Sunday, September 7, 2014

Routines, Protocols, and Justifications

There is a magical incantation: "The officer followed proper department procedure."

There is another magical incantation: "The officer stated he was in fear for his life."

And yet another magical incantation: "The subject was seen to reach for his waistband."

And still another: "The subject refused commands to drop his weapon and was seen to point it at the officer."

One more: "The subject advanced toward the officer with hostile intent."

There are many more, of course, but these are among the magical incantations that will, in almost every case, enable the police department and district attorney, along with almost every use of force monitor and civilian review panel to rule yet another police homicide "justified." It typically doesn't matter whether these incantations are true or not, for the truth is rarely a matter for internal investigations. Veracity -- ie: the believability of the incantation -- is not necessarily truthfulness after all. What's needed -- often all that's needed -- is that the officer state certain things in certain ways, and once that's done, he (or rarely, she) is on his/her way.

The perp in almost every case deserved to die according to police procedure and protocol for the use of force.

Almost every time. So often, in fact, do police do so that getting away with murder has become a police department routine.

There is essentially no defense when an officer has decided (in that legendary "split-second" so frequently alluded to) to kill a subject. None. The subject may be surrendering, may not be armed, may be confused or unable to obey, may be mentally handicapped or or otherwise disabled, may be belligerent, may or may not be a real threat to the officer or others, it does not matter. Once the decision to kill has been made, there is no defense the officer is bound to respect. The bad aim and shooting skills of the officer may be the only thing that prevents the death of the suspect.

This became clear to me sometime this year when a particular New Mexico State Police sniper was assigned to a number of incidents involving civilians in crisis and he shot three of them, killing two, severely wounding another.

In the first case I'm aware of, he shot and killed a suspect at an apartment complex in Albuquerque. The suspect's family said, "He shot the wrong brother." There were two brothers wanted for firing at police and lightly wounding a police officer the night before. According to the family, the brother who had actually fired at officers the night before surrendered during a daylight standoff and claimed that the other brother was the one who fired. The other brother, according to the family, never fired a weapon at the police and was in the process of surrendering or negotiating his surrender, when the State Police sniper shot him dead.

A few months later, he was assigned to a "stand off" out in the country, not far from our own place, as part of a SWAT back up requested by the sheriff. The subject in this stand off was known to the sheriff as a troubled individual who was now "barricaded" in his parents' home, refusing to come out, and alleged to be firing at police and others from inside the home. It would later turn out he was not firing, but in these cases, what he was really doing is beside the point. He would not surrender in a timely fashion.

The sheriff and the man's parents were on the phone with him trying to get him to surrender when the State Police sniper opened fire, killing him. The sheriff was shocked. The man was not considered a serious threat -- though he was armed, and apparently had fired the gun inside the house. During the standoff and immediately after the killing, it was said he had fired at police, news helicopters and bystanders, but sometime later it was determined he had not actually fired "at" anyone, and statements to the contrary issued by police and media were false. Nevertheless, the man needed killing, yes?

The third incident happened a few months later when a man was having a crisis episode in Los Lunas. He was armed, threatening and fired his weapons several times, and apparently actually did fire at officers (though we should take any statement that he did so with a dash of skepticism.) Local police were backed up by Valencia County and State Police, once again including this particular sniper. Within a short time, the man was shot and wounded by this sniper and two of the local police. He was taken to the hospital and was said to be recovering from his injuries according to news reports which have, so far as I know, not been followed up on.

This State Police sniper has essentially been sent on assignment after assignment to kill people. We know of other individuals who have similar assignments.  And if there are such individuals in New Mexico, we can be sure there are other police assigned to kill in other places. In fact, they are probably all over the country. Killers. By protocol and procedure.

When it dawned on me that this was happening, not just around here but probably everywhere, and that killing by police was not by any means always a "split second" determination by an officer under threat -- or perceived threat -- but was an assignment carried out with extreme prejudice by designated killers, I got the picture that what we think is going on is not what's going on at all.

In many of these cases of police killing the fact is that there has been an active process of premeditation and predetermination leading to summary execution. In that context, the killings, which otherwise might seem spontaneous or random actually turn out to be planned and implemented according to protocols and justifications -- "rules of engagement" if you will -- that the public is largely unaware of.

They largely don't know that when they call 911 in cases of a loved one undergoing an emotional or psychological crisis or a drug or alcohol induced crisis, police will almost always be dispatched to "secure" the situation prior to EMTs having access. If the loved one cannot or does not obey commands from police, the loved one will be shot. Often the loved one will be killed. This is standard protocol for such situations, and so it's rarely advisable to call 911 for emergency services in such situations unless you are OK with your loved one being shot and killed. (Which apparently a lot of people are... )

For whatever reason, though, most people don't seem to understand this.

If police see someone with a gun or what they think is a gun when they are engaged in some kind of "crime suppression" operation, they will open fire sometimes without warning. "Rules of engagement." There doesn't have to be a gun for this to happen, just the perception of something somewhat gunlike is enough. Or if someone suspected of being involved in a criminal activity reaches for his waistband... bam.

Again, it doesn't matter whether the suspect is armed or not, nor does it matter whether there is an actual threat, all that matters is that the officer says he perceived  a threat. Or, as we've seen, the officer is assigned to kill the suspect, perceived threat or no.

It's routine, it's protocol, and it is sufficient to justify just about any police killing of anyone at any time.

Stuart Schrader at Jacobin gets into how these rules came about, how they were derived from military and policing practices used by American Imperial troopers in the Philippines and Vietnam, and how they became the standards for domestic policing as well. It's a fascinating story. Grim. But fascinating.

The thing of it is, the victims often have no idea what the rules are, or they believe they are quite different than they are. This misunderstanding actually leads to a lot of the killings by police, as the police operate by a set of rules and protocols completely different from those of the public, and often completely unknown to them.

This has been true of the military in Afghanistan and Iraq as well, where thousands of innocents were killed -- because they didn't know what the rules of engagement were, or because snipers were assigned to kill them, or because they were in the way.

Thus the Haditha massacre, the endless checkpoint killings, the "clearances" of civilians from areas of operations, the roadside killings, the kill response to any perceived threat, any perceived action that might be a threat, the random shooting at civilians to terrorize them and so on. Ultimately it's about force protection. The killers to be protected at all costs, civilians not so much.

All these practices that were intended to cow and control an occupied population abroad, dating back at least to the Philippine Insurrection of 1898-1904 have been applied to domestic policing as a means of enforcing control through what amounts to terror. It's not new. It's integral.

Changing it means that the ruling class must abandon an imperial mindset. The question is, how?

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