Why Do People Want to Believe in the Police?

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Jarvis DeBerry recently wrote about a New Orleans police officer who has had many complaints about him yet irrevocably remains employed. DeBerry documents a condemning case against Officer Jayson Germann, citing accusations of excessive force, theft, false reports, verbal intimidation, and unprofessionalism. I found this claim by his attorney to be pretty amazing:

Germann’s attorney, Raymond Burkart III, said, “It’s not uncommon for people to make false allegations against police officers. It’s a way to retaliate and besmirch the officer.” 

I find this to be quite hard to believe, to say the least. Think about the relationship here: you have on one side the private “civilian” whose only legal recourse is to complain to the police department’s internal affairs, likely to consist of people who know and could be friends with the officer about whom he or she is complaining, or the officer, who has an incredible amount of discretion to use violence. Who exactly has more legal routes for “retaliation” here? Of course, that’s his attorney and they are paid to make bad arguments.

I do appreciate DeBerry’s concluding comment:

Complaints made against officers are typically hard to prove, so police defenders generally insist that we only pay attention to complaints that were substantiated. But as police monitor Susan Hutson counters, “If a suspect is arrested for something and has a long arrest history, regardless of whether he’s been convicted, it would be touted by the police.” Exactly. A series of complaints against a civilian is offered as prima facie evidence of guilt. A series of complaints against an officer is described as irrelevant, and most of us shrug and move on.

We want to believe that the system’s still reliable even when we see an abundance of evidence to the contrary.

It is insightful regarding the benefit of the doubt given to police at the expense of everyone else; I’m not sure why that is the general attitude of people who are not police. I suspect it has to do with the unending onslaught of TV shows about police who are never wrong about the innocence of suspects and are never shown making mistakes that result in the violation of rights or the ending of lives. I am sure he uses “we” in the last sentence rhetorically rather than literally. Acknowledging the abundance of evidence to the contrary, I think, is an admonishment of the uninitiated to get their heads out of the sand and see that real life doesn’t resemble TV in this instance.

But perhaps a fuller explanation of why people want to believe in the American criminal justice system is necessary. Though I think most people really don’t care about the corruption until it affects them directly (I feel as though I can guarantee there wouldn’t be a drug war if people knew what it cost them individually), maybe people don’t want to face the discomfort of knowing that the legal system is unnecessarily unjust. Maybe there is a rational irrationality in that there is little point in getting upset about such things if one doesn’t believe she can change it. Ignorance is preferable.

But I don’t know the exact reason(s) why people want to believe in the police. Maybe you can tell me.

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