Reading the police blotter in any newspaper proves that we as people will do just about anything and when caught, find a way to justify our behavior. Especially bad behavior. Cell phone cameras with video capability have us documenting our bad behavior as proof that at any given moment, we can be criminals or stupid as well as amateur journalists craving a moment of justice or celebrity.
The mob who stormed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., proves the premise. They stormed and shared the video of their destruction and insurrection on social media with their friends. What were they thinking — the verbal note from the “principal” an hour or two earlier would be their get out of jail hall pass? They all believed they had justification and permission.
Piece it all together and we have lots of bad behavior to overcome. Not all crime gets the same focus. There is minimal to no accountability for “white collar” crimes, along with criminally unethical activity by corporations or presidents. The crimes that get the klieg lights are the crimes that deal with criminal cartels, drug lords and use, driving under the influence, robbers, burglars, murders, serial sociopaths, rapists, prostitution and teenage vandals. They are a risk and reward path for doing something known to be wrong, malicious, or hurtful and doing it anyway because they believe they won’t get caught.
If caught, they believe they can “lie” or justify their way out. Hey, it is the American way — innocent until proven guilty. Getting caught red-handed on video can often be defended or blamed away through deflection or social media celebrity sympathy — “I am delusional in my invincibility,” with enough likes on Facebook, and of course, a good lawyer.
We blame the police, schools, parenting, enablers, video games, choice of friends, religions, cults, peer influencers, or media, but the truth is collectively we are not taking responsibility. Taking responsibility is an act of courage.
We have a behavior problem — criminal as well as legal. As a nation we seem to enjoy playing cops and robbers. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in some level of detention at state and federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, immigration detention facilities, Indian country jails, military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.
The United States is the world leader in incarceration with about 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Considering that as a nation we represent about 4 percent of the world’s population, I’d say we have laws and not much order.
According to the Pew Research Center, the racial and ethnic makeup in the U.S. prisons is demographically disproportionate. In 2017, Black people represented 12% of the U.S. adult population, but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults, but 30% of prisoners. Hispanics represented 16% of the adult population, but they accounted for 23% of inmates.
These statistics represent a civil rights problem, pointing to the underlying racial divide this country has in how it deals with everything. Prisons are a microcosm of population control and reflect a white privilege caste-system intent on demeaning poverty and race. It is a “kick them when they are down, keep them down and excluded” philosophy.
President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Our society is built on looking for someone to look down on and to blame. Personal responsibility and accountability, not so much. The people held to the highest of standards tend to be those our society has singled out for targeted justice — Blacks, Latinx, new immigrants, non-Christians, the poor and others conveniently targeted to elevate the notion that a successful American is likely to be white.
Caught in the middle and on camera enforcing our racial conundrum are the men and women of our nation’s police departments. They serve on the front line wanting to do good by their communities, but their ranks are flawed, in some cases deeply, and challenged by this nation’s history of “caste system” policing. Create “fear” in the “right communities” and the behavior of “stress and conflict” will follow. Cops and robbers is a game we seem to perpetuate through policy and action with no incentive or intent to break the cycle.
Through our actions and political choices, we have created a very stressed, financially insecure and unequal society. For those who have reached a plateau of security — great. But, in a society that prides itself on being able to keep up with the Joneses as well as climb the financial and social ladder, the behavior at the top is exclusive and generally telling.
Reading police blotters in every city is also telling. They are stories of people in stress acting out in stormy relationships, families in crisis, mental health issues, domestic disputes, tawdry behavior, poverty, homelessness, property crimes, burglary, assault, robbery, theft, carjackings, drugs, sex crimes and murder to name a few.
What tends to be missing are the embezzlers, fraud artists, credit card scammers, bribers, non-delivery of purchased services or products, investment fraud, religious grifters or basically the white-collar crimes that affect the more affluent or people too embarrassed to admit they were deceived. These crimes are under-reported and difficult to prosecute, so they tend not to be a focus for local law enforcement.
So, living in a society that chooses to hold those at the top of the ladder to a minimal standard of behavior and the rest of us, especially our society’s people of color to a higher standard, the question really is, how do we overcome the unethical behavior, scams and lies told by those who believe they own the ladder? Our sense of accountability is out of balance.
Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.