On Tuesday, Attorney General of the United States William Barr warned that if Americans don’t give more “support and respect” to police, “they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
Suggesting police protection will be withheld from communities for the views their members express is dangerous. Not only does he disregard their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, Barr refuses to understand that communities often exercise the right to protest in direct response to injustice. In a September 2019 report on policing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Human Rights Watch found police activity diminished the quality of life and harmed large populations of black and poor people who experience harsher, discriminatory treatment – from physical force to oppressive court debt, disproportionately long traffic stops, and most devastatingly, the use of lethal force. Today, Black people in Tulsa are subjected to physical force – including tasers, police dog bites, pepper spray, punches, and kicks – at a rate 2.7 times white people.
The problem extends beyond Tulsa. Twenty years ago, Human Rights Watch found victims of police misconduct in 14 major US cities lacked effective avenues to seek justice and that excessive force by police went uninvestigated.
Barr’s disturbing comments are in keeping with the Trump administration’s disregard for civil rights and promotion of police impunity. Trump himself encouraged officers to use excessive force during arrests. His Department of Justice (DOJ), responsible for some degree of oversight on local police, rolled back critical accountability mechanisms that served to reform police departments with proven track records of violating civil rights. Barr’s suggestion police should stop working for communities not sufficiently loyal is particularly egregious in light of the DOJ’s lack of oversight over local and state police departments.
Law enforcement officers swear an oath to be accountable to the communities they serve. “Protect and serve” should apply to everyone and when it doesn’t, communities are made less safe, and rights – disproportionately of black, brown, and Indigenous peoples - are abused. Communities in Tulsa, Baltimore, Ferguson, and Standing Rock, among many others, know firsthand the trauma that comes from the failure of police to abide by their sworn obligation. All too often justice and equal protection under the law are conditioned on race and class.
Police do not and should not expect to command support and respect solely for being law enforcement officers. That respect must be earned. And, when police do wrong, they should be held accountable – no exceptions, no conditions.