By Rita Cuckovich
I remember how overwhelmed I was in Rwanda by large crowds swarming me and touching me and grabbing my hair. I remember screaming at kids and chasing them down the street when they rifled through my pockets yet again. There were days when I felt so overwhelmed that I didn’t leave my house; I knew that I wasn’t in the right state of mind to deal with my surroundings. If you had told me before going to Rwanda that I would ever behave like that, I wouldn’t have believed you. I think if you ask some of the police officers who have been beating and pepper spraying peaceful protesters, on some level, they are shocked by their own behavior as well.I am not advocating that officers who are using force unnecessarily should be given a pass; unprofessional behavior should have consequences. That being said, I don’t believe that punishing individuals alone will get to the root of the problem. Treating these episodes of overreaction by police officers as isolated incidents by a handful of bad actors does not take into account the more systemic problem–standard operating procedures for police officers engaged in crowd control encourage an environment of dehumanization and a lack of accountability. We need to stop treating police brutality as a problem of renegade officers and instead need to start addressing the underlying psychological dynamics that allow so many to react unprofessionally.
With that, I have a few suggestions which I believe start to address the underlying psychological dynamics that make police brutality so common:
Riot gear is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Black puffy jackets and black helmets and black batons are both scary for protesters (at least they were for me) and over-empowering for police (they can feel like badass soldiers). Introduce this element into a peaceful protest and the tension of the situation goes up exponentially. You know who else wears puffy jackets, helmets, goggles and carries large pieces of wood/plastic?–Snowboarders. And those people don’t scare the living crap out of people. I think we could start by designing riot gear that looks colorful and even a bit silly.
I further suggest that the badge number of each officer and last name should be on the front and back of their jackets like we do for sports teams. This will help the officers to identify each other and will help the protesters to know exactly who gets out of control, providing for an easy mechanism of accountability.
Another suggestion, based on my experience at Occupy Cal last Wednesday night, is that the police don’t need to march in lockstep formation. At Occupy Cal, the police were jogging in a march step as the one at the front of the line screamed at me to “Get out of the way”. I suggest that the standard procedure should be that they walk calmly and not in time (left-right-left seems very militaristic). And when officers want you to move, they start with, “Maam, could you please move back a little?”
Lastly, in situations where nobody is touching them and there is no eminent emergency, I think officers should have to say, “My name is officer so-and-so, what’s your name?” If the protester decides to give a name, like John, then the officer should incorporate this name into instructions such as, “John, could you please step back.” This will serve to humanize both parties. In these non-emergency situations, officers should not be allowed to strike with batons or pepper spray without introducing themselves first.
In any situation with a large group of people massed, it is easy for mob mentality to take over. This is true for both those in the crowd but also those who are sent to control it. We need to address the standard procedures for protest crowd control being used by police departments around the country. There are steps which can be taken to diffuse tensions and prevent both police and crowd overreaction. When officers are outfitted in gear meant for soldiers and given operating procedures suited for military engagement, it should be no surprise that they treat protesters like enemies in battle and that the protesters respond in kind.
Rita Cuckovich is a first year graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.