by Verhaal Kenner
Imagine you give a class of high school social studies students a quiz and ask: “A friend suggests that the both of you rob a bank. What would you say? What thoughts go through your mind?”
In today’s culture, you could expect many students to give answers such as: “Which bank were you thinking of? Is there a lot of money there? How would we make sure not to get caught?”
These are pragmatic questions, the types of questions many youths across the country this month are asking themselves. In the heat of mass rallies, the diversion of police, covering with masks, and organized looting, an individual can change focus and ask him or herself, “What can I get away with it?” Apparently quite a bit.
Gradually, over generations, our education system has shifted to teaching there are no absolute right or wrong answers when it comes to social issues – everything is “complicated” and we have to consider all the possible options, stakeholders’ interests, and diverse beliefs. Do whatever “works for you.” What they are not taught is that some things are right or wrong as a matter of principle: “No, the money in the bank doesn’t belong to us. I don’t have a right to it.” The concept is indeed complex. But the application is straight forward. The same answer applies to every bank, every store, every home – no matter where it is, no matter how much money is there, no matter how likely it is to get caught.
The underlying problem our society faces is that it is far from merely rioters and looters who have been raised to think it terms of, “What can I get away with?” The four police officers in Minneapolis. The woman with her dog in central park who called the cops on an African American birdwatcher. The list is painfully long and goes far beyond boundaries of race.
It will take generations to undo the mindsets that took generations to create. And if we keep seeking to end racism (only one of many forms of collectivism) with similarly collectivist solutions, we will only institutionalize new injustices.
Yet what we can do while acknowledging the large problems – while teaching people that principles matter – is to keep chipping away at the mechanisms that empower people to believe, “I can get away with it.” Mobile phone video and body cams have been transformative. We’re having these conversations because of them. It’s time for police body cams to become standard policy.
More immediately, what we are discovering is that police in riot gear can experience the same type of collective anonymity that empowers the rioters and looters themselves. With helmets, gasmasks, and shields, personal accountability is lost. It is dismaying but not surprising to see anonymous officers and National Guard wreaking havoc on journalists, firing paint balls at youth watching from their front porch, or teargassing peaceful protestors.
An incomplete but perhaps effective way to mitigate police anonymity is to require – by law – that riot gear have prominent serial numbers – large enough that they can be seen on video from the front, and to have a record of who it is issued to. Such prominent equipment numbers are already standard practice in some cities in the U.S. and around the world. New York City riot helmets have prominent numbers. It doesn’t put officers’ identities at risk. It makes sense. It’s not complicated. In fact, not doing something so simple imparts a clear message to citizens that the police are intentionally seeking anonymity, and thus shielding officers from accountability.
Verhaal Kenner is the pseudonym of a Richmond-area resident whose career includes several years in consumer and implantable medical device development.There are currently no comments highlighted.