Social justice is a phenomenon that reflects the economic, political, legal, and moral conditions of life and the development of society. Justice is a social criterion of law that determines the main mechanisms for ensuring social well-being and regulating the norms of human relations between themselves, the state, their rights, and responsibilities (Capeheart & Milovanovic, 2020). It is a determining factor in the democratization and stabilization of social development. Justice has basic social and legal requirements, formulated in the rules of law through the rights and responsibilities of citizens (Thrift & Sugarman, 2019). The implementation of human rights and freedoms must be a priority in the activities of all state bodies. One such body is the police, which is an important form of law enforcement. This paper aims to examine the American policing system and its role in maintaining social justice.
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The principle of social justice, which is central to the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the citizens, is an important element underlying American exceptionalism, which is the essence of the American nation. It supports the ideals of freedom and opens opportunities for all, believing in the limitless possibilities and exclusive place of the United States in the world (Reitz, 2017). Its main element is the value of justice, sovereignty, human rights, and civil liberties. The government is seen as the embodiment of citizens’ will that operates within the framework of the law. The emphasis on social justice indicates that the values of society are legal institutions, and the resolution of disputes is based on laws.
The interpretation of social justice within the framework of utilitarianism has received great development in the United States. Benefit is considered the basis of morality and a criterion for evaluating human actions (Thrift & Sugarman, 2019). Human behavior is goal-oriented, which gives rise to the principle of evaluating phenomena, actions, events, and behavior, depending on how much they contribute to the achievement of a given goal of the individual (Hoover & Nash, 2016). Since the goal is set by the individual, utilitarianism has developed as one of the fundamental foundations of individualism. Confidence in the influence of an individual on the course of events dominates in US culture.
Not society, but the individual is condemned for violating the laws. As a result, US police rarely take responsibility for crime rates and juvenile problems. American police officers are a part of an individualistic culture that prioritizes the rights of the individual over the collective. Therefore, police officers consider themselves law enforcement officers, which is manifested in a pronounced point of view on acceptable behavior (Stevens, 2017). This position is based on the conviction of the duties and responsibilities of each member of society, as well as severe punishment if necessary.
The values for American police officers are individualism, ethics of personal responsibility, independence, self-reliance, and personal freedom. These ideals form the basis of the American police culture, following which officers seek to control the situation when interacting with the population by providing themselves with psychological, physical, and strategic advantage (Stevens, 2017). Straightforwardness, perseverance, and confidence in the correctness of their actions are the main features of the communication of American police officers with citizens (Lum & Nagin, 2017). Any manifestation of disrespect for the police is immediately suppressed. Therefore, many of the officers consider the use of force to be justified.
Despite the rule of law, individualism, and personal responsibility are the fundamental principles in the US policing system, the problem of social justice is relevant to American society. The large-scale scandals and the subsequent commissions investigating them reveal the full range of possible offenses among US police, such as bribery, rudeness, willful abuse of power, participation in criminal activity, and racism (O’Connor & Shon, 2019). The latter circumstance, even after a series of progressive reforms, is decisive in the further aggravation of police relations with African-American and Latin-American population of the United States.
New Orleans is known for its highest crime rate among police officers. It became a symbol of police racism in 1980 when a white police officer was killed by blacks, and outraged officers invaded the black neighborhoods to massacre residents, including torture and beatings (Kennedy et al., 2017). As a result, four residents were killed and about fifty were injured. A similar incident happened in March 1990, when a white police officer Earl Hauck was killed in a shootout in the city center (Kennedy et al., 2017). African-American Adolph Archie was detained at the scene of the shooting and taken to the police station, where over a hundred police officers awaited him. He was beaten to death and taken to hospital in critical condition, where he died.
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The American police proclaimed a policy of zero tolerance for the manifestation of any violations of the law. Experts believed that the American police, who decided to reduce crime in society by aggressively prosecuting offenses, were obliged to demonstrate the same intolerance within their ranks (Brooks, 2020). However, this did not happen since the general aggression of the police increased, accompanied by rudeness, unjustified use of force, and racism. As a result, the number of citizens’ complaints about police misconduct increased significantly. Among American cities, San Francisco has the highest annual rate of police killings, exceeding New York and Los Angeles (Brooks, 2020). The majority of shot people were residents of poor neighborhoods and ethnic minorities. However, no San Francisco police officer was prosecuted for using a weapon while on duty, and the majority of cases, when citizens’ complaints were confirmed by internal investigations, police officers were not even disciplined.
The measures taken by the US government to establish control over the police activities were actively rejected not only by the police officers but also by a number of politicians. New York mayor’s attempts to establish an independent civilian commission to deal with citizens’ complaints about police actions provoked numerous protests. Organized and sponsored by the police union, it gathered thousands of police officers in front of the city council. Police, leaving their jobs and stopping patrols, completely blocked traffic in the city center, chanting racist slogans, and provoking riots (Brooks, 2020). The future mayor of New York, Rudolf Giuliani, also took part in the rally, and later remained opposed to various forms of civilian control.
White police officers have repeatedly pleaded not guilty to murder or excessive use of force against blacks, even when there was video evidence to the contrary. African Americans have been complaining for decades about law enforcement atrocities, including racial discrimination, in which a person is detained on the basis of skin color, nationality, religion, or gender. In the period of 2014–2016, killings of unarmed blacks by US police repeatedly led to mass demonstrations that sometimes ended in outbreaks of violence (Brooks, 2020). The recent cause was the death of an unarmed African-American George Floyd who was arrested by a white police officer (Brooks, 2020). He died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes as he lay face down on the pavement. The level of violence in clashes with law enforcement is now higher than during the 2010 riots (Brooks, 2020). The responsibility for this lies with the authorities, which do not keep the promise to improve the work of the police.
Compliance with the law in the activities of the police must acquire a new meaning in American society. The determining condition for the effective functioning of law enforcement agencies is the observance of the principles of social justice. This should not be limited to its legal understanding of the need to take measures to ensure legal liability and punishment for the offense (Tyler, 2016). As one of the fundamental principles of policing, social justice has a more specific interpretation. By their behavior, professional, and legal culture, police officers form public opinion about the level of work of all law enforcement agencies, influence the formation of public confidence in the government.
The American police officers are considered the professionals responsible for implementing social justice, based on the ideas of individualism, personal responsibility, and American exclusivity. However, the potential of these principles will be increased if the police protect the rights of everyone, regardless of race, religion, or gender. The American law enforcement agencies should maintain the basic principles of social justice instead of violating them. American society requires new legal and moral principles in the activities of policing system due to an increased interest in universal values and dignity of each individual citizen.
Brooks, O. (2020). Police Brutality and Blacks: An American Immune System Disorder. Journal of the National Medical Association, 112(3), 239.
Capeheart, L., & Milovanovic, D. (2020). Social justice: Theories, issues, and movements. Rutgers University Press.
Hoover, H., & Nash, G. H. (2016). American individualism. Hoover Press.
Kennedy, B. A., Butz, A. M., Lajevardi, N., & Nanes, M. J. (2017). Race and representative bureaucracy in American policing. Springer International Publishing.
Lum, C., & Nagin, D. S. (2017). Reinventing American policing. Crime and Justice, 46(1), 339-393.
O’Connor, C. D., & Shon, P. C. (2019). Civilising the police: reconceptualising the role of the state in theories of American policing. Global Crime, 20(1), 45-64.
Reitz, K. R. (Ed.). (2017). American exceptionalism in crime and punishment. Oxford University Press.
Stevens, D. J. (2017). An introduction to American policing. Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Thrift, E., & Sugarman, J. (2019). What is social justice? Implications for psychology. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 39(1), 1-17.
Tyler, T. R. (2016). From harm reduction to community engagement: Redefining the goals of American policing in the twenty-first century. Nw. UL Rev., 111(6), 1537-1564.
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