The recent death of George Floyd sparked a tidal wave of violence and protests around the US in 2020. Black Lives Matter become stronger in its activism at an international level. The death of Floyd harkened back to the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 and it suggested to many in America that nothing had changed in terms of criminal justice in the US: blacks were still being targeted by police. In many ways the Rodney King beating was even worse than the death of Floyd. Both Floyd and King had abused substances prior to their arrests. Floyd’s death was not the result of any police violence per se; King’s beating was, on the contrary, quite extensive and malicious and showed law enforcement acting much more brutally than the officers involved in Floyd’s death. The topic underlying the narrative is one of police misconduct. The King beating itself hearkened back to another King—Martin Luther King—being arrested for protesting for civil rights decades earlier. Regardless of the differences in all these men, police misconduct is the common thread, whether real or perceived. The fact is that people in the public are quick to jump to conclusions and famous comedian Chris Rock has pointed out that Rodney King ran from police and that common sense should tell one not to do that. Regardless, it does appear to be the case in the US that black people are targeted by the criminal justice system. This paper will explain the evidence for that assertion and show that the ethical problem is one of a lack of virtue ethics within the culture of criminal justice.
Rodney King was pulled over in 1991 for driving drunk, but he ran and tried to evade arrest. He was also high at the time and assaulted officers; four officers retaliated, and the retaliation was caught on video. The officers were charged by the Los Angeles County District Attorney for using assault and excessive force. A trial followed and the four were acquitted of assault and one of the officers was found guilty of using excessive force. A riot in Los Angeles ensued and federal prosecutors felt it necessary to bring the officers to trial for misconduct. Two officers were found guilty in federal court and were given 30 months incarceration. King would go on to sue the city of Los Angeles for nearly 4 million dollars. The case was one that ignited the topic of race in America, particularly in terms of the criminal justice system. Many people asked why the officers were basically found not guilty of misconduct by the district of Los Angeles but were found guilty by the Department of Justice. Skeptics argued that it was because Los Angeles had a history of police corruption. The criminal justice system there would always protect its own and always had, going back to the days of Bill Parker (Sastry & Bates, 2017).
The ethics issues involved are really about the lack of a system of virtue ethics in the culture of the criminal justice system. Instead, the criminal justice system is situated in an us vs. them mentality, and the minority population is the “them” side of the conflict. Conflict theory posits that in a society there are at least two or more groups vying for power and that the dominant power tries to prevent other groups from gaining recourses or leverage. In the criminal justice system there is a great deal of evidence that suggests minorities are targeted by the established power group and that the minority population is unfairly treated by the criminal justice system.
This evidence is everywhere. First, there is the fact that 37% of America’s prison population consists of African-Americans, even though African-Americans are only 12% of the American population (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014). This indicates that blacks are disproportionately incarcerated. Racial profiling is the practice of targeting blacks based upon their race. This practice, which is used by law enforcement, helps to foster a culture of prejudice and bias—which is what was on full display in the Rodney King beating.
Moreover, there is the problem of the racism inherent in the criminal justice system’s prison industrial complex, as described by activist Angela Davis (2012). The prison industrial complex is essentially a new, modern day slavery system in which inmates are forced to work for corporations for pennies on the dollar (Pelaez, 2019). Since blacks are disproportionately incarcerated, it appears evident that the system is designed to re-enslave African-Americans.
The fact that so many blacks who are charged with a crime end up making plea bargains because they are pressured to do so is further evidence of inherent bias in the culture of the system (Nilsen, 2007). Too many people charged with a crime are pressured to give up their due process rights because they are made to fear a worse punishment if they refuse a plea deal and are convicted. This is an abuse of justice and minorities are predominantly affected.
The Rodney King beating in 1991 was an event that pulled the curtain back on a culture of bias and prejudice in the criminal justice system. It launched numerous discussions about the state of the system and the way blacks are treated in it. However, as the death of George Floyd showed in 2020, nothing has really changed since King’s beating in 1991. The reason for that is simple: the criminal justice system promotes punitive justice rather than restorative justice. Punitive justice is a kind of justice in which the offender is seen as one who needs to be punished for the offense. When he is treated as an unequal or a lesser-than, it is justified on account of his being an offender in a punitive justice system. In a restorative justice system, the concept of virtue ethics is promoted. Virtue ethics is the idea that one’s behavior is moral to the extent that it develops one’s character. Restorative justice does help to develop the character of both the offender and the victim (whether it be an individual or society as a whole) because the concepts of community, forgiveness and restoration are all fostered, and all of these concepts help to develop character. But punitive justice fosters a spirit of inhumanity and prejudice (Johnson et al., 2015).
Yet, restorative justice is still not very popular in the US. Instead, there is the mentality that law enforcement and prosecutors must “punish” offenders and bring them down a peg or two. The idea that offenders may have made a mistake and may be willing to make reparations, i.e., engage in restorative justice, is not pursued very often if ever within the criminal justice system. That is why there are so many cases of police misconduct like the Rodney King beating in 1991. That is why they continue to crop up more and more.
The unethical behavior of police misconduct is a symptom of the cultural problem at the heart of the criminal justice system: there is no virtue ethics system in place. Police are not taught to embrace virtue ethics anymore than prosecutors are. The entire culture of America is based on this idea of exceptionalism: if you are on the winning team, you are a good guy; you are exceptional. If you are on the losing team, you are a bad guy; you are an offender who needs to be punished. It is an us vs. them mentality and it is culturally and ethically corrupt.
The unethical behavior of police reveals this and its effect on the system is that it makes the system more sinister overall since police are there to enforce the law and the message that is sent by their actions is that they are judge, jury and, if need be, executioner. Yet that is not the way the system was intended—but because of the lack of a virtue ethics system in…at the heart of the criminal justice system: there is no virtue ethics system in place. Police are not taught to embrace virtue ethics anymore than prosecutors are. The entire culture of America is based on this idea of exceptionalism: if you are on the winning team, you are a good guy; you are exceptional. If you are on the losing team, you are a bad guy; you are an offender who needs to be punished. It is an us vs. them mentality and it is culturally and ethically corrupt.
The unethical behavior of police reveals this and its effect on the system is that it makes the system more sinister overall since police are there to enforce the law and the message that is sent by their actions is that they are judge, jury and, if need be, executioner. Yet that is not the way the system was intended—but because of the lack of a virtue ethics system in place that is how the system comes across.
The effect of the behavior on society is evident as well. People are angry and are protesting the system. Angela Davis is just one of many voices. Black Lives Matter is now making waves, and there are calls to defund the police, which is a dangerous idea. Yet, people are so frustrated by the way police act that they prefer no police to the police that they have.
The effect on the individual is that people no longer trust the system. The individual person wants nothing to do with the system. He wants it all to burn down. This is why the outsider was elected in 2016 on the promise of draining the swamp. It is why people celebrated the attack on the Capitol in 2021. It is why people are rioting in the streets.
Cultural issues have always been tense in America because of the concept of Manifest Destiny—the notion that America’s elite rulers have the God-given right to do whatever they want, i.e., conquer all land and run the world. They do not want competition. So, as conflict theory goes, if there is a group that feels oppressed, the rulers are just going to keep on oppressing them because that is all they know how to do in order to maintain power.
Historically, it is the same old story. In Los Angeles, long before Rodney King was beaten, there were the beatings of minorities in the days of Bill Parker in the first half of the 20th century. The Watts Riot is a good example of the cultural conflict that was approached in an us vs. them manner. Nothing has changed since then. As head of the police in Los Angeles, Bill Parker represented the kind of elitist mentality that still exists today and that was demonstrated in the Rodney King beating and that is seen in every other act of police misconduct.
Moral courage is needed now more than ever. Officers have to develop virtue ethics. What would have happened had just one of the officers acted to stop the others in 1991 when they were beating King? He would have been hailed in the public as a hero. Instead, the public raged because they felt no one respected them in the system.
The politics of the matter is that, as conflict theory shows, there are the haves and the have-nots. The haves are those who run the system. The have-nots are those who are oppressed by it. Davis (2012) tries to defend the have-nots, but she is fighting a lopsided war.
The criminal justice system is in need of a deep ethics overhaul. It needs to promote restorative justice instead of punitive justice. It needs to correct the issue of police misconduct as seen in the King beating and in other violent acts. It cannot address this issue and others (such as the disproportionate incarceration of blacks) unless it begins to foster a new culture in which…
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