When I first started learning more about the criminal justice system, I was (and often still am) extremely overwhelmed by the many aspects and roles within the structure itself. While witnessing injustices in society, one of the most commonly repeated misconceptions is that the system is broken and needs to be reformed in order to fix any damage that has been done. I like to argue the opposite– that the system is operating in the exact fashion in which it was created. Because I’ve shared so many occurrences of police violence and cruelty in the prison system, I thought I would make the jargon I’ve used a bit more accessible by organizing a guide of posts where I can explain each aspect of the criminal justice system in a more detailed and thorough manner. Think of this guide as the social justice version of my “Football Focus” series I wrote back in 2016. I hope that each of these posts make the multiple functions and institutions in the criminal justice system easier to understand, comprehend, and abolish!
As I was growing up, I used to believe that police officers were always the good guys who protected us from the bad ones. I based this belief off of my papa who was a long-term cop in Kāneʻohe and my privileged childhood without any knowledge of or experience with police violence. It unfortunately took 17 years until I realized how prevalent police brutality is in society when I learned about Eric Garner‘s murder in Staten Island in 2014. One of the first groups that most people encounter within the criminal justice system is the police. Society and the media tells us that police officers are here only to protect and serve the masses. We gather loyally at our tv’s for the newest episodes of cop shows like Chicago P.D., Blue Bloods, and even Hawaiʻi Five-0, cheering on those in uniform when they finally catch the perpetrators and lock them in prison. Police and criminal justice expert Dr. David Bayley explains the actual role of police in society, saying, “The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime and continually argue that if they are given more resources, especially personnel, they will be able to protect communities against crime. This is a myth.”
If we go back to the colonization of America, police, just like prisons, were established as a part of slavery. The first members of a form of cops were volunteer community cops who operated as slave catchers: groups of armed white men who patrolled plantations and the areas surrounding them for runaway slaves and/or potential uprisings. After slavery was “abolished” (note: it was not) in 1865, the Klu Klux Klan joined forces with the institution of police to perpetuate violence and oppression against Black people, most notably participating in public lynchings and other forms of unregulated brutality. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes about the modern version of the KKK even announced in 1990 their intentions of joining “the battle against illegal drugs by becoming the eyes and ears of the police” (55). Although the police have always been given virtually unlimited authority and immunity to do whatever they please to citizens (particularly those who are Black and Brown) since the days of slave catchers, their power was expanded by the War on Drugs, which established policies such as stop-and-frisk, lawless traffic stops, bribery, military policing, and civil asset forfeiture, among others. During the inflation of the War on Drugs, police were given incentives to search and detain as many people as possible, even if those stopped were innocent of all felonies. Unfortunately, most citizens don’t know that they have authority to refuse consent when officers try to search their bodies or their property for any illegal substances. However, in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, SCOTUS ruled that even though all citizens have the right to refuse any consent to a police search, the cops can still arrest and hold them anyway. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Agency has consistently trained police officers to enact both prejudiced and unjust searches across America through Operation Pipeline. The addition of millions of military grade weapons poured into the police community adds to the risks of increased violence from badge to citizen. One of the most outrageous parts of the police system is the idea of civil asset forfeiture, which is when “state and local law enforcement agencies were granted the authority to keep, for their own use, the vast majority of cash and assets they seize when waging the drug war” (78). In many cases, that means that cops are legally allowed to detain cash, vehicles, houses, and other property of people they suspect to be in possession of or selling drugs. Even if the person is innocent and hasn’t been involved in the drug process, the have no right to counsel and their property almost always remains in the government’s custody. Because of the potential cash and value rewards for police who seize property, cops all across the country have used these laws as an excuse to legally steal from anyone they encounter. In Alexander’s chapter on police misconduct, she discusses how people who have experienced injustices at the hands of the department rarely file formal complaints “because the last thing most people want to do after experiencing a frightening and intrusive encounter with the police is show up at the police station where the officer works and attract more attention to themselves. For good reason, many people– especially poor people of color– fear police harassment, retaliation, and abuse” (69).
While police violence has been prevalent in society since the founding of the institution, evidence of wrongdoing is now more common as technology advances. Eric Garner’s killing was one of the earlier cases where video evidence captured a murder at the hands of police officers and a bystander broadcasted the situation to the whole world. Watching a cop wrap his arms around Eric’s neck and squeeze the life out of his body while the latter repeatedly wheezed “I can’t breathe” almost a dozen times inspired many people around America to take to the streets in protest of unlawful and barbaric actions by the cops. However, even though Ramsey Orta’s (Eric’s friend who taped the killing) video circulated the internet for weeks, police murders continued spreading. Before Eric, there was Trayvon Martin (murdered by a community “police” member), Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, and many others, and after Eric, the most famous cases were of Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clarke, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Terence Crutcher, Jordan Edwards, Antwon Rose, Willie McCoy, Jemel Roberson, Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford, Jr., O’Shae Terry, Botham Jean, Saheed Vassell, and countless other people. Most of the ones who were killed never received justice and their murderers either continued working as cops on the streets, or they were placed on desk duty with pay. As of 2019 alone, cops have killed at least 409 people. Even when the cases don’t turn fatal, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown citizens are abused, harassed, sexually assaulted, and brutalized by police officers every day, though the body cameras that all cops wear are often turned off during the violence itself. In every situation, the police officer claims that he/she/they feared for their life, although almost every case of police brutality involves nonviolent and unarmed Black people.
It’s important to realize that the criminal justice system is not broken, it is operating exactly as it was intended to. Police are inherently violent, prejudiced, and dangerous. They are legally allowed to lie to, steal from, and cheat citizens without any retribution, and we are forced to watch them do whatever they want. The only way to create a more just society, especially for people of color, is to abolish the police force altogether and work toward community-based efforts that hold people accountable for their actions, but also move toward healing and peace practices that bring both responsibility and safety.