Thursday, April 10, 2014

Out of Hand...

The DoJ report on the APD is to be released at a press conference in a couple of hours. I'm sure a lot of the findings will resonate with the public -- who have been telling the city fathers of Albuquerque that the police are out of control for years. They are considered to be a corrupt, murderous thug squad. How they got that way should be of interest to historians and cultural anthropologists. How the institution can be reformed without starting over is an open question.

Many American police departments have come under scrutiny by DoJ for various questionable institutional and cultural behaviors, and some, it would appear, have been more or less successfully "reformed." There has been a lot of talk and ferment in Albuquerque about the problems with APD and the far too frequent use of deadly force they have employed in the past three or four years, climaxing with the appalling shooting of James Boyd in the Sandia foothills on March 16.

Andy Redwine was shot and killed a couple of weeks later, also while he was surrendering, an anti-climactic incident in that the Boyd shooting had already become an indelible image of police misconduct, thanks to video that had gone viral around the world, and the Redwine shooting has not to this day been seen on police video, only on a grainy and distant witness video which is somewhat ambiguous regarding whether Redwine was armed with a gun or not at the time he was shot and killed by police.

Yesterday, however, the APD was called to an incident near a school where a man was "acting crazy" and firing a gun. Given what's been happening recently, one would expect APD to summarily execute this man and call it "suicide by cop," and one would expect the DA to call the police homicide "justified" -- because that has been the normal course of events for years.

But something else happened.

The police arrived and they de-escalated  the situation. They actually "talked him down," using well-known and easily understood tactics and methods that police departments all over the country, not just in Albuquerque, seem to have forgotten in their quest to enforce instant compliance and to "take out" every armed and unarmed but defiant perp everywhere, all the time.

In this case, they de-escalated successfully. The man put his gun down and surrendered. Proving, if any proof was necessary, the common-sensical fact that if given the opportunity, and if treated with a certain level of dignity and compassion, even people in the midst of a psychotic break, like this man may have been, can be convinced to lay down weapons and surrender.

Further, this incident helps to demonstrate that summary execution is generally not the correct response to people in distress, even when they are armed and threatening.

There have been a couple of officer-involved shootings as they're euphemistically called in our area out in the country well east of Albuquerque, one in which a man was killed by state police, the most recent when a man was wounded by local police.

The man who was killed was having a psychotic episode, firing his gun at all and sundry who came near his home (actually his parents' home; he lived with them.) The sheriff was on the phone with him and his parents were trying to negotiate with him from outside the home, but after several hours, they had not been successful. The sheriff called for back up by the state police and a SWAT team was dispatched. Still the man would not surrender and he kept firing from inside the house.

The sheriff and his parents kept trying to convince him to lay down his weapon and surrender. But then the man crossed in front of a window, and a state police officer shot him dead. The justification was that the man was firing at police. Whether that is true or not is unknown. But there is no doubt he had been firing his gun.

In the other more recent incident, the police say they received reports of a "suspicious vehicle" out in the country late at night, and they went to investigate. Exactly what constitutes a "suspicious vehicle" is not clearly known, but apparently, a landowner was concerned about a strange vehicle he found parked along or near his driveway and reported it to the police. His property had been burglarized in the past.

Police arrived and inspected the vehicle in question. They apparently found nothing amiss and were about to leave when the landowner began firing on them, attempting to disable their vehicles and prevent them from leaving. He did not know they were police but thought they were confederates of whoever the first "suspicious" vehicle belonged to.

The police returned fire, striking the landowner and wounding him. He retreated to a nearby home where he was apprehended and flown by helicopter to a hospital in Albuquerque where he is said to be recovering.

This incident, like many, was due to a misunderstanding. The landowner who was shot was the one who called the police in the first place. He was shot because he didn't know who had arrived to investigate the "suspicious" vehicle he had reported, and he tried to prevent whoever it was from leaving by firing at their vehicles. Apparently the police did not identify themselves when they arrived. Police vehicles are not necessarily identifiable as such on dark roads in the country in any case.

How do we deal with this stuff?

Obviously, "talking down" someone having a suicidal episode, even if they are armed and threatening, is preferable to the outrageous police tendency to shoot first, shoot to kill, and engage in force protection above all.

Compelling compliance on penalty of immediate execution for non-compliance has become a default position in too many cases, apparently by policy that has become almost universal among police forces, and this compulsion has led to hundred of people being shot and killed by police every year, thousands wounded.

The situation is out of hand in Albuquerque, but it's out of hand nearly everywhere.

Was it always so? Do we misremember times gone by? Are we just now noticing something that has been going on for a very long time?

Nearly twenty years ago I wrote a report on police brutality that focused on the physical violence used by police in Sacramento, CA, to brutalize individuals to force compliance. That's what was going on then, though there were some other issues as well. There were occasional police involved shootings, but they were not frequent, and they figured in the report only tangentially. Routine at the time were the all too frequent beatings administered as a kind of street justice or to force compliance.

The police brutality report led to some changes, including the institution of a police review board which had no authority but which did report on police complaints.

A question, though: Have these summary executions taken the place of routine beatings?

That's what I want to know.

And if so, why?

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