The continued deaths of Black Americans by police during a national race crisis, as recently as Rayshard Brook’s killing last month, indicate some police officers do not fear the repercussions of someone dying in custody. Clearly, the rules, regulations, and laws meant to protect all citizens do not override those officers’ implicit racial bias or “warrior” culture. The current national discussion focuses almost solely on racism within police departments and President Trump’s ineptitude, but this misses the key point that rule of law is supposed to stop this race-based violence from manifesting itself at all. Thus, this country does not have only a racism problem—it has a rule of law problem.
The purpose of laws, and democracy as a whole, is to put a check on bad behavior. The rule of law should be strong enough that police trainees are empowered to stop their veteran training officer from slowly suffocating a handcuffed man on the ground in Minneapolis. It should be strong enough that neighbor calls 911 rather than films a former detective and his son gunning down a passing jogger in Brunswick. It should be strong enough that officers should be afraid of severing a man’s spinal cord and allowing him to fall into a coma in the back of a police van in Baltimore.
If the rule of law were truly entrenched among law enforcement, to the degree that all police habitually followed all protocols for detainment, these rules would be stronger than the individual ideologies undergirding police brutality. In this sense, police brutality does not result only from an orientation towards racism, but an orientation away from rules.
I am a human rights researcher at the University of Rwanda, working in one of the most socially stable countries in the world. This domestic security is not the product of a peaceful past, however, but a violent one that was galvanized for a transformation in legality. During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, within the clear memories of my friends and colleagues here, there were so many bodies rotting on the streets that survivors struggled to bury them before scavenging dogs arrived. Today, incidents of corruption within the “blue wall” of police officers are the lowest on the continent and Rwanda’s rates of public violence are nominal. The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index for 2020 ranks Rwanda higher than the United States for both “civil justice” and “order and security” measurements. Rwanda’s rule of law has accomplished more to ensure the protection of all its citizens in a little over 25 years than the United States has in almost 250.
The question Americans face as a nation is one of causality: If we change racial attitudes, will civically engaged citizens then be the force for improving legal protections for the most vulnerable and legal accountability for the most dangerous? Or, should civil rights laws be aspirational rather than reflective of our shared beliefs–is their purpose to be a progressive step ahead of racial ideologies, offering shared social justice standards for which we should strive?
Our history points us in a clear direction. After the Emancipation Proclamation, most slave owners released their captives only when faced with the undeniable advancement of Lincoln’s federal troops or after enjoying their reparation for “lost property” (up to $300). Black children were allowed into White schools only after a landmark Supreme Court ruling and months of national guard protections for those students. Blacks gained equal voting rights only after peaceful activists were beaten and murdered by police on national television, leading LBJ to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
None of these advancements in the rights of Black Americans were a result of blanket changes in racial attitudes. They were spearheaded by a bold progressive minority and embraced by brave politicians in pivotal roles of power who changed laws. Perhaps after the next election cycle, Americans will know what it is like to have leaders who are actually brave once again.
Until then, the civil rights agenda would benefit from coupling this focus on ideological transformation, intergenerational work that takes decades, to include efforts at making law enforcement officials more rules-oriented, regardless of racial orientations. The racial views of individual police officers may have less tragic outcomes if those officers received regular CPR and post-trauma training, official reminders of how to identify deadly weapons, and underwent more stringent performance reviews linked to salary and promotion. There are indeed laws and regulations that help to buttress racist violence and must be changed, e.g. stand-your-ground doctrines, but there are far more that already exist on the books to protect vulnerable Americans. They simply are not being followed.