Video Killed Trust in Police Officers

Recordings of police brutality have undermined the public's perceptions of law enforcement—and changed how Americans see "good cops" and "bad cops."
DavidSonscott15/Flickr

Until I was 11, I trusted police officers, for reasons that Hans Fiene captures in The Federalist. "For many conservatives, especially those of us living in nice, comfy suburbs, it’s hard to apply the 'power corrupts' doctrine to law enforcement because we’ve never seen corrupted enforcers of the law," he writes. "We’ve never been wrongly arrested. We’ve never witnessed our children put in jail based on the false reports of police officers. We’ve never seen our neighbors beaten or tased without cause. And in the extremely unlikely scenario that a police officer drove into our neighborhood and murdered our unarmed friend in cold blood, we cannot possibly fathom a scenario where the justice system wouldn’t be on our side and where that police officer wouldn’t spend the rest of his life in jail."

Personal experience shapes attitudes more powerfully than anything else. But it wasn't a run-in with the law that changed me. Video killed my trust in police officers. On March 3, 1991, or shortly thereafter, I watched a TV news report like this one:

Until that day, my 11-year-old's notion of race in America included an awareness  of slavery, which seemed like ancient history; knowledge of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks as venerated heroes from the distant past; and the Cosby family from the eponymous TV show, who established my notion of a contemporary black family. Then the Rodney King beating happened an hour's drive from my house, and less than six months later, after an overwhelmingly white jury acquitted the police officers who did the beating, the L.A. riots began. These events forced suburban Californians my age to confront parts of reality we'd never imagined. I couldn't grok why police officers would attack a man like that, or how a jury could acquit them, but I'd seen it with my own eyes. The incident didn't turn me against all law enforcement, but I started to believe that there were good cops and bad cops. Soon after, I was in the car with my mom when she got pulled over for a speeding ticket and wondered, slightly fearfully, if we'd get a bad cop. The officer turned out to be perfectly polite, of course. I didn't yet understand that he might or might not have behaved the same if we'd been a black family. 

As events in Ferguson, Missouri unfold, several observers have noticed that "this time is different." Unlike during past instances of police officers killing or assaulting young black men in suspicious though not yet demonstrably criminal circumstances, some prominent conservatives are doubting the official police narrative or criticizing their militarized response to protesters. Some attribute this to a growing libertarian influence in the GOP, and it's no accident that Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has offered one of the strongest calls for police reform.

A poll from last year on partisan differences in trust for the police (Gallup)

My colleagues Peter Beinart and Ross Douthat persuasively argue that falling crime has made the American public less inclined to reflexively side with police, which has changed political incentives. Douthat posits that this is a generational shift.

But when it comes to how reflexively or instinctively cops are presumed to be truthful and honorable, the importance of video shouldn't be discounted. A generation ago, footage of police officers in the Deep South turning snarling dogs and firehoses on Civil Rights protesters made a deep impression on my parents, even though they grew up a continent away in an overwhelmingly white suburb where their personal experiences would've made police behaving that way seem unfathomable. Watching Jim Crow's enforcers with their own eyes couldn't be ignored. If anyone thought in 1991 that such brutality was a vestige of the past, or something that could only happen among racist cops in the South, the Rodney King tape disabused them of that notion, kicking off an era of cheap, increasingly ubiquitous recording equipment that was bound to capture more police misbehavior.

Of course young people growing up with YouTube will trust police officers less. The many videos of brutality don't lie—and they confirm that, sometimes, cops do lie. 

Even more often, they hold their tongues.

"Most police officers are good cops and good people. It is an unquestionably difficult job, especially in the current circumstances," Senator Paul wrote in his op-ed. "There is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement." He went on to talk about police militarization. But there is another systemic problem in law enforcement. Even good people in uniform routinely fail to report on bad colleagues. They don't engage in certain unsavory behavior themselves. But when other cops do, they look the other way. Nearly every law enforcement agency in America has within its ranks an unofficial code of loyalty to good and bad officers alike.

This is evident in the Rodney King tape. As Peter Jennings said way back in 1991, it was "a story that might never have surfaced if someone wouldn't have picked up his home video camera"—a judgment he rendered, and that we all know to be true, despite the fact that there weren't just five officers beating on King, there were also numerous other police officers standing around watching. This is a pattern that repeats itself again and again in documented instances of police abuse. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates has addressed the canard that black people ignore black-on-black violence. I'd only add that I've heard a lot more denunciations of black-on-black violence from black people, black leaders—hell, even black rappers—than I've heard rank-and-file police officers denouncing "blue-on-black" or even "blue-on-white" violence perpetrated by fellow officers. The only such statements I can ever recall came from police brass under political pressure to distance themselves from underlings caught misbehaving. I don't necessarily think police officers are less likely than people in other professions to tell on misbehaving colleagues. But the stakes are rather different, and their job is to enforce the rules, even when fellow officers break them.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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