Friday, June 6, 2014

Police Abuse and Civil Interaction

I've been involved with the issue of police abuse for nearly twenty years. During that time, I rarely had cause to call the police or to have any kind of interaction with them.

From memory, I can recall these instances: I was assaulted and robbed on one occasion (and did not report it as nothing of value was taken and I was not injured). I called the police once when my house was burglarized and some jewelry and a laptop computer were stolen. They came, did a cursory walk-through investigation, said "too bad so sad" and went on their merry way. Never heard from them again, never got the stolen property back, though I was pretty sure who had done it and when.

Once my house was surrounded by police and incomprehensible orders were being shouted over loudspeakers. I called 911 (!) to find out what was going on (!), and they, bless their hearts, got in touch with officers on the scene who reported to the 911 dispatcher that they were after a fugitive who was said to be in our backyard and that we who lived there should stay put. Good advice. The police were prowling and patrolling in the backyard and on the streets round about for a good hour or more, but if they found the fugitive, we never knew about it. They just went away. Poof, just like that.

I was stopped by a furious policewoman in front of my house one time. She claimed that she had seen me driving erratically, though how she could have is something of a mystery as she was in a line of traffic several cars behind mine. I told her that what she thought she saw was not me and my car, as I had not done what she claimed. Her fury increased. I asked her what harm was done by the driver who did what she claimed. She said it was endangering oncoming traffic. I asked her "what oncoming traffic?" as the oncoming lane was blocked by construction and empty the entire time that my lane was full of cars. She started to calm down. When I told her we were stopped in front of my own house, her fury seemed to dissipate. She gave me a fix it ticket for a cracked windshield and went on her way.

Bizarre. Her fury was what seemed so out of place, even if I had done what she said. There was nothing in what she was claiming to warrant such an attitude of hostility.

There was an incident of police gunfire on the street across the street from our house (we lived on a north-south street; two east-west streets stubbed out across the street from our house) very dramatic and all. An officer was chasing a fugitive at high speed. The fugitive turned onto the street across the street from ours and his car smashed into a tree or obstacle of some sort. The fugitive got out and commenced to run just as the cop rounded the corner. The cop got out of his car, commanded the fugitive to halt, and when he did not, the cop commenced firing. He fired at least six times. A bullet hit the fugitive in the leg, and he was apprehended. Much to-do. The neighbors were not amused. They were especially not amused when they learned that the officer had been firing rather wildly at a suspect who was running away on a residential street where children, dogs and old people, among others, were frequently out and about.

And then there was the case of the murder in the house on the corner of the other street across the street from ours. This murder happened during the night and wasn't discovered until the next day. There was an extensive investigation because of the prominence of the murdered man and the somewhat dodgy circumstances of his death (they said he'd picked up an underage male prostitute who shot him and stole some jewelry and money, or so the investigation concluded. A suspect was apprehended and tried for 2nd degree murder, and I believe he was convicted or confessed.) The police were all over the neighborhood looking for clues and interviewing residents as potential witnesses, but none of us had seen the man recently nor had any of us seen the young man he allegedly brought home with him. The man was discovered dead by his cleaning lady the morning after he was shot. Later on, friends of ours bought the house at a deep discount because a murder had happened there. They were happy as clams to be able to live in such a nice place at such a bargain! The murder didn't phase them, and they said the blood on the hardwood floor of the living room cleaned up nicely. They tended to have a morbid sense of humor in any case.

I've attended many hearings on police abuse, interviewed victims, and have heard hundreds of stories about the arbitrary and unaccountable imposition of police authority on residents of a number of cities. I've prepared reports on police abuse and attended any number of task force meetings on what to do about it. I helped write some legislation regarding police accountability.

But apart from those incidents mentioned, I've had almost no interaction with police in the last twenty years or so, and I would guess that most people of my gender, class, race, and age have had even less contact with police. To many or even to most people like me (male, middle class, white, older) the issue of "police abuse" is an abstraction and those who protest and demand change are seen as either tragically misguided or agitators who probably deserved what they got or whose loved ones "needed killing." Based on the testimonies I've heard and the behavior of police as it is reported and documented, the reality of police abuse is very different than many of those who don't experience it typically imagine.

To see the problem of police abuse unfolding again in Albuquerque is sometimes difficult for me to deal with. But the issue has come much closer to us than what's gone on in Albuquerque.

Though we don't live in town, there have been a couple of recent police involved shootings not far away from us that are very troubling. One man was shot and killed by a state police sniper. It was at first falsely claimed that the man had fired on police, but it was later determined that he had not. He was having an "episode". He had apparently threatened to fire on police and he refused to surrender sufficiently quickly, though both the sheriff and the man's family were negotiating with him when he was shot by the state police sniper. The state police sniper who shot him had killed another man in Albuquerque a few weeks previously.

The man the sniper killed in Albuquerque is said by the dead man's family to be "the wrong brother." According to them, two brothers were holed up in their mother's apartment. One had fired on police the night before and was wanted for that incident (as I recall, the officer was injured, but I may be thinking of another incident, there have been so many.) The police did not know which brother had fired on the officer previously. A gun fight ensued at the brother's mother's apartment, as one of the brothers -- the police did not know which one, though they claimed they did -- fired from inside the apartment at police who fired back. Eventually, the brother who the family said had fired at officers in the first instance surrendered and was taken into custody on an outstanding warrant. The other brother was negotiating his own surrender when the state police sniper spied him passing by a window and shot him dead. According to the police, the brother who was killed was the one who had shot at police; according to the family, he was not, he never fired a gun at all. The brother they took into custody was the one who had done the deed. He pleaded guilty to the outstanding charge against him (I forget what it was, maybe stolen property) and was sentenced to two years. The family is distraught. They don't know what to do. They're terrified that when the brother in prison is released, he'll do something worse and get more people killed. They say they tried to explain the real situation to the police, but they wouldn't listen. A typical complaint is that the Albuquerque police don't listen, they only react.

The other police involved shooting in our area took place after a man living far out in the country called local police to report a suspicious vehicle parked in or near his driveway. This took place in the dead of night. The police arrived in an unmarked car, and a sheriff's deputy arrived in an (almost) unmarked SUV soon afterwards. They inspected the car in question, found nothing out of the ordinary, and were about to leave when the man who had called the police in the first place fired on one of their cars (I don't recall which one). Both the police officer and the deputy fired back, wounding the man who had fired on them. He made his way to a neighbor's house where he was found by police. They called a helicopter to take him to a hospital in Albuquerque where he was treated for his injuries.

According to news reports, the man said he didn't know who had arrived to inspect the car he had reported as "suspicious" as he saw no identification on their vehicles. He thought they might be confederates of whoever the suspicious car belonged to, and he had fired at the front of one of their vehicles to prevent their escape. When he found out who they were, he was surprised and sorry. The incident is chalked up to an "Oops."

New Mexico is an open carry state, so there are some people who parade around with their sidearms in plain view. It seems like everyone has a weapon of some sort and is prepared to use it. Plenty of people have arsenals at home. This proliferation of firearms in private hands has led to plenty of tragedies in New Mexico and elsewhere, and I'm convinced that a big part of the reason why officers are so trigger happy in Albuquerque and around the state is because they know that potentially everybody they encounter is armed and they really believe that this armed citizenry will use their guns if the police don't shoot first.

Of course there is much more to the police abuse situation in Albuquerque. It's not simply that the police are afraid for their lives amid an armed and more and more hostile citizenry -- though they are that. It is also that the police have developed a rigidly and self-righteously hostile culture toward a wide range of citizens and residents of the city they are sworn to protect and serve.

New Mexico is a poor state. Poverty is endemic. Given the economic collapse of the past number of years -- a collapse which is severe and ongoing in New Mexico -- poverty has been increasing rather than diminishing. Poverty and poor people are being concentrated in parts of Albuquerque. And those just happen to be the parts of Albuquerque where police abuse and police involved shootings happen with the most frequency.

How unsurprising.

And that's part of the problem the residents of Albuquerque recognize. The police treat poor people in general as threats, and they treat poor neighborhoods as territories to be occupied or put under siege. They don't treat apparently well-off people and neighborhoods the same way at all. At least until recently they didn't...

These days, it's not so clear-cut. SWAT teams have been called out to some pretty pricey areas, and some relatively well-off households have felt the lethal sting of police weapons turned against them. Armand Martin, for example, was black but he was far from poor, and he lived in a well-off, well-groomed neighborhood on the West Side. His encounter with SWAT led to his death after an hours-long siege of his house. But it wasn't the first time that neighborhood had been visited by Albuquerque SWAT, nor has it been the last. There have been a few other cases where otherwise well-off and even prominent households their offspring have been subjected to lethal police force.

In other words, the police don't solely target the poor.

Nor do they solely target brown and black residents.

It's a critical mistake to believe they do. They target those they believe have gotten out of line or those who will get out of line if not stopped dead or otherwise forcefully controlled.

They patrol poor neighborhoods as if they were an occupying power to be sure, and those neighborhoods are the homes of many brown and black residents. But they are not exclusively so. Police also seek and sometimes use lethal force against individuals who are acting out in any way they find threatening... and to a police officer, any unusual activity can be seen as a threat of some kind, just as any hand-held object can be and too often is seen by police as a "weapon" pointed at them -- even when it is only a cell phone.

I have long urged families not to call 911 if a loved one is in emotional or other distress or is acting out or acting weird. The police will come and they will use lethal force if they perceive a threat of any kind and your loved one will die. There will be no help from calling 911 in such circumstances, so don't do it. Of course people still call 911 -- because they don't know what else to do, and they are conditioned to believe that compassionate help of some kind is available and will be dispatched. NO! It's not and won't be. The police will be sent... and the police will kill.

So what should be done?

Families, households and communities have to learn not to call 911 or the police just because someone is behaving strangely or even if that person is threatening them -- at least not if they don't want that person to die. There will be no compassionate help available in such situations. Much better for families, neighborhoods and communities to establish an informal system of compassionate help rather than to call on official services -- which too often lead to death.

That's a first step, it seems to me, and given the plethora of non-profits established to serve "underprivileged" communities it's shocking and appalling that there really is no informal system of compassionate help available to the general population when individuals and families face these kinds of crises; instead, many of the non-profits in the "helping" community that might be providing compassionate help have an institutional policy of calling the police. 

A further step requires the "de-occupation/de-seiging" of poor and marginal neighborhoods. Assuming an armed police force is necessary for public safety -- an at times questionable assumption -- "de-occupation" can sometimes be accomplished through community policing practices that apparently aren't being utilized in Albuquerque. But it's not fool-proof. If the police culture is one of force and violence toward the public in practically any confrontation or situation of disobedience, then community policing can actually make things worse. Police culture has to change or the police have to be barred from those areas where their behavior has led to tragedy after tragedy.

Barred? Indeed.The police must be denied access under certain conditions. They can be replaced with an alternate public safety corps, one that might actually be drawn from the community... what a concept. This was part of the thinking behind the establishment of the Black Panthers back in the day, and it can still be a useful model to consider. Guardian Angels are another model. There are others. The point is to keep the police out of situations and areas where their conduct will almost inevitably lead to tragedy.

Changing the role of the police -- rather than trying to change the police culture -- might be a more useful undertaking in the short term. Albuquerque police are defiant about the reforms the community and the DoJ are demanding. They refuse to comply. This was true in Oakland, and it's true in Seattle and other cities. They refuse to comply -- or they "comply" in ways that often make the situation worse. An answer to that is to reduce their numbers and authorities and to change their role so that their public face is diminished.

Confine them to SWAT operations -- and never call them out... ;-)

There are many creative alternatives to the problem of police abuse.

One of the most important is to make it impossible for them to continue their prior behavior.

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