the idea is supported by only 18% of Americans, according to one poll from last month. Politically, all the slogan will do is hurt the cause of reform, as it appeared to drag down Democrats in last year's congressional elections.
Reinventing the police, a far better idea, got a start in New Orleans in 2016, with a program that teaches officers to intervene when they see fellow officers doing something bad.
We need every cop to wear a body camera. We need to curb the power of police unions, the biggest protectors of the blue wall. And we need officers of all stripes to back the words of those 14 in Minneapolis. They said, "This is not who we are." Now prove it.
The New York Times