“Black Lives Matter”
Of course they do. And of course all the other lives matter. Truisms are great as a matter of course but they don’t extend debate very far.
The debate is really about the extent to which the seemingly ongoing and excessive police death and force is an exemplar of an increasingly policed state. The reality is that there are more police per-capita in most western societies now than there has ever been. In the United States, the figures vary from state to state. In Washington City (District of Columbia) there are 65.6 Police Officers for every 10,000 people. New Jersey has 46.7 and Baltimore has 44.2.
In Australia, the figures are not dissimilar. Here we have as many as 28.7 officers for every 10,000 citizens (that’s based on similar year figures  found here). Interestingly, Australia, with it’s wider geographical territories covered by Police is able to report how many police officers there are per 1000 square kilometres with the figures being in 2011-2012:
In NSW in 2011-2012 there were 19,135 sworn police officers. By 31 May 2016 that figure had actually decreased to 16,644. The population of NSW is approximately 7.5 million people. That works out to be approximately 1 officer for every 451 people (or about 22 for every ten thousand population).
Police are the front line of social policy and law making because they are the most solid and visible way to demonstrate government action. If you want to be “tough on law” or a law and order candidate you can quickly prove your case without a great deal of insight being required. Tough on law inevitably equates to increasing the number of police. Being a law and order candidate is proven by your commitment to stand with and behind the police while you equip them with every conceivable device for crowd control, riot and other forms of armour that looks out overkill in a war zone.
Nothing can understate the very real concern that a police officer is at personal and often times mortal risk when confronted by a violent individual seized of a murderous intent. Nothing should alter the desire that a community has that the people it commissions to protect it should themselves be protected. Nothing should undermine the ability of the Police to do their work effectively.
But it is the work they have to do that is in need of consideration. Why do cars get pulled over for a broken tail light? The answer is because we are tough on crime. We must crack down on these blights against society’s good order and utilise the full arm of the law to catch people who are doing the wrong thing. Before you rush to clutch at your pearls of social indignation it is true that a broken tail light can be dangerous and that it has on the odd occasion caused an accident and even death. But this is the exception and not the rule. The problem is, we live in a world where society responds to exceptions by making them the rule and enforcing law against exceptions becomes de rigour.
The simple fact is that Police are highly trained officers of law and the law can well-do without having its officers policing what are, at best, regulatory offences. We do not have Police attend a “crime scene” to investigate whether or not a fence between two properties has been incorrectly erected. Similarly, we do not have police attend a crime scene to sort out the awful social blight of people using day-old bread for toast. Can those things cause injury or death? Yes of course they can, in equally rare and odd circumstances.
Having police go after broken tail lights is an unsophisticated method of enforcing the law. It is unnecessary and a gross misuse of expense. Take a photo, log the licence plate and send a fine. Better yet, just let it go. Of course, in a world where governments need a revenue stream, it’s unlikely that the police will ever be instructed to do anything other than being the revenue-collector-at-large.
The reason we seethe with angst and dismay at the death of a young man over a traffic stop is because it performs to every slight our society commits upon us in one instance. Under the guise of the majesty of the law, a tail light is elevated to a level of felony high crime requiring the long arm of the law, it’s terminal force and its inability to distinguish from a threatened or perceived threatened situation and an actual clear and present danger.
You see, if all crimes are serious (a statement uttered by many a Local Court Magistrate in New South Wales these day), and all police must be protected always: then we are subscribing to the notion that our own society is inherently dangerous and presents a latent threat. It is a type of thinking that elevates our most minor fears and concerns to operatic proportions where not only is there a risk of trigger fingers being on a knife’s edge, but there is a real need, a justification for them to be permanently so.
Black lives matter. It is an important reminder that life matters. The black bit is instructive because it should make us think of the long history of minorities and oppressed being the first to suffer under an inherently unfair society. But for those wondering why people aren’t saying “all lives matter” don’t worry, society is coming for you too. It’s just that we start with the most disaffected (by making them more so). They are the least likely to be able to argue the point. That’s why when someone says a traffic stop by an armed militia (the police) is probably not fair or reasonable, we aren’t going to listen to you – especially if you’re black, un-educate or otherwise unsavoury). Because, of course you would say that, wouldn’t you? You’re just trying to get off.
But don’t worry, when we’re done with those people, it will be everyone else’s turn. Your whiteness is just protecting you, but only for now. Eventually, even a morning latte will be legalised and subject to on-the-spot fines by marauding officers of the state, armed to the teeth and equipped with the finest social control tools ever designed.
Black lives matter. That it has to be said is proof that the society we live in is unfair. But saying that has only ever helped a black person about three fifths of the time.
Aaron Kernaghan is a Solicitor and Barrister practising criminal law throughout Australia.