In fundraisers for killer cops, cui bono?

The last year has been one of almost constant reports of police shootings in the United States, most involving young Black men. Most fatal. Many people in the US are finally willing to admit that the nation’s race relations are in a horrific state, Black president or no, and that politically speaking, the country is nowhere near ‘post racial,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean in the first place. We may have passed the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights legislation, but you cannot legislate racism away, and this is where the country has become stuck, with the notion that hiding behind pretty words and shiny laws will magically erase the larger and significant problem that Black men are dying in the United States because of racism, and that racism is actively making communities of colour sick.

One of the most appalling trends that’s arisen in the aftermath of endless police shootings is the arrival of fundraisers for the ‘legal expenses’ of officers who are typically investigated internally and then cleared, with very few actually being called to account in any kind of meaningful legal setting. When such cases do hit grand juries, the result is one primarily of indifference; if a police officer cannot be indicted for murdering someone on video and in view of a dozen witnesses, it’s impossible to imagine any police officer being brought to justice for murdering on the job.

These fundraisers take advantage of the explosion of crowdfunding sites that allow users to very quickly set up accounts, implementing simple tools for contributors who barely need to exert effort to send money. Users can connect their donations through credit cards, PayPal, or bank accounts, a bevy of options that allows them to deposit whatever they like without having to think about it. This setting is ideal for funding a variety of serious causes, like support for people who cannot afford medical care, but it’s also proved to be highly useful for those who want to use it for more nefarious purposes.

Like claiming that police officers who stand accused of murdering subjects are in need of assistance with legal defense. Such accounts tend to gain an extremely high media profile and they’re quite controversial, with activists exerting considerable (and understandable) pressure on hosting sites to remove them on the grounds that they may violate terms of service.

There are a number of obvious problems with such accounts, not least of which is indeed the fact that they may indeed violate terms of service. There’s also limited accountability, with no discussion of how the funds will be used, especially given that many police officers in such settings don’t need attorneys — or can rely on legal representation supplied by their own departments and supporters, with little to no out of pocket expenses. Thus it is legitimate to wonder where all this money is going, as if it’s not going to attorneys, it sounds suspiciously like it’s going into the pockets of the organisers, often police officers and their families — effectively rewarding them for killing civilians.

However, such fundraisers may not be about the money, the money certainly makes an ideal smokescreen. What they really create is an absolutely fantastic public relations opportunity for police officers in such situations. From their perspective, they have a chance to reach pro-police organisations and supporters across the nation. Fellow police officers as well as civilians donate to and promote such campaigns, furthering their schemes to position themselves as righteous people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — they’re attempting to cloak themselves in innocence and martyrdom, suggesting that people are being completely unreasonable by trying to force a conversation on police violence.

When such campaigns attract the attention of advocates who attempt to act upon them, it creates another layer of complexity. Police officers can further exploit the martyrdom angle and they garner even more support from people who want to claim that they’re being oppressed by evil activists out to prevent them from exercising their rights. It’s a win-win for them — either they get the money and the attention, or they get to make themselves seem even more besieged, and either way they get sympathy and more support from people very invested in the ‘police are always right’ narrative.

The conversation surrounding police reform in the United States is incredibly complex, as apparently the simple directive to not shoot people is too difficult for many officers to grasp, and these ‘victim’ funds are very much an important part of this narrative. Police officers are, along with everyone else, entitled to free and public speech — and they can solicit money if they’d like — but this kind of speech is extremely loaded, and it’s meant to be. Friends and family know exactly what they’re doing when they set up legal support funds, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the potentially high costs of hiring an attorney.

This is a case in which cui bono is an interesting question, because the answer isn’t necessarily about money. It’s also about culture, society, and how we interact with each other — and it’s about the social attitudes that underscore persistent acceptance of police violence. Such funds exist effectively as a free PR tool, and this is something deeply troubling in an era when killer cops already get all the positive public press they could possibly want.

Image: Police line — do not cross, drpavloff, Flickr