If one citizen threatens another, the police may be called on to intervene. When the police threaten a citizen, to whom can we turn?
Last night a St.Louis County grand jury decided to not indict Darren Wilson, a Ferguson, Missouri police office who, in August of this year, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Many are outraged by this and the whole ordeal has cast a light on the ugly racial tensions that persist in the United States.
But I’m presently concerned with the issues of legitimacy that cases like this raise. Max Weber defined the state as any body that successfully claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Let’s assume that this conception of the state is correct. That monopoly on the legitimate use of violence persists only so long as the citizens of the state can trust that the monopoly will not be abused. When this trust evaporates, the agents of the state become just one (undeniably well-armed but also vastly outnumbered) group among many. So, cases like this do not just threaten to paint the state in a bad light, they pose an existential threat to it.
As Ben Casselman reports, grand juries almost always indict unless the defendant is a police officer. There are several possible explanations for this, but one of the most plausible is that there is a fear that if police officers are not given the benefit of the doubt in cases like this, the efficacy of the police force will be compromised. I contend that, whether the purpose of the police force is to protect the citizens of the state or just the existence of the state itself, police officers should be indicted more often than ordinary citizens precisely because failing to do so threatens to undercut the legitimacy of the state and thus the efficacy of the police force.
EDIT: See Chase Madar’s piece for The Nation, “Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop” for a deeper look at the leeway granted to police officers who use violence.
EDIT: A Staten Island grand jury has failed to indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death. See Richard Cohen’s brief discussion, “Decision in New York City exacerbates mistrust in justice system.” Here’s to hoping that federal civil rights investigation can go some distance in restoring justice.