Two police officers charged in the beating death of Kelly Thomas were acquitted on all charges last week, sparking widespread outrage. Some people changed their Facebook profile pictures to the gruesome image of Thomas’s battered face. Fullerton Police arrested 14 people during a protest over the verdict. Emotions are running high and people are demanding justice.
Amidst the anger, some have appealed to the need for judicious impartiality. They contend that the jury examined the evidence (some of which the public surely wasn’t privy to) and acquitted based on the presumption of innocence we depend on to protect our civil liberties from legal abuses. As angry as we are about the officers’ fate, we have to recognize our inextricable biases and avoid letting it dictate our sense of justice.
But society’s collective bias is slanted in favor of law enforcement, and that’s exactly what creates barriers to impartial judgments of the police.
Despite the occasional bout of indignation over police tactics, most people still view police as trustworthy. According to a Gallup poll, 58% of Americans have high levels of confidence in the police, while only 13% have little or none. Hollywood depicts cops as heroes who protect us and only reluctantly resort to violence (and when do they stray from protocol and trample civil liberties, it’s usually in the service of some greater good). We give heroes’ memorials to officers killed on duty and the public demands harsh punishments for those responsible. Though we have ongoing national debates about the validity of civilian gun ownership, police are afforded the unquestioned right to carry and defend themselves with weapons.
Our perception of police as the “good guys” makes it difficult for juries to convict officers of heinous crimes, even when explicit video evidence corroborates the charges. They see the police as the thin blue line protecting them from the bad guys, and choosing to convict would mean confronting that prejudice and acknowledging that cops are fully capable of being the bad guys.
Perhaps there’s a scenario—one the Defense may have presented in court—where three armed men with every legal protection on their side felt it necessary to subdue a threat using extreme violence. But police always cite the need for violence when they use it, whether to take down a kid with a toy gun or a corgi, and society is conditioned to accept this defense. The news is saturated with stories of cops avoiding consequences after overstepping their authority and we’ve come to accept it as normal, further encouraging the lack of police accountability. Just as rape culture normalizes sexual violence, cop culture normalizes police violence and reinforces the notion—to police and those judging their behavior—that a badge is a license to kill.
If the jury in the Kelly Thomas case reached their verdict based solely on the evidence presented, the best possible decision was made. I’d just have more confidence in the impartiality of their verdict if it weren’t for society’s misplaced belief in the inherent nobility of police.
Photo credit: Adam Scotti. Cropped to fit.