The debate over race and policing goes to school.

Photographer: CHANTAL VALERY/AFP/Getty Images

Another Lesson in Race, Policing and Mistrust

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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I'm sure the cop will tell a good story. When the teenaged girl half his size first defied his order to stand and then struck him as he tried to pull her to her feet, training and instinct took over. He did was he was supposed to do: immobilized her immediately, using the minimum necessary force, and so on and so forth. And of course those of us whose stomachs turned when we saw the video will be lectured on waiting for the investigation to take its course.

We've heard the good stories before. On rare occasion, they're even true. But it's hard to imagine that happening in the case of Ben Fields, the school resource officer whose body-slam of a black high school student in Columbia, South Carolina, was captured on video by her no-doubt astonished classmates. The victim, we are told, had defied her teacher's order to leave the classroom after being caught using her cell phone. In addition, say police, she struck Fields before he took her down.

So maybe he'll say he was in fear for his life.

In the classroom.

Such a tale isn't even new. Mother Jones reported this summer that over the past five years alone, more than two dozen students have been seriously injured during encounters with police assigned to their schools. One was killed:

On November 12, 2010, 14-year-old Derek Lopez stepped off a school bus outside of Northside Alternative High School, near San Antonio, and punched another student, knocking him to the ground. Officer Daniel Alvarado witnessed the altercation and ordered Lopez to freeze, and then chased a fleeing Lopez to a shed behind a house, where he fatally shot him. Alvarado later testified that Lopez had "bull-rushed" him as he opened the shed door. Lopez, who was unarmed, died soon afterward.

The aftermath was mixed:

In August 2012, a grand jury declined to indict Alvarado. The Northside Independent School District school board later agreed to pay a $925,000 settlement to Lopez's family. Alvarado has since been terminated from Northside for unrelated reasons, an attorney for the school district told Mother Jones.

Let's add all the proper caveats, for the incidents described in the article, for the latest one in South Carolina, for all the others. We weren't there, we can't say for sure, split seconds to react, et cetera, et cetera.

But don't you get tired of always caveating?

There's a deep problem here. A large part of it, obviously, is race. The long history of confrontations between police and the black community is fraught with tension, mistrust, and -- on occasion -- downright horror. When politicians assure us, in the wake of one incident or another, that their police forces will be "retrained," this relationship is what they're talking about.

They prefer not to talk about the other part -- that as long as there are laws to be enforced, there will always be violence by those whose job it is to enforce them. The police are the sharp end of law's spear. It's silly for us to keep pretending that somehow we'll always have complete control over how and when the spear is used.

Political theorists, when working through policy choices, tend to assume the existence of a perfect technology of justice -- much as physicists must often assume frictionless planes, and economists costless transactions. But transactions have costs, planes generate friction, and justice is highly imperfect.

To say the least.

I've written before about the dissonance that exists as progressives condemn the police in one breath and, in the next, call for more laws for police to enforce. If we don't trust the enforcers, why on earth are we adding more laws? Might it perhaps make sense to take time to fix the enforcement end, before we pile upon the public more restrictions that the same enforcers will be called upon to enforce? After all, a retail chain whose staff now and then assaulted a customer for no good reason would surely be wise to fix whatever's wrong with its employees before opening new outlets -- even if the number of employees involved in the assaults is small.

The conclusion seems unavoidable: The more laws we have, the more errors will be made in good-faith efforts to enforce them. It will never be possible to stop all outrages from occurring.

But more is going on here than a libertarian ideology can resolve. Here's the dilemma, simply put: Those the police exist to protect are experiencing a crisis of confidence in their protectors. According to a June 2015 Gallup survey, not only is the level of trust in police the lowest in more than two decades, but among black Americans it's fallen to a dismal 30 percent. At some point, we have to stop blaming these figures on media distortions.

Even if it's true that only 1 percent of drivers pulled over by police are subjected to any sort of physical force; even if it's true that data cast doubt on the claim that black suspects aren't over-targeted for police violence; even if many of the publicized cases of brutality against black suspects turn out to have legally exculpatory, if morally depressing, explanations -- even if all of this is true, the mistrust isn't going away any time soon.

A vital but overlooked variable in dissecting both these incidents and the response to them is history -- in particular, the history of the police. In the U.S., as it turns out, the development of the form of policing we now take for granted has a tortured racial history. I'll take up that history in my next column.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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