Initially, the Buffalo police insisted that the man “tripped and fell” during “a skirmish involving protesters,” a description implying that the officers had been physically threatened by the elderly protester and had acted to protect themselves. In the absence of a video proving that story false, it seems likely they would have stuck to that story. The willingness of officers to behave this way on camera and then lie about it raises discomfiting questions about what such officers are willing to do, or mislead the public about, when no one is recording.
Some of the recent protests across the United States have been marred by looting, rioting, and violence, but the video from Buffalo was just the latest example of police officers responding to anti-police-brutality protests with violence against individuals who pose no apparent threat. Since the nationwide demonstrations began, videos showing police beating unarmed protesters, driving police cars into crowds, firing at journalists, and teargassing peaceful protesters with no provocation have spread across social media. Elected officials and police spokespeople have insisted that the catalyzing event for the protests, the release of a nine-minute video showing the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin digging his knee into the back of George Floyd’s neck, was an isolated incident. But the response of many police departments across the country vindicates the protesters’ complaints: In many cases, protesters against excessive force have themselves become the targets of excessive force.
The reaction of Buffalo’s police union helps explain why such abuses remain a stubborn problem. One core purpose of unions is to advocate for their members and protect their jobs as best they can. But in the context of policing, that often means protecting officers who abuse their authority. As Reason’s Peter Suderman writes, “In case after case, police unions have defended deadly misdeeds committed by law enforcement,” even when officers violate department policies in a way that leads to someone’s death.
That not only reinforces a culture in which officers are wary of reporting abuse; it ensures that even if they do report it, risking the disapproval and anger of their colleagues, the person they report is unlikely to be punished.
Annie Lowrey: Defund the police
Police officers themselves know this. According to a 2000 survey published by the National Institute of Justice, 67 percent of police officers believe that “an officer who reports another officer’s misconduct is likely to be given the cold shoulder by his or her fellow officers.” Fifty-two percent believe that “it is not unusual for a police officer to turn a blind eye to improper conduct by other officers.” Just 39 percent agreed with the statement that “police officers always report serious criminal violations involving abuse of authority by fellow officers.” A more recent 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of police officers believed most officers in their department would not report a colleague whom they caught drunk driving. And this is the view of the police themselves.