Police Accountability

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On February 11, Peter Liang became one of the few police officers to be indicted for shooting and killing a citizen while on duty. Liang had his firearm drawn while patrolling a dark stairwell of a public housing development. He fired his gun from the eighth floor while on the “vertical patrol” assignment. The bullet ricocheted off the wall to a lower floor and fatally killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed African-American male. The jury found the former New York City police officer guilty of second-degree manslaughter and one count of official misconduct.

After the sentence, the Asian American community began to question whether or not Liang—the son of Chinese immigrants—was serving as a scapegoat. Liang’s case emphasizes the ubiquity of the defense of white heteromasculinity and the scandal of ex-privilege (Brandzel and Desai, 65). It was an anomaly that he was put on trial when countless white police officers historically have not been charged in killing black men. If white police officers were indicted for their shootings, white heterosexual men would become de-privileged subjects, who had to recognize the prevalence of racism. In recognizing that Liang’s case not only sheds like on inequality, but also the perpetuation of white masculinity, we can begin to break down those hegemonic structures.

A separate case involving a white police officer, Richard Neri, held significant parallels to Liang’s case, supporting the scapegoat theory. The most salient difference was that Neri was not indicted for his killing. The jury found Neri’s shooting to be accidental, but Liang was not granted that same privilege as a Chinese American. With white police officers repeatedly walking free, the judicial system may have punished Liang as a scapegoat to satisfy their needs and to appease the nation’s outrage. The lack of indictments for white male police officers reinforces the notion that whiteness is continuously masked and divorced from any sense of responsibility (Brandzel and Desai, 69). The involvement of the larger police union, mostly comprised of white males, furthers the void of accountability for white males. The police union usually speaks out in defense when officer-involved shootings arise, but there was little to no support in Liang’s case. Liang’s identity falls outside of the dominant group so he was easily assigned to take the blame as the scapegoat.

White police officers involved with similar shootings undergo the scandal of ex-privilege as they tell stories of their loss. In order to regain their former privilege after an incident, individuals and institutions prepare an argument for restoration. Balancing the narratives that disparage these white police officers are narratives that work to humanize them beyond the crime committed. The media outlets achieve the latter by focusing on the point that the shootings were accidental. This shifts the discourse about the officers from privileged and normative to disenfranchised and vulnerable. Through doing so, the officers embody wounded white masculinities and become more American. In a broader sense, the scandal of ex-privilege diverts the conversation from race and gender to one concentrated on restoring iconic citizens back to an American way of life (Brandzel and Desai, 66).

Liang, on the other hand, is portrayed as alien through the incomplete recognition of him as an American. Also, the lack of support from the police union further isolates him as foreign. My argument is not that Liang was wrongly indicted; instead, I believe that all police officers should be held accountable for their excessive force and wrongful actions. The systems and institutions in place that perpetuate structural inequalities, white heteromasculinity, and the scandal of ex-privilege need to be dismantled. The path to justice is to hold Liang responsible and to see to it that all other police officers are as well.

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