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Police and Democracy: An Unchecked Force

On September 17, New York Times columnist Charles Blow addressed a full crowd at Brown in a colloquium titled “The New Civil Rights Movement.” Blow spoke forcefully — religiously, even — about the state of racial inequality in the United States, concentrating especially on police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. With its roots in the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, Black Lives Matter is a fervent response to the continued and systematic injustices inflicted upon the black community throughout this country. The protesters are responding to the violence condoned and, in fact, encouraged by the institution of the United States government. It is the institution, Blow reminded the crowd, which creates harmful policies and cultures of violence. It is the state, as an institution, that funds, arms, and gives leeway to the police to act outside the rule of the governed.

The police have remained an unchecked power because they are buttressed behind two levels of institutional safety: the tyranny of the local majority unintentionally codified in the Constitution and the democratic illegitimacy of police departments as a political fortress secure against external input. Until institutional power is redistributed into the hands of the people, the Black Lives Matter movement argues there will be no racial justice and there can be no peace.

It is hardly a radical idea that governments derive their power from the people. The Declaration of Independence states this idea almost exactly, positing that the government gets its “just powers from the consent of the governed.” It does not end there, however. That same paragraph continues: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of [its] ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its Powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Such, it is the task of a representative democracy like the United States to make laws that promote collective safety and happiness, and, more importantly, to do so through the order and consent of the governed.

To promote this, the system has checks and balances, a concept as basic as high school civics or School House Rock. This is best modeled by the triangular relationship between the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Executive Branch. As our levels of abstraction shrink, the concepts stay the same—to a point. At the level of cities and localities, things start to blur. At this local level, a so far un-reconciled conundrum emerges: How does the police fit into our handy checks and balances paradigm? Furthermore, from where, if anywhere, do our police derive their power?

First, to be clear, police forces are an arm of the state. Governments deploy them to uphold the law of the land, and, in doing so, grant them power to achieve those means. This power, however, can go unchecked in many ways: When police testimony is given more credence than that of the general public: When corrupt or inept police officers use back channels to keep their positions on the force: When police routinely and openly violate the Fourth Amendment. This is heavily racialized and leads to disproportionate suspicion of and domination over black citizens, manifesting in hugely imbalanced rates of stops, searches, and arrests. Most notable, however is when the police wield that power to kill unarmed black citizens, without fear of repercussion for their actions. This year, black people are 2.5 times more likely than white people to be killed by the police. Isolating arrest-related homicide, black people are four times more likely than white people to be killed.

Police killings upend the fundamental structure of the justice system. This reifies the tyranny of the majority in ways that are irreparably harmful to the Republic. The police enforce the law while the courts dole out justice, or so it goes in civics textbooks. Yet, when police violate that basic undertaking, the system is clearly not working. This raises the critical question of how the citizenry can trust a system that relies on the good graces of an unchecked power.

When a police officer inflicts violence on a person or on a community, their punishment, or at the very least, their arbitration, comes after the fact. It is a post-hoc check on an assertion of power. The absurdity of this system is underscored by its complete incongruence with the founding system of checks and balances; as if the only check on Congress were itself, or if the president’s only limitations were installed by his own office. All other branches of government operate in conversation with each other, each working forward with the understanding that the other branches hold the reins preventing them from tyranny.

The political system is run by the people. The people elect members of Congress and vote for the president, who in turn appoints Supreme Court Justices. Similarly, the people elect city-level officials, vote on local taxes, and often have some say in delegation of public funds. This should be, at face value, a check on police power: Citizens of the same communities in which police work decide, through referendum, ballot initiative, or via representation by elected official, how much tax money to allocate to the police.

Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest irony of the American democracy: The founders were so afraid of tyranny by the federal government that they did not install sufficient checks to the local governments. Their supposition, that the closer the people are to the government, the more access and control they will have, falls flat when chunks of the population are excluded from this process and is generally not true when rates of political participation are considered. This results in the precise tyranny of the majority that the founders explicitly protected against, where the dominant population gets to decide policies that intimately affect minority populations.

In order to stop police brutality, all citizens in each and every district need to pose a legitimate check on the police. The police need to operate, not under the begrudged tolerance of the governed, but through the power of their consent. Many progressive policies have been proposed in the last year, such as body cams, using guns instead of non-lethal weapons, “sensitivity” training, and more thorough community engagement practices.

The fact that there is no effective check on police power is at the heart of Charles Blow’s speech. Black Lives Matter protesters must be seen as a people fighting for their right to rally against the tyranny of the majority and the police that help uphold this majoritarian power. The police are not an unchecked power because the individuals within their ranks colluded to be that way. They are an unchecked power because the local democratic system grants them improper authority over their communities while the citizens most at risk of police violence have no official minority check for reasserting their community power against the police before the violence occurs.

To assert that power we must lift up the voices of those most affected by these power structures and listen to them for solutions. When the Black Lives Matter movement identifies concrete issues and supplies remedies, we must listen to them. Black Lives Matter has a political platform based on notions of community involvement and accountability in which they outline specific policies for national, state, and local governments to undertake in order to end police violence. On the local level this means body cams, surely, but it also entails a restructuring of city charters to grant “a civilian oversight structure” to check police conduct. It means ending arrest quotas and instituting thorough community engagement training. On the national level, it means passing laws to appropriate funds, so municipalities can actually implement these things. To truly make the police a body under the consent of the governed, such changes must be codified into law and implemented universally.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that when government “becomes destructive…it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it.” There is nothing unclear about this founding charter, nor the task at hand. Alter or abolish: those are the two options.


About the Author

Joshua Bronk is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.