The American policing system appears to be at a crossroads. While many still view police officers as heroes who protect and serve the community, a growing contingent of activists and lawmakers are using the recent increased media attention on state-sanctioned violence to try and effect change. Whether one thinks the police should be abolished, reformed, or defunded, there’s likely never been a time in the history of this country where police officers have been under such intense scrutiny by the general public. And with good reason.
It’s not often we see police officials disagreeing publicly regarding the actions of a fellow officer.
Cases of police brutality show up weekly like new episodes of network TV, each seemingly more shocking and unbelievable than the previous time it happened. While police brutality cases continue to make headlines and disproportionately affect Black people, law enforcement officials may have another issue that’s just as pertinent. It’s one that popped up recently after journalists discovered a member of the Virginia police force donated money to Kyle Rittenhouse.
Sgt. William Kelly is the second-highest-ranking official in the Norfolk Police Department’s internal affairs division. Kelly made a $25 donation to Rittenhouse, who is facing homicide charges for shooting two people during the Jacob Blake protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year. Kelly’s donation came with a note saying “God bless. Thank you for your courage. Keep your head up. You’ve done nothing wrong. Every rank and file police officer supports you.”
Kelly, an 18-year veteran, was reassigned to another division and later fired. The police union opposed Kelly’s firing and said the investigation in Kelly’s donation was done “hastily.” But, the police chief said Kelly’s comments were a violation of city and departmental policies. It’s not often we see police officials disagreeing publicly regarding the actions of a fellow officer. While no one should be under the impression the blue wall is crumbling, Kelly’s statement that every “rank and file officer” supports Rittenhouse adds context to why the FBI is worried that White supremacists are infiltrating police stations across the United States.
Around the country, people are taking closer looks at law enforcement’s ties with White supremacy. In Orlando, an Orange County deputy is under investigation because her husband, a Proud Boys member, was accused of participating in the Capitol riots. The Oath Keepers — an anti-government far-right extremist group — recently bragged about being trained by active members of law enforcement. Stewart Rhodes, the group’s founder, is currently under investigation for possibly participating in the riots. So far, at least 52 members of the military, government personnel, and law enforcement have been arrested for their involvement in the insurrection.
I’d imagine one’s perception of the police determines the level of intrigue regarding the Venn diagram of proud racists and those who wear a badge. For White people, bad police officers are “bad apples,” a one-off group of officers abusing their authority in the most egregious way possible. To them, officers like Derek Chauvin aren’t symptomatic of a systemic problem inasmuch as he represents one cop who did something terrible. The marketing of police officers dictates that we regard them as heroes who are risking their lives for a safer society. It’s an ideal that makes many White people refuse to question their authority.
When I was in high school, I talked to one of my Black classmates and our White English teachers about our attitudes toward the police. The other Black student and I shared that we didn’t trust the police and, therefore, felt that running away from them was a prudent course of action. Our teacher, shocked at our brazen lack of obedience, said she could never disobey the orders of an officer. “I mean, when I see a police officer, I feel like I need to do everything they say without question. You all don’t feel the same?” I remember both of us looking at each other, looking at our teacher, and laughing uproariously.
Black and White people have very different ideas about the police. A Gallup survey measuring Black and White people’s attitudes toward law enforcement, starting from 1993 all the way up to 2020, shows the stark differences in which racial group has confidence in the police. In 1993, that faith existed in 34% of Black people and 60% of White people, a 26-point gap.
In 2020, 56% of White people still believed in the police, however, only 19% of Black people felt the same. It’s a precipitous drop, and that 37-point chasm between is the biggest gap between races since the survey started almost 30 years ago. It’s worth noting that the 2020 survey included George Floyd’s death, and White people were more comfortable calling Chauvin’s actions negligence or an accident than they were calling it murder.
It’s as if they couldn’t fathom the idea he intentionally murdered Floyd on camera.
Kelly’s donation to Rittenhouse isn’t an anomaly. Since 2009, members of White supremacist groups have been found in Florida, Alabama, and Louisana police groups. Furthermore, more than 100 police departments in almost every state in the country have dealt with racist emails, texts, or online comments made by department staff. It’s why some people are openly struggling with whether policing in America is even capable of reformation.
It’s hard to reform something when people can’t even agree there’s a problem. As it stands, many White folks’ attitudes toward the police haven’t changed in nearly 30 years despite all evidence showing that police officers aren’t infallible. The question that remains unanswered is what will it take for them to understand that if you truly support the police, why wouldn’t you want them to be better at their jobs?
Of course, that’s assuming White people believe the police’s job is to actually serve the community and not just kill Black people.