Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What I Learned This Year: Part The Second

Needless to say, the main social issue this year has been that of police violence and murder.

The issue has been an important one to me since I worked on the problem of police brutality in Sacramento from 1996-1998. The project there was spearheaded by the NAACP local organization -- the National wouldn't support it, as the problem of police brutality was not one they thought was all that important in those days. We documented hundreds of cases of police brutality and disrespect, however, and we used that information to press for changes in police culture that would reduce violence against civilians by the Sacramento Police Department. It was a long struggle, and it was only partially successful. For example, we didn't get a civilian review board, but we did get an "independent monitor" whose job it was to investigate claims of police brutality and recommend action.

The issue in Sacramento was never police killings as they were and are relatively rare. Instead, we were dealing with a tradition of violent policing, a tradition that probably went back to the vigilance committees of the Gold Rush era, and a tradition that primarily -- but not exclusively -- impacted communities of color. Certainly during the Black Panther era, Sacramento's police department went on a rampage against the black community. By the late 1990's some of that violence had dissipated, but black men were still prime targets for police brutality.

Community policing was becoming the standard and we sought means to make it happen in Sacramento. And behold, the new police chief, Arturo Venegas, was on the same wavelength. Introduction of community policing reduced the incidence of police violence by some 60% or more, and the presence of a monitor has helped reduce it further. The point is that when police know the people they're dealing with and know the communities, and they know they are being watched and will be held to account for their actions, their use of violent means and methods against civilians declines. Sure enough, it works.

When I moved to New Mexico in 2012, I wasn't really aware of the culture of violence among the local police forces, particularly Albuquerque's, but soon enough I became aware, as reports of police violence and killing were constant. There were the reports of  'anal probing,' in custody assaults and killings, mayhem on the highways. It was just amazing. Wild West didn't begin to describe it.

In Albuquerque, it seemed there were police shootings and killings practically every week.

When Oriana Farrell was stopped on Highway 518 out of Taos in December of 2013, and she then fled violence by State Police, the issue became focused on specific acts of violence by police -- such as firing at a fleeing van full of children -- that were simply incredible.

At some point, you have to say, "Stop! This is wrong!" And that point came. First with the Farrell incident on Highway 518, and then will the egregious shooting/execution of James Boyd in Albuquerque in March of 2014.

That incident, the killing of James Boyd, catalyzed a nationwide movement that's still going on.

I learned a great deal about the national problem of police killings this year. I learned that changes can take place, that police cultures of violence are not immutable, and that public outrage must be sustained and disruptive in order to make headway against corrupt and resistant police cultures.

In Sacramento, police killing was relatively rare. In New Mexico, it seemed to be frequent. So frequent, and so ridiculously inappropriate, that a people's movement against it seemed to spontaneously arise after James Boyd's killing and the efforts of the APD's chief to call it justified.

But I learned it was not a spontaneous movement at all; the movement was the product of years and years of protest against dozens and dozens of police killings in Albuquerque. Many of the people involved were the loved ones of people  who'd been killed by police over the years, and they'd had enough. They'd protested for years, but the killings kept happening. They'd manged to get the DoJ brought in to investigate the pattern and practice of policing in Albuquerque, but the investigation had been going on for a year and a half with no result. The DoJ appeared to be dragging its feet, and the city administration, from the mayor and the city manager on down, seemed oblivious to the existence of a problem with police killing. They were more inclined to review the parallel issue of police corruption, the Good Ol' Boys backscratching, and the culture of going along to get along.

The people who were killed by police so regularly were mostly people that "needed killing" -- the poor, homeless, mentally ill, drunk, drug addict, gang-banger, tattooed, pierced, troublemaker, etc. Few people cared if a certain number of the riff-raff were eliminated from the gene pool every year.

The administration of the city saw no problem.

The Boyd killing changed all that, and it opened up the question of police violence and killing nationwide.

There were demonstrations and protests in Albuquerque throughout the spring and into the summer. They closed down the freeway through town briefly, and they caused the police department to bring out its military equipment and horse patrols to put down what they saw as an insurrection. This led to some real and honest questioning of police behavior toward protest and protesters, and to a debate about police militarization that would spread nationally, too.

Who, exactly, were they meeting in battle this way? Civilians who simply wanted the killing to stop and for the killers to be held to account? Who's idea was this?

And so it went, day after day, on and on. The demonstrations and protests seemed to spur the DoJ out of its slumber and force it to release a scathing report on the unconstitutional policing and inappropriate uses of force by the APD. There was a spate of killings after the report was issued in April, then the numbers started declining, until in August, they stopped.

The killing stopped. THE KILLING STOPPED.

There has only been one officer involved killing in Albuquerque since August, and that one involved a county sheriff's deputy, not APD. It may have been an unfortunate act of panic.

The city entered into a consent decree with the DoJ at the end of October -- it hasn't been formalized by the court yet -- which overhauls and monitors the department. Simultaneously, they began an extensive PR campaign that was intended to show that police were not the monsters and killers they'd been made out to be.

I don't live in Albuquerque, so I don't see what goes on day to day, but my impression is that there has been a marked behavior change on the part of APD officers. They don't agress against the community the way they once did, and they engage in crisis intervention, de-escalation, and alternative arrest and intervention tactics far more than they once did. Police are being disciplined for not utilizing body cameras. They are required to report and justify any used of lethal or non-lethal force, and they are expected to behave professionally.

All this has made a difference, and it seems to be having a positive effect on communities that were once policed so aggressively. When police behave respectfully toward communities and in fact become part of those communities as opposed to outside invaders and armies of occupation, surprising things happen. Hostility is reduced and violence diminishes.

I learned that one man in particular has been selling a version of killer-policing for years, he makes his living at it, and is in essence a cult leader, fostering a police culture of violence and killing. His name is Dave Grossman, a former Army psychologist, whose philosophy is known as "Killology" and who says that the highest accomplishment a police officer or military troop can achieve is to kill in "righteous battle." For that, he says, is what the police and military are for.

They are, in his mind, "sheepdogs," protecting the "sheep" from "wolves."

Killing is what they must do. It is their mission in life. To kill.

And he goes around giving talks and counseling police departments in the crackpot theories of killing he's come up with.

In my estimation, the man is insane, and his theories are destructive and dangerous. But they have been adopted almost universally by police departments in this country, and they go a long way toward explaining why there is so much police killing while crime rates are at historic lows despite the fact that in the last fifty years, more and more everyday activities have been criminalized, and despite the fact that the high and the mighty are not subject to criminal sanctions at all.

Grossman behaves like a cult-leader, and his devotees are police officers all over the country who act violently because they believe his teachings -- that they are doing God's work, no matter who they kill. It's all just and righteous, because...

I learned that there are approximately 100 police killings every month, a constant rat-a-tat of killing, or rather there were. The rate appears to have declined slightly since the summer of discontent and nationwide protest following the killings of Mike Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York.

When I looked at the reports in detail, I was shocked at the patterns and statistics:

  • A third of those killed by police were unarmed.

  • A third were suicidal or mentally ill for which crisis intervention was never or was inappropriately employed

  • A third were involved in domestic disputes for which nonviolent or alternative resolutions are appropriate.

  • I've long maintained that 90% or more of police killings are unnecessary. I learned that statistically, it's true. Police kill out of a basis of irrational fear and from a position of "righteous authority."

    Their commands MUST BE OBEYED -- or the subject must die.

    Failure to obey leads to death over and over and over, and when the subject cannot obey for whatever reason, too bad for them; the officer commits no crime when the subject does not follow commands.

    It's crazy.

    As more and more people wake up to the fact that policing is crazy, the protests and demands for change spread.

    The police have been caught off guard. They have been so brainwashed, most can't imagine why or how the people have risen in revolt against them. It seems to their eyes to be a criminal conspiracy of some sort. They cannot imagine that the people do not see their actions and their killings as righteous.

    They're fighting back, at least rhetorically, but it seems to me that the message is getting through to the high and the mighty that the killing must and can stop.

    We await further developments in the new year, but there has been surprising progress this year.

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