Let’s have a quick tour through the last couple of weeks in American policing.
Over in Akron, Ohio, on July 3, police released a video of the shooting of Jayland Walker, a twenty-five-year-old black man who turned up dead in the autopsy room with sixty gunshot wounds following a traffic stop. Body camera footage shows eight police officers chasing down a fleeing and, it would turn out, unarmed Walker after a seven-minute-long car chase, trying and failing to subdue him with a taser, before unloading ninety rounds at the man, riddling his prone body with bullets even as it rocked lifelessly back and forth on the parking lot pavement.
A few days later, fifteen hundred miles southwest in New Mexico, an Albuquerque police department SWAT team was locked in an overnight standoff with a suspect and a teenage boy he was with, who had barricaded themselves in the home of an acquaintance. According to the owner of the house, police then started “pulling off the windows, they started removing the doors, they had a machine that ripped up the tree, and so then they started throwing gas bombs in there,” and before long the house was in flames, something known to be a possibility with flash-bang grenades. The family who lived there was left homeless, their dog was killed, and the teenage boy, who wasn’t wanted by police, died of smoke inhalation.
Meanwhile, in nearby Houston, Texas, on July 10, a Harris County sergeant named Kenneth Wendt lost his position as a Little League baseball coach after his team lost their Saturday game. Wendt, clad in khaki shorts and a custom T-shirt emblazoned with what looks like a “Blue Lives Matter” flag, apparently decided to take his frustration at losing out on the nine-year-olds on the opposing team, using the customary end-of-game handshake to roughly yank the children’s arms and drive his shoulder into their heads.
Then just yesterday, the security footage inside Uvalde’s Robb Elementary where the horrific May 24 massacre of nineteen kids and two teachers took place was finally released, after it was obtained by the Austin American-Statesman. Until now, our understanding of this ghastly incident was that the police — worried, in the words of one local official, that “they could’ve been shot, they could’ve been killed” — twiddled their thumbs outside of the school as the assault rifle-toting teenager went on a killing spree inside, refusing to let tactical forces enter and even forcibly restraining the desperate parents willing to charge in unarmed to save their kids.
But it turns out it’s so much worse than that. The police weren’t twiddling their thumbs outside the school. They were twiddling their thumbs inside of it, standing around, running away, and cowering for a full seventy-seven minutes while the shooter fired round after round into packed classrooms just feet away, the screams of children echoing through the school hallway. Watching this disgraceful display, it’s little wonder the Uvalde officials have been as reluctant as they have the past few weeks to let any records about the shooting see the light of day.
If the constant stream of recklessness, gratuitous repression, and violence unleashed by police around the country wasn’t enough to convince you there’s a serious sickness in American policing, then this incident should. It’s hard to look at the Uvalde footage next to every other incident these past two weeks — Akron, Albuquerque, Houston, not to mention the militarized and brutal law enforcement response to unarmed protesters over 2020 and earlier — and not come to the conclusion that America’s police departments have far too many officers dangerously unfit for their jobs, and who only seem to find their courage, not to mention their ability to use force, when they’re facing down someone who’s not a danger to them.
In one potent bit of symbolism, an Uvalde officer at one point checks his phone while the shooting is going on, revealing what certainly looks like the Thin Blue Line variant of the Punisher skull as his screen saver, the symbol of the comic book antihero who unlike the rest of Marvel’s cast happily kills and maims as he doles out justice to criminals. The logo has been widely adopted by police in recent years in a chilling suggestion of how some of today’s officers view themselves and their jobs, and became especially controversial when the image was seen emblazoned on the uniforms of police arresting George Floyd protesters, decidedly not the kinds of lawbreakers the fictional Punisher spends his time going after.
Yet here, for once, was exactly the kind of real-world scenario that would have called for a Punisher-style, guns-blazing response from police for the sake of saving the lives of more than a dozen children. And what does the officer enamored with the character do? He looks at his phone, and then proceeds to stand around some more.
Ultimately the only way to stop these hideous massacres from happening is to end the easy availability of guns. As Nathan Robinson has pointed out, the recent Highland Park shooting (by yet another shooter who was known to police beforehand) showed that all the idiotic debates post-Uvalde about school security and the number of doors in a building are moot, because disturbed, violent individuals will just find somewhere else they can shoot people with ease, like in the middle of a street.
But what’s also needed is some serious police accountability. Whatever you think about calls to abolish or defund the police, the evidence is overwhelming that American law enforcement is in desperate need of some thorough housecleaning — from the participation of active duty cops in the Capitol riot, to the nationwide infiltration of departments by white supremacists, to the existence of police gangs, or the casual abuse and violence we’re constantly told is just the result of some “bad apples,” but happens regularly and with no punishment nonetheless.
In a fitting coda to this whole sorry episode, members of the Uvalde city council reacted to the school footage not with the disgust at police inaction that any normal person would feel, but by praising their courage and berating the Austin American-Statesman for releasing the video, calling it “chickenshit.” There’s definitely plenty of chickenshit in this story, but anyone with eyes and working brain knows it’s not among the reporters.