This article was first published in 2015 and is re-presented in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 as an indication of how issues raised then are as relevant today as they were five years ago. Certain differences from the current debate are worth noting.
It seems like every couple of weeks there is a new video of a police officer abusing a member of the public. Most recently we saw an incident where members of the South African Police Service allegedly assaulted a citizen in Fourways in Johannesburg. As South Africans we understand that these things can happen to any one of us. We also understand that abuse and corruption is widespread, but how much do we really understand about why this happens? What goes through the mind of a person who does this, and what are the factors in their environment that allow this kind of behavior to occur?
Michael A Wood Jr., a former Baltimore Police Department officer broke the code of silence and revealed much about the inner workings of police departments and how the culture of abuse and corruption develops. It is rare to hear a police officer speaking about the job so openly, and there are many lessons that carry to the South African context. His revelations are an unprecedented, honest, and compelling look behind the so called blue wall.
Before getting to Wood’s revelations it should be noted that large scale police corruption has been brought to the public eye many times in the U.S. in the past. In the 1970’s Frank Serpico testified about systemic corruption in the NYPD. In the 1980’s the Miami Rivers corruption scandal resulted in over thirty narcotics officers of the Miami Police Department being implicated. The Rampart scandal in the 1990’s implicated more than seventy LAPD police officers in misconduct.
“The perception is that an enemy does not deserve to be treated like [a] human being.”
In South Africa several allegations of police abuse and corruption have received media attention including allegations (some proven) against highest ranking officials such as former Commissioner Jackie Selebi and former head of Police Crime Intelligence, Richard Mduli. What makes Wood’s revelations different is that they provide insight into the atmosphere and culture of policing as well as the mindset that pushes certain policemen to cross the line.
At War With the ‘Enemy’
In his own words Wood is the prototype for the kind of cop that police forces look for. Before joining the BPD he served in the US Marine Corps anti-terrorism FAST unit. He is confident, well trained, tertiary educated, and well spoken. Over the course of eleven years Wood worked his way through the ranks of the BPD from walking a street beat all the way to the Major Crimes unit.
“I come in straight from the Marine Corps… I’m gonna put on a different uniform and continue my war.” – Wood
It was during his time doing narcotics work that he began to question the way policing was being done, and his role in it. After spending many hours on surveillance of suspected drug dealers he became familiar with what he called “the enemy.” This kind of language comes directly from the idea of a war on drugs. Watching these people from the shadows, Wood started to see the dealers as being just as human as he was and began to question his attitude towards them. Wood attributes the combative approach some police have towards civilians to the perception that they are at war with certain parts of the community. When you believe you are at war, the person on the other side is the enemy. The perception is that an enemy does not deserve to be treated like any other human being. It is not hard to go from this perception, to violation.
“When you’re joining the good guys… you thought: ‘That’s what good guys do.’” – Wood
And violate rights they did. Wood has, without naming anyone, cited several abuses of power he has witnessed. These include police officers planting drugs on suspects, assaulting suspects in handcuffs, assaulting innocent civilians, falsifying evidence, even shitting on a suspect’s floor during a raid.
One example in particular demonstrates the sheer audacity and cynicism of the abuse. A good cop obtained intelligence about an armed suspect. The information turned out to be accurate and the suspect was caught in possession of a firearm and handcuffed. Job well done. At this point a bad cop arrived on the scene and assaulted the cuffed suspect.
The good cop decided he wanted nothing to do with the arrest, knowing that he would either have to inform on a fellow officer (a career limiting move) or lie on his arrest report to explain the suspect’s injuries. The bad cop was willing to lie on the report, which he did, and took credit for a highly sought after firearm arrest which got him that much closer to meeting arrests target, bolstering his chances of promotion. This highlights institutional failure in a police force where abuse was not only tolerated, but indirectly rewarded. It also demonstrates the perception that the enemy is not really a person, but currency to be used in the pursuit of goals; eg. Making arrests.
The Race Card
The BPD has been in the news recently, as have other US police departments, amidst allegations of racism and the targeting and killing of black citizens. The most notable case in Baltimore is the case of Freddie Gray, a 25 year old black male who died in police custody. Woods confirms that without a doubt, institutional racism exists within the BPD, and based on his experience with police officers from other major cities, believes it to be widespread.
“Why do you create a law like that? You create a law like that ‘cause you can fuck with the people you wanna fuck with.” – Wood
He admits to instructing less senior officers to target young black males for stops. In Wood’s case he would actually leave his predominantly white patrol area to try and pick up easy arrests on black people to boost his arrest stats.
Wood initially justified these actions by the belief that young black males were the ones committing crimes. He has since realised that this racial profiling results in a self-fulfilling cycle. By targeting black males their chance of being picked up for a minor offence increases, which in turn makes them less likely to be employable and pushes them further into the criminal world.
“Did you think the black community was lying for the last 100 years?” – Wood.
What he was doing, in effect, was creating career criminals out of black men by targeting them. White people who commit minor offences are far less likely to be approached by police, far less likely to get caught in the system, and thus far less likely to have to turn to the criminal world for employment.
The War at Home
Research on the South African policing experience shows some parallels. According to a report by the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, the South African Police’s operating strategy resulted in the frequent targeting of illegal immigrants for arrest. As a result of their tenuous legal status and their propensity for carrying cash (as many don’t have bank accounts) illegal immigrants are easy targets for extortion and are seen by some police officers as “mobile ATMs” – bearing and eerie resemblance to the Baltimore experience. The report quotes a South African Police Service officer as saying:
“There is pressure on us (police officials) to effect arrests.” – SAPS officer
“In the police you are promoted, respected and given accolades if you have many arrests under your name. Often, it is less important that an arrest results in a successful prosecution because that is the job of the prosecutor and investigating officer. As a result we target illegal immigrants for arrest because you cannot afford to have under your name a zero arrest in a month.”
The dehumanizing view that Wood mentions in his description of the BPD also rings true in the South African context. A South African police captain is quoted as saying:
“Most police officials do not understand that foreigners are human too with human rights.”
Many police officers will conduct thorough investigations and consider all factors before making an arrest. However, the culture of pressurizing police officers to get arrests, regardless of their validity, pushes officers to get those arrests by picking on the easy target. If that target is viewed as less than human, it becomes easier to abuse, intimidate, or extort that person.
How is a culture of police abuse able to exist and what can be done to try to address it? The code of silence is one obvious factor. Joe Crystal, another former BPD officer believes he has been blackballed by police departments around the country due to his reporting of police brutality. Wood is of the opinion that his own future in law enforcement is certainly over following his revelations, even though he had no intention of returning. Perhaps the actions taken by people like Crystal and Wood will serve as examples to others of speaking out about wrongs committed, but there does not seem to be a way to fully address this issue if whistleblowers are not protected.
“Cellphone cameras make it that much easier to show abuse [and] harder for the authorities to ignore the abuse of citizens.”
Another reason mentioned by Wood is the dehumanizing influence of the war on drugs. Police officers are able to witness and commit abuse, and reconcile it in their own minds as part and parcel of policing because they are at war, and the only “victims” of their abuse are the enemy. He says that they see themselves as “other” to society; not the good people or the bad people, but the thin blue line between the two, an entity unto themselves. Wood firmly believes that an important step in trying to change the behavior of police is to change the mindset of policing from one of an “occupying force” to one of community policing where empathy takes the place of an adversarial approach.
“I think your cellphones are certainly scaring a lot of cops from doing things.” – Wood
A final reason for the current state of affairs is the lack of consequences for bad police officers due to poor oversight. One of the reasons for the current spotlight on police abuse is the ability that the average citizen has to document that abuse. The proliferation of cellphone cameras makes it that much easier to show abuse, that much harder for the authorities to ignore the abuse of citizens, and puts pressure on oversight bodies to take action (example: Mado Macia’s murder and the 8 police convicted of it see video below). It remains to be seen whether those bodies are capable of taking action that will be effective in changing the current culture.
In the South African context lack of police oversight appears to be a huge obstacle. An Institute for Security Studies report states that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (the body that investigates police abuse) has struggled to hold police accountable for their actions. Although the IPID has a relatively good record of dealing with investigating police related deaths, it has not fared so well with other cases of abuse.
The report also notes that the IPID’s task is not helped by the limited resources it has been given to carry out its mandate. The solution then would seem to be to improve oversight by increasing the capacity and budget of the IPID. In a country like South Africa with limited resources, this seems like a tough ask, but there is some awareness in government that capacity needs to improve, and the IPID has an expansion strategy to help address its backlog.
The Human Face
Talking about crime in South Africa is a national pastime and you will probably have one of those conversations in the very near future. When we complain about crime or about the police we need to also understand the culture that they have to operate in. As much as Wood’s desire is for police officers to humanize the people they serve, what he is also doing is putting a human face to those police officers.
“We’re sitting in the car talking about the same things anyone else talks about, and then you’re: ‘Oh shit! Something’s going on!'” – Wood
It is vitally important to listen and pay attention when police officers speak openly and candidly about their flaws and the pressures that they work under. I would urge you to check out one of Wood’s interviews. We should realise that police officers are only human, and are vulnerable to temptation, incompetence, racism, and xenophobia, just like any of us. It is only by accepting the truth about what they do, that we can have honest conversations about crime and policing in order to effectively change them for the better.
Originally edited by Alex Wright and published on Don’t Party.
Featured image: Bushy Wopp
Featured images: provided
NOTE FROM WRITER: The article suggests an increase in funding in areas of policing oversight as a potential solution to police brutality. The main subject of the article, Michael A Wood Jr., has also called for improved training for police officers, which may imply an increase in funding. This article does not critically discuss these potential solutions in the context of police defunding arguments, as those were not as prevalent at the time of publishing. Secondly, the article does not deal with overt racism in policing, but rather with patterns of institutional racism and abuse. This does not suggest that overt racism does not exist in policing but is rather a reflection of the specific experience and testimony of the subjects of the article. The operation of institutional racism in policing is a more subtle and contentious issue than overt racism, and therefore a more interesting avenue of exploration.