Commentary: Don't Just Blame the Cops

Keith Boykin

Commentary: Don't Just Blame the Cops

Keith Boykin speaks on America's deep societal issues.

Published July 31, 2015

It seems every week there's a new outrage exposed in our criminal justice system. Last week it was Sandra Bland, the Illinois woman who mysteriously died in police custody in Texas after a questionable traffic stop and unlawful arrest. This week it was Sam Dubose, the Ohio motorist who was shot and killed by a University of Cincinnati police officer after a questionable traffic stop.

As a writer, I could spend each week analyzing each major new case to show the specific problems with police behavior but others have already done so skillfully. Instead, I think it's also important to step back and understand that the pattern and frequency of these incidents demonstrates deeper societal problems in America. It's not just the cops. It's us.


It was just last week that President Obama traveled to Kenya and Ethiopia and encouraged African leaders to root out corruption and protect human rights for all their citizens. It was an important, inspiring message that needed to be delivered, but it might have more credibility if it weren't coming from the United States.

No, our national leaders do not usually take petty bribes in cash-filled envelopes, but they do take marching orders from corporate funders who finance their political campaigns. And while we're no longer incarcerating people for their sexuality, we are imprisoning them for their race. That's because the war on drugs, widespread racial profiling, abusive stop-and-frisk policies and mandatory minimum sentences have all led to the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans.

Given our record on corruption and human rights, America is hardly in a position to lecture anyone else around the world. But sadly, this record is just now coming to light. If it weren't for the ordinary people who rose up in the streets of Ferguson when Michael Brown was killed last August, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years, many white Americans would never have believed Black complaints about rampant police brutality.

Most of the credit goes to clever young activists who have used social media, witness cellphone footage, and police dashcam and bodycam videos to turn the country's attention to the riveting drama of police brutality. What they've shown, to anyone with an open mind, is that law enforcement has often become a destructive occupying force in communities of color, and decades of unchecked police abuse has created layers of mistrust.

At this point, serious commentators are expected to offer an obligatory acknowledgment that "most cops are good," but I'm no longer convinced of this when our police shoot and kill more of our own citizens than any other developed nation. The problem with American policing is not just "a few bad apples," as observers like to say, but widespread systemic failure.

First, many of our cops are too afraid, too trigger happy, and too defensive when challenged. You can't run an effective police operation when officers are so scared of the very people they're supposed to protect that they routinely assume the worst from them.

But let's be honest. The problem is not just the cops. We, the citizens in our democracy, allowed this to happen. We stood by and did nothing while our police killed hundreds of citizens a year. Rather than remedy persistent inequities in jobs, housing and education in minority communities, we allowed corporate gun makers and their lobbying groups to stoke white public fears of the Black and brown bodies in these communities.

Many of us never objected when groups like the NRA dictated "tough-on-crime" policies that locked up tens of thousands of African-Americans. We supported corporate groups like ALEC that enacted Stand Your Ground laws that legalized hunting seasons on Black bodies. We ignored efforts by activists to require police simply to report the number of people they kill every year. And we didn't bat an eyelash when prosecutors failed to indict or convict killer cops.

Yes, we are responsible for the mess we created. For the past 40 years, we've given unprecedented new powers and weapons to law enforcement and rarely held them responsible for how those tools were deployed or mis-deployed.

Our country is sick. There's something terribly wrong when a nation that has just 4 percent of the world's population owns 40 percent of the world's guns. There's something seriously amiss when that same tiny nation jails 25 percent of the world's prison population. And something is clearly not right when our cops kill more people in 24 days than British police have killed in 24 years.

By all means, we should hold our police accountable when they do wrong. But when are we going to hold ourselves accountable for allowing, and even encouraging, them to do so for so long?

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Written by Keith Boykin


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