The Frontline documentary “Policing the Police,” released in late June, arrives at what feels like a critical moment in the conversation concerning police brutality in the United States. Then again, it is difficult to locate any period in this country’s history in which this documentary, co-written and reported by Jelani Cobb, wouldn’t be timely. Cobb investigated some of the reform efforts made by the police department and the city of Newark, NJ to highlight the difficulties facing police reform in both theory and practice. The resulting broadcast touches on logistical problems, budget constraints, institutional resistance, a community demanding greater accountability for its officers and respect for its people, and police culture.
Cobb and his crew capture footage of police behavior that will likely disturb viewers. What is perhaps as troubling as the behavior itself is the routine and casual nature of it. The officers Cobb follows seem to have little regard for the argument that they are, as a matter of regular occurrence, ignoring and abusing the rights of the people in the communities they serve. There is a similar dismissal, at least among the officers interviewed, of any notion that there might be a deeper cultural impact on a community subjected to this kind of persistent, aggressive policing. Cobb asks one officer if he sincerely believes it’s possible to have a reasonable conversation with someone after pulling a gun on them, and that question acts on both an interpersonal and societal level.
“Policing the Police” is less than an hour, and its narrow focus means that it can’t be an exhaustive commentary on the issues surrounding the role of the police in this country. But even in documenting a small sampling of these circumstances, it offers evidence of the greater systemic crises that have and will continue to challenge police reform efforts. During one car ride, Mayor Ras Baraka discusses Newark’s economic realities, noting that many of the abandoned lots and buildings they’ve driven past have been in that state for three or four decades.
Police reform is, fundamentally, an indirect reaction to the problems facing communities across this country – problems created by the deliberate social and economic displacement of people of color by state and business interests since this country’s founding. The effects of centuries of intentional immiseration will never be meaningfully addressed with the use of a police force. It’s true that the racist, violent style of policing in existence throughout American police departments needs to be adjusted, urgently, but that is not, in itself, an adequate response to the inequalities in this country.
“[V]iolent policing is actually woven into our society. There’s never been a golden age of policing that wasn’t racist or violent. There’s not a single period of time that anyone can point where the police were not violent or abusive in the United States. Part of that is because America is such a violent and unequal society. Policing is a way of managing and containing that kind of inequality. In cities after city, where there have been police violence scandals, these are cities that have gutted unemployment assistance, with high poverty rates, and no plan or agenda to address that. Policing is relied upon to keep the ‘peace.’
Again, policing is a product of the vast amount of inequality in the United States. There’s no way to legislate that out of the way police function. That’s why you can have so called ‘reformed’ police departments that operate in the same oppressive, exploitative ways they always did. Better training usually teaches police how to better hide the oppression that they’re involved with, not actually deal with it.”
“Police officers fight crime. Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors. One of the great hallmarks of the past forty years of American domestic policy is a broad disinterest in that difference. The problem of restoring police authority is not really a problem of police authority, but a problem of democratic authority. It is what happens when you decide to solve all your problems with a hammer. To ask, at this late date, why the police seem to have lost their minds is to ask why our hammers are so bad at installing air-conditioners. More it is to ignore the state of the house all around us. A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all. It’s avoidance. It’s a continuance of the American preference for considering the actions of bad individuals, as opposed to the function and intention of systems.”
Frontline’s “Policing the Police” is available to stream here.