Monday, June 2, 2014

Police Departments At War With The Citizens?

The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) has been under intense scrutiny by the Department of Justice for some time now. The APD as a whole has been declared by the DoJ to have engaged in routine "unconstitutional policing" and frequent unnecessary and unjustified use of force. These are serious charges, but they are not uncommon findings when the DoJ investigates local police forces.

APD and the City of Albuquerque are negotiating a consent decree under which APD will be required to operate in the future. Many city police forces have been put under such decrees in the past, and some are currently operating under such decrees.

Results vary. In Oakland, CA, for example, the instructions of the a settlement agreement reached in 2003 were routinely violated or ignored, the Federal monitors who were emplaced to ensure compliance were openly defied, and "unconstitutional policing" continued without pause or let up for a decade or more. In some respects, Oakland policing was manifestly worse after the settlement agreement was entered into than before it, in part because of the defiance of the Oakland Police Department, defiance which at times could be quite brutal and bloody. It was as if OPD was daring the courts and the DoJ and the city to do anything about it.

After all, what could they do? He who has the guns has the power, right? After years and years of citizen complaints, civic paralysis, bloodshed and destruction of lives and property by the OPD, removal and replacement of police chief after police chief, the replacement of the city administrator, the failed recall of the mayor, declarations of failure by the courts, threats to place OPD into federal receivership and routine impunity of action by Oakland police, it appears that something approaching a truce and good faith effort to reform is finally... maybe... perhaps... under way. No one is certain.

There is as yet no clear indication that OPD's behavior and relationship with the city's citizens has actually changed -- nor that it can or will. It's been nearly 12 years since the negotiated settlement was entered into. Twelve years of police terror and misery for residents of Oakland. Twelve years of defiance and contempt of the people by OPD. Is it even possible for the department to comply with the orders of the court? Those who have observed the process and the continual defiance by the OPD are understandably dubious.

In Seattle, members of the police department have recently sued in Federal Court to have the portions of the consent decree the city and SPD entered into after years of citizen complaint and DoJ investigation voided. The suit is particularly over the use of force guidelines imposed on SPD -- after a number of appalling incidents in which SPD officers injured or killed residents with apparent impunity. The officers claim they are now at risk of their own lives because they cannot, according to the guidelines of the decree, impose whatever force they and they alone believe is necessary when and how they deem fit, essentially with complete impunity. While the suit is not in direct defiance of the DoJ and the courts, it is a form of indirect defiance which neatly expresses an attitude many police departments hold toward the citizens they are alleged to protect and serve.

I've been following the issue of police abuse of citizens and residents of many jurisdictions for many years, and have written fairly extensively on the topic. Some local police forces in the United States have a long and bloody history of outrageous conduct while others do not. But all seem to have become more abusive toward the law and citizens when they can be, and many operate under a cloud of impunity which allows them to be almost as abusive as they want to be whenever they choose to be.

The Albuquerque, Oakland and Seattle situations are somewhat unusual in that the defiance toward reform by at least some portion of the force is in the open and their hostility toward residents and reformers alike is part of the ongoing problem residents have been seeking to address. That police forces refuse, quite openly, to follow the orders and recommendations and decrees of the courts and continue to act with impunity toward citizens indicates to me that some police forces see themselves as armies of occupation beholden to some other command and control than that of their local, state, and federal governments.

Who or what could that be? Who or what is actually in charge of runaway-rogue police forces, and how did the situation get so out of the control of local residents?

Over the next few weeks, if I'm not distracted by other things, I'll try to get into that question more deeply.

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