The widespread availability of cameras and recording devices on smartphones is one of the few weapons citizens have been granted in order to keep police officers from overstepping their power. Unfortunately, recording an event is not enough to stop acts of brutality from actually happening. Often, the presence of a camera can be enough to incite anger in an officer who is being recorded.
It has been more than 23 years since a group of LAPD officers were captured on camera beating Rodney King on the street, but Ferguson, Missouri is currently experiencing a similarly violent, chaotic citizen outbreak in response to the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
There have been numerous instances — some widely covered by the media, others not — in which police have been documented unnecessarily engaging in violence with otherwise innocent individuals. The motive is often racial — as many viewed the BART station shooting of Oscar Grant and as is likely the case in Ferguson (where the overwhelmingly white police population does not reflect the 68% of the town’s population which is black) — but typically occurs due to some combination of fear, power, politics and confusion.
Recent events in Missouri serve as yet another reminder that many members of the nation’s police force take advantage of their position of power, antagonizing citizens rather than protecting and serving them. Of course, it’s difficult to determine which should be viewed as emblematic of the overall police — acts of incomprehensible violence carried out against individuals like King, Grant or Brown, or the day-to-day operations of most law enforcement officials.
In order to gauge the community’s perception of the police force and its abuse of power, Opposing Views conducted a survey asking the question “Are American police officers out of control?”
Out of four choices — ”Only some, most are great,” “No, they do the best job they can,” “Half are out of control, half are great,” and “Yes, they’ve become too militarized” — the majority of the 400 responders (39.2%) picked the first option. 29% believe law enforcement officials are doing the best they can, 17.3% think it’s an even split between good and bad officers, and 14.5% believe the force has become too militarized.
This relatively positive feedback for the nation’s police force was true across all polled age groups, who selected “Only some, most are great” as the top answer (except for 55-64 year olds, who selected the similarly positive “No, they do the best job they can”). 18-24 year olds, arguably the segment of the population most likely to harbor resentment towards police, had the highest number of respondents select “Yes, they’ve become too militarized” compared to the overall average.
Somewhat surprisingly, rural responders were more likely to claim American police officers are out of control (20.2%) than urban (13.8%) or suburban (11.4%) populations. The ability to sort the data by race or ethnicity of the respondent was not an option.
Despite the majority of the polled population regarding most police officers in a positive manner, images and reports from Ferguson, Missouri depict the police force as dangerously militaristic. Not enough information about Brown's shooting itself is available to determine whether or not the officer who killed him behaved appropriately, but there is more than enough evidence of Ferguson police improperly dealing with the protestors that followed the incident.
Videos taken by citizens and uploaded to streaming sites like YouTube have again proved a powerful tool for the general population in Ferguson, depicting police firing bullets, rubber bullets, and tear gas into crowds that had assembled to practice their constitutionally-guaranteed rights. The town's authorities have even attempted to crack down on the spread of this information by arresting journalists in the area. Brown's death was tragic, but the police response to the incident has been equally as disturbing.
The issue has even been acknowledged by the nation’s highest office, as President Obama played it safe with this middle-of-the-road statement: “There is never an excuse for violence against police, or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests, or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Even if the majority of police officers are “great” or “doing the best job they can,” the fact that the overstep of one officer’s authority ignited a flare-up of racial tension, protests, and a response from the federal government is no fluke. Many citizens feel powerless against the authority of law enforcement officials. Cameras have made it easier for citizens to report instances of abuse, but those instances shouldn’t even exist at all.