Dead But Not Forgotten: Police Brutality Lives On

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Jon Burge is still in the news, though he died in 2018. Often referenced as the disgraced and notorious former police commander of the Chicago Police Department, Burge, who served half of his prison sentence and was allowed to keep his police pension and serve some of his confinement near his Florida home, is again newsworthy because of the release of the Chicago Police Torture Archive.

On the police website, the first image is of a broken storefront and a request by the police for the public’s help with the “looting and civil unrest task force.”

The police equate pilfering with protest – even if these protests are protected under the First Amendment. This conflation reflects hostility and is part of the calculus many members of the public are forced to consider at all times.

Studies have found that victims of interpersonal violence, undocumented individuals, and members of other marginalized communities are less likely to call the police for fear of being further harmed by antagonistic police officers or unsupported by wrongful policies and procedures.

As a social work educator, I teach students to understand how human development is influenced by external factors and how there are many differences in experiences and behaviors.

Police departments nationwide continue to create hostile environments which shape interactions both inside and external to police headquarters.

In Columbus, Ohio, Andre Maurice Hill died seconds into an encounter with a police officer who stopped to enquire about parked car. In Austin, the Eighth Street Survivors from a May protest where several were injured by police await justice while recovering. In New York, the video of a 9-year-old girl handcuffed and pepper sprayed by police shocked the nation.

It is not possible to avoid feeling the ire of the force inside a police department.

I tell students that social workers should expect suspicion and distrust because of clients’ interactions with other public-serving personnel and antagonistic institutions, including police departments.

If police departments are looking to revive trust and reshape social environments, social workers can offer a few tips. And because trust is a currency of both professions, social workers can be the bridge between communities and police departments. 

Police officers can adjust their stance from force to assistance, especially in those circumstances that do not involve violence. This would mean, for example, decoupling malfeasance from protesting in both media and interpersonal police transactions.

Each member of the police force must be held to standards which protect both them and the public. Mandates such as wearing masks or utilizing body cameras at all times while on duty should be the least that any member of the force must do in order to remain employed.

If police officers cannot fulfill these smaller mandates, there is little expectation that egregiously bad actors will be held accountable for larger transgressions. This further erodes public trust in the police.  

Acknowledging previous harms can be a powerful tool in re-shaping the environment.

Training for the force must include examination of the deplorable practices of the past, such as those survivor stories documented in the Chicago Police Torture Archive.

Many are calling to make police firings and disciplinary records available across departments and locations to ensure that inadequate officers aren’t routinely rehired by other jurisdictions.

Yes, the unique dangers inherent in policing deserve consideration. But being a police officer is a choice, not an entitlement with near lifetime protections. Violence is not diminished by responding with force or intimidation. The lingering costs of the erosion of public trust imperils everyone, including the police.

Hopefully there will be no need for new archives of harm in generations to come. Tracey Mabrey is an Associate Professor of Social Work at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.