Accountability in the Age of Tribalism and Relatavism

New York City police aren’t anonymous. They can be easily identified by the numbers on their helmets.

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.

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11 responses to “Accountability in the Age of Tribalism and Relatavism

  1. Verhaal, Welcome to Bacon’s Rebellion

    “It’s time for police body cams to become standard policy.”

    Be careful what you wish for. Already, hours and hours of “tape” are required to be reviewed by police and prosecutors, never mind the same imposition on underpaid public defenders and defense lawyers in criminal cases. Body cams will create their own set of problems until an AI solution comes along.

    • Yes, welcome. I would ask of out all the folks on the street what percentage are looters and rioters and what do we call the ones that are not in terms of what they learned in school? Is there another side here?

      On the body cams, Crazy. You do random checks plus checks when there are complaints… and you fire those that turn them off for any reason – period – no exceptions.

      This is like training to the Cam. Don’t try to get yourself mired in subtleties – just know that what you are doing is on the cam and if the cam is not on – you’re in trouble.

      Verhaal talks upthread about what kids learn in Civics class.

      I ask what cops learn in training such that some of them don’t seem to know what “right” means… either…

    • What I fear is that the solution that comes along will be AI policemen. Of course they could have body cams, too, but what would that accomplish?

      • The body cams have to be there – there are cameras and cell phones everywhere now days and way too many incidents where the cops cams did not record, their account of what happened – contradicted by non-cop videos.

        I do not want to see cops hobbled by rules that would endanger them in dangerous situations where their own lives are at risk.

        And that’s the nub of the issue in my mind. We lose cops right now to bad guys and cops are human beings like the rest of us – and they fear losing their lives also… and that, in turn, tends to chase away those that would be good cops and attract those that may not be.

        No one is talking about rural police – sheriffs – which, especially in some places have not good records either…

        the point being – one city reformed is not going to fix this… There are a lot of issues here – and it’s the reason that reform has been so hard and taken so long to happen.

  2. Solano County, Ca votes about 2:1 Democratic. Their Board of Supervisors is ostensibly non-partisan but the county is left leaning so I assume the BoS is too. News is out today that Vallejo (a city in Salano County) police shot and killed a looter who was kneeling. The looter was Hispanic and had a hammer but not a gun. The policeman fired the fatal shots from inside a patrol car through the windshield.

    Here we go again. A policeman in a presumably liberal Democratic area shoots and kills a kneeling looter.

    I’m sorry but listening to liberals howl about institutional racism in America won’t stop police killings of minority citizens. Only effective police recruiting, training and management will do that.

    It would be one thing to assume a heavily white community with “law and order” elected officials might be racist in how they manage their police department. Maybe. But Minneapolis? Vallejo? Baltimore? New York City?

    When are the liberal politicians who run these cities going to be held to account for the actions of their police departments?

    https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/north-bay/suspected-looter-was-kneeling-had-no-gun-when-fatally-shot-by-vallejo-police/2303011/

    • Don, you make a good point. It is a matter of changing the culture of an institution and that is hard to do. It takes more than political talking points or good intentions. It takes good management dedicated to putting in the time to changing that culture.

  3. A few minor objections. It’s an old problem.

    “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?”” Sure, if Bonnie and Clyde are “Today’s Culture”.

    “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” …”

    Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. — H.L. Mencken. Mencken then discusses this going back to the Dark Ages. That’s more than a few generations.

    The problem isn’t a lack of principles. To a racist, his racism is highly principled. Hell, they’ll happily quote them to you, e.g., “All Lives Matter”, “Removing a statue/flag is erasing our history”, “Trump being Trump”. Oh wait, that last one is not a principle, it’s a symptom of brain damage.

    Everything else, uh yep, sunshine is a disinfectant for the police.

    Whoa, I just had an idea! We could get rid of covid-19 by injecting disinfectants, or blowing sunshine up…

  4. I try to stay away from national politics on this blog, but, on this one, I have to go there. I am not sure if our current President is a symptom or a cause of a culture that says, “What can I get away with?”.

    • Culture that says, “What can I get away wit?”
      Overall? Or primarily just within the swamp? Which, of course, is why it’s called “The Swamp”.

  5. oh, you’re BAD! 😉

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