Friday, January 2, 2015

Imagine A World Without Police Killing, Discipline and Punishment

In the general scheme of things, the crisis of violent policing would have been consigned to the scrap-heap of "yesterday's news" -- but for the continuing litany of outrageous incidents of police abuse and murder that pepper the airwaves and internet.

The killings continue, day in and day out, at the rate of about 90-100 a month, and the rates of abuse and general violence by police stay much the same as well. There are hundreds of thousands of assaults by police every year.

It's been so routine for so long, many people take the situation and natural and normal, believing as a stern parent might that some people simply need killing, or at the very least they need discipline and punishment, or the world will descend into chaos and disorder.

We wouldn't want that, would we?

Besides, "9/11"!

And yet.... there's  a nagging suspicion that all this death and mayhem committed by police isn't really necessary. Chaos is created by a culture of impunity and a belief in omnipotence that seems to run through police departments like a viral disease, infecting the entire apparatus of policing in this country, top to bottom and coast to coast.

There is a nagging suspicion that something is dreadfully wrong, and somebody ought to do something about it before it gets worse.

Some people are willing devotees to the current police culture of impunity and omnipotence, however. They seem to sincerely believe we need the discipline and punishment the police administer -- at such risk to their own lives, don't ya know -- and that without it, civilizations would grind to a screeching halt. It's well-known that people are incapable of looking out for their own safety and well-being. "9/11!"

Thousands died. How many more might be dead today if the police didn't bag their quota of Bad Guys?

How many?

We don't know. Until recently, we didn't know just how many were being killed by police every year. We may have heard the figure of "400 or so" as reported by the FBI, but that seemed to be low. We didn't know how low until sites like "Killed by Police" started keeping records of police killings based on "corporate media reports."

"Killed by Police" admits their record isn't complete. Corporate media reports police killings in local markets, but they don't necessarily report all of them, and translating the local reports of police killings into a national database is a daunting task. Nevertheless, "Killed by Police" provides the most comprehensive and up to date database of police killings we have.

The numbers are shocking. The "400 or so" killed by police annually that media had widely cited for years is wildly inaccurate. "Killed by Police" recorded "at least 1,100" dead in 2014, and that's based on corporate media reports only. Not all reports are in the database, not all are accurate, and not all have been followed up on, so even this statistic is probably short of the mark.

The site acknowledges as much and makes up for some of the probable shortfall by including deaths of civilians by traffic accidents involving police, by including the murder-suicide and other domestic killings by police, and by including some reports that may later turn out to be erroneous or false. It's very raw data in other words which should be looked at as such and not be taken as gospel.

Nevertheless, at least 1,100 dead is far more than the "400 or so" some media are still reporting as the official number of those killed by police. Far more.

How many of those are unarmed?

I did a quick and dirty analysis the other day, and was shocked to find that about 1/3rd of the victims are unarmed by any sensible estimation. Police often claim that anything a person is holding or presumed to be holding is a weapon, therefore, anything perceived to be in a victim's hand can be used to justify the killing of that person. They also consider any vehicle driven by the viction when he or she is shot and killed to be a lethal weapon (that could be) used to run down or run over police. They will often falsely state that the victim tried to run down or run over police, when in fact the victims may have been trying to escape a deadly situation and were not trying to run anybody down or over.

Not only were about a third of the victims unarmed when they were killed by police, a third seemed to be in a mental health crisis or suicidal, a third were involved in domestic disputes, and only a very few were engaged in criminal activity that required use of lethal force. And even then, alternative, non-lethal approaches to the situation were certainly possible.

So why are there so many killings by police?

I've long maintained that 90% of the killings by police -- or more -- are unnecessary  and would not take place in a rational policing environment. Hundreds of millions of dollars are paid out by civic bodies to survivors and loved ones of people killed and brutalized by police every year, a tacit acknowledgement that something is dreadfully wrong in general policing practices that leave so many dead and injured.

Something is dreadfully wrong, and there is now a National Conversation about what it might be.

Who knows? Apparently most people haven't even thought about it before now. Most people never encounter lethal police force, and so it doesn't occur to them that there might be a use of force problem within police culture.

As long as they consider themselves to be safe, why should they be worried, right?

They should because the impunity with which police are allowed to kill and brutalize means that anyone, at any time, can become a victim.

Which of course is the point of the discipline and punishment role the police have been given in society.

The fact that anyone can become a victim at any time, by accident or design, is a means of maintaining order of a sort, a deliberate ploy to ensure that as few people as possible get out of line or fail in their duty to conform.

So long as the killing is confined to those who need the most discipline and punishment -- ie: communities of color, poor people of any color, the mentally ill, the suicidal, the drunks and drug addicts, the homeless -- why should "normal" people be concerned about what the police do?

So few good white people are killed by police every year. Those who are killed, as their many mug shots show, needed killing or they wouldn't have all those tattoos, they wouldn't have mug shots at all.

It's circular reasoning. The ones who get killed are so often described as "known criminals" -- and they almost always come from targeted populations as listed above wherein nearly everyone is criminalized by default.

What would happen if the killing stopped?

That's what we've got to think about and come to grips with.

What would happen if the police culture of impunity and omnipotence were replaced with one of service and responsibility?

What a concept, right?

A test case is underway in Albuquerque.

After the outrageous killing of James Boyd in March of 2014, enough of the people rose up to say "Stop!" that civic authorities actually had to listen. They had long maintained that there was nothing wrong, that the killings were all perfectly in order, and only cranks and criminals were complaining about them.

Only they were wrong.

Because the police were killing almost randomly, shooting off their weapons wildly, and executing people in the streets and open spaces for... sassing? Failure to comply? Being homeless,mentally ill, black, brown, or tattooed? Being a known criminal?

 What was going on?
No matter what the circumstances or facts, every single killing by police in Albuquerque was justified by the DA. And yet tens of millions of dollars were awarded to the survivors and loved ones of those killed in tacit acknowledgement that -- just maybe -- the killings were neither justified nor necessary.

The killing of James Boyd made it impossible to maintain the status quo. As the mayor put it, "This is a game changer."

And so it was.

Demonstrations and protests -- which had been going on sporadically for years -- intensified and at one point came close to shutting the city down. A city council meeting was taken over. The mayor's office was taken over. The freeway was shut down and several police substations were vandalized.

The DoJ released its long-delayed report on the pattern and practice of Albuquerque's police department and it was scathing. "Unconstitutional" was putting it kindly.

Something had to change, but what and how?

First of all, the killing had to stop. But after the release of the DoJ report, there was a spike in police killings of civilians. Five or six were killed between the killing of James Boyd in March and the cessation of APD killings in July.

But... APD has ceased killing. Their last recorded killing was on July 22, 2014, when Jeremy Robertson was chased through a field by members of the Repeat Offenders Project and SWAT officers and was shot and killed by snipers -- who had shot and killed four others in the past --  as he was climbing a fence to get away.


And they did. There have been only two officer-involved killings in Albuquerque since then and they were committed by sheriff's deputies.

So. We have a test case regarding what happens when the police stop killing people. So far, the city has not descended into chaos and mayhem.

Imagine it. The APD stopped killing people in July, and the world had not ended. Could it possibly be that killings by police are not essential to the conduct of their jobs? How amazing.

Imagine it. NYPD throws a temper tantrum and stops writing summonses and tickets for petty offenses, says it will only make arrests when "absolutely necessary." How wonderful! The city abides. The world does not end.

Can it be? Little boys actually don't have to be killed by police on playgrounds? Black men holding unloaded air rifles or imitation samurai swords aren't existential threats? Who knew?

Is it possible that civilization can survive if police aren't delegated to discipline and punish the slightest infraction? They don't have to hogtie and jail four year olds?


Imagine a world without police killing, discipline or punishment.

It's a radical thought, I know, but we might just get there...

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