When an incident of police brutality against a Black person in the United States is captured on video, the aftermath follows a pattern. Activists, members of the community, and certain writers say that American policing and police discipline are fundamentally flawed. They say that the way drug possession charges and civil-infraction tickets are pursued in low-income neighborhoods constitutes discrimination against people of color. Sometimes they discover evidence of explicit racism on the part of officers who’ve been accused of brutality, which they say is evidence of a rotten system. (The Google search for “police officer posted picture of Obama monkey” returns news stories from multiple states.)
In response, elected officials, police chiefs, and certain other writers say that most police officers are decent people doing a tough job to the best of their ability. They say that while acts of brutality should be condemned and punished, existing mechanisms are an adequate means of doing so. They say that the American system of policing is basically just and effective, not intrinsically discriminatory, and that the country’s police departments are not run by officers who hold personally racist views and are predisposed to violence.
This year’s presidential election makes for an interesting natural experiment to test which group’s viewpoint is correct. One of the candidates, Joe Biden, is critical of officers who perpetrate unjustified shootings and beatings, and supportive of peaceful protests against overpolicing. But he says that “most cops are good, decent people.” He believes that the existing levels of police funding should be maintained. He does not believe that “qualified immunity” laws should be changed to allow for easier prosecution of police brutality. One of his most significant achievements as a senator was the 1994 crime bill, which provided federal funding for hiring new officers. He served in a presidential administration that, by the standards of presidential administrations, was exceptionally clean and law-abiding.
The other candidate, Donald Trump, has a history of making racist comments about nonwhite people. (A new one was uncovered in a book published last month.) A number of those comments indicate a belief that predominately Black and Latino countries and communities are intrinsically undesirable places to live. He was accused—by the Nixon administration!—of systematically discriminating against Black tenants as a landlord. As a private citizen he fraternized with Mafia figures, worked closely with a convicted drug trafficker and a convicted racketeer, and sold apartments to an impressive number of organized crime leaders. He’s made supportive comments about a white supremacist rally, hired white nationalists in his administration, and defended a white member of a “militia” who recently shot three protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two. Two of the most notable chapters of his pre-presidential public life involved him making false accusations against Black people. He’s encouraged police officers to smash suspects’ heads against the sides of their cars, which is illegal. A number of his political advisers and associates have been convicted of crimes. A majority of voters believes that he, himself, has committed crimes in the past.
Which side are the police on? Do they favor the candidate who believes law enforcement basically means well, as long as it keeps working to “root out the bad apples” in police departments? Or the candidate with a record of supporting criminal behavior, extrajudicial violence, and racism—and of celebrating the bad apples?
The country’s largest municipal police union (the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York) picked the latter candidate; its leader, Patrick Lynch, spoke at the Republican convention. On Friday, the largest national police organization, the Fraternal Order of Police, announced that it was endorsing Trump on behalf of its 355,000 members as well.
The police say that they want members of minority communities to believe the officers patrolling their neighborhoods are motivated by the principle of upholding the law and that they do not, as a general rule, hold or condone racist beliefs. Those officers also keep choosing to endorse Donald Trump.
In his convention remarks, which were broadcast on a night during which Trump gave a campaign speech on the lawn of the White House, which is illegal, Lynch said that he and other officers “cannot afford” to have someone like Biden in office. What does it say about American policing if that’s actually true?