A few days ago, a man was shot and killed by police in Pasco, WA in front of dozens of horrified onlookers, some of whom captured part of the incident on their camera-phones.
Those of us who have followed the issue of police violence for any length of time know that killings similar to this one -- summary executions in the streets of America, often in front of witnesses -- go on all the time, practically every day, and that for the most part they are ruled "justified" or are even regarded as "heroic" by police departments, grand juries, DAs and courts.
In other words, regardless of the facts of the matter, the only things that matter to the men and women who determine -- shall we say -- "the rules of engagement" between police and the public is that the officer(s) who kill and brutalize say the magic words, "I was afraid for my life" and that's the end of it.
There is no appeal to a higher authority.
The dead are dead and the officers who kill (almost) always go free to kill again, and even if they are not publicly hailed as heroes, internal rewards can mount up handsomely.
The police are doing the job they are assigned to do, and summary execution is part of that job.
Yesterday, James Comey, head of the FBI, offered his wisdom on the current confrontations between police and protesters over the matter of police killings of black men, often unarmed, greatly out of proportion to their alleged criminal actions.
It's really quite stunning for its apparent blindness to what is going on and why there is such an outcry against police killings and violence across this land. Mr. Comey, along with most police chiefs and their departments, appears to be living in a self-generated dreamland of perpetual threat -- everywhere -- that must be neutralized with as much force as necessary, even if the "threat" is only in the mind of the police officer who kills or brutalizes.
An ever-present threat that must always be neutralized before any other consideration is the ground state of American police forces, and it comes in part from the beliefs propagated at the FBI and the Department of Justice. What happens in the streets is a direct consequence.
What happens in the streets too often involves brutality and death by police when such action is not necessary or warranted.
Except that the rule-makers almost always say it is OK for police to brutalize and kill.
So arguing that the police are out of control is somewhat specious. They are out of control in many cases, but making that argument is practically irrelevant. The police are just "doing their jobs" according to those who make the rules. Acting like out of control, violent freaks, shooting and killing whenever they sense a threat or fear for their lives is a part of doing their jobs. It's what they are expected to do, required to do, by their peers and supervisors, and by the power structure they are a part of.
Summary execution in the streets in front of witnesses is a part of doing their jobs, and according to leaders like (Lt Col) Dave Grossman, it is their highest achievement and a great honor for them to kill the enemy. It is fulfillment of their reason for being.
Beating to death someone like Kelly Thomas -- who was no threat at all -- is a part of doing their jobs.
This is what they have been hired and trained to do, and the violence with which they do their jobs is part of their very identity.
Arguing against police violence is arguing against the very identity of the police themselves. This identity, distinct from that of the people they ostensibly protect and serve, is a major reason why demonstrators were unable to convince police to go against their orders to suppress the Occupy demonstrations when time was, and why they will not go against orders to suppress the Black Lives Matter demonstrations these days.
The tactics of suppression may change, just as the tactics of protest and demonstration do, but the practice of violent policing and death doesn't -- not unless intense scrutiny is applied, and pressure that cannot be ignored is employed.
I've often mentioned that the practice of violent policing and death seems to have changed in Albuquerque, for example. The issue was a spate of bloody and deadly encounters between Albuquerque police and citizens that left dozens dead and injured, encounters often initiated by police and almost always escalated by them into deadly confrontations. Police were never held to account, never disciplined, never charged with crimes during this killing spree. As the dead piled up, the police department and city officials insisted that there was nothing wrong with what was going on, Albuquerque was just a super-violent place where criminals would be running wild if the police weren't on top of the matter and killing them right and left.
Except that so many of the dead weren't criminals at all or were at most low-level miscreants. Half were mentally ill. Others were drug users, alcoholics, homeless, or other marginalized residents whose encounters with the law may have been frequent but whose crimes were mostly status crimes.
Too often shots were fired by police because their target "failed to obey." That was also the case in Pasco documented at the top of this post.
Failure to obey is a capital offense.
So is "reaching" for anything near ones waistband if only to hold up ones trousers while one is running away from the threat to ones life that police have become.
Police are so convinced that everyone (within certain categories) represents an existential threat to their own lives that they feel justified shooting and killing even the most benign individuals even in the most non-threatening circumstance -- because of what they sense "might be."
They're programmed, conditioned and trained that way.
They are expected to sense and respond to "threats" -- even when there are none -- and to neutralize them with whatever force is necessary.
Defiance is a threat, disobedience is a threat, an armed Negro is an existential threat to be neutralized on sight, even if the Negro is not armed... the perception that he/she is armed is a sufficient threat for immediate neutralization with deadly force.
Mental illness is a threat, alcohol and drug intoxication is a threat, homelessness is a threat, being black or brown in America is a threat, and on and on, through the lists and categories of threats to be neutralized by the police.
The litany is long.
Arguing against the violence of police officers assigned to neutralize threats, however, is often ineffective because they are almost always protected by higher authority, even when judgements totaling millions of dollars are assessed in civil court. Almost nothing can be done against police violence in criminal courts -- at least not so far -- but civil courts often award substantial sums to survivors and victims' loved ones, or civil settlements are reached prior to trial. This may not be justice but it is a means of acknowledging that police violence isn't always appropriate. Sometimes -- perhaps rarely -- it may not be...
But overall, with few exceptions, the pattern of violence does not change.
An exception is in Albuquerque where the police department is undergoing overhaul and reform based on a consent decree reached with the Department of Justice to correct "unconstitutional policing." It has meant a spectacular decline in the rate of police killings. They haven't completely stopped, although for six months, APD refrained from killing. But the number now is nowhere near previous levels of police homicide. It appears that the level of police violence against the public has also been significantly reduced, though it is harder to assess that number.
The resistance in Albuquerque has had a multi-pronged approach, never focusing on only one aspect of police violence to the exclusion of all others. The resistance protested every killing, even if the facts seemed to suggest it was truly justified. They fought in every venue and on the streets against police violence. They documented and detailed incidents as they occurred, and they let it be known that the killings and police violence were not tolerable prices to pay for a "civilized society."
They identified and shamed individuals within the department -- men and women who had killed or who enabled killing and violence by police -- and they were relentless in exposing the cozy relationships between police administrators, city administrators, the district attorney and the criminal courts which almost all and almost always backed the police, no matter the facts.
They shamed the media for its fawning coverage of police violence and its continual smearing of the victims of police violence.
The cumulative effect of these and other actions combined with an apparent decision by those who make the rules in Albuquerque to reduce police violence has apparently had the desired effect.
But there are thousands of police departments in the United States, and reforming them one by one is a monumental task. As we can see from the statistics maintained by Killed by Police, the three-a-day rate of police homicide across the country remains almost constant, no matter what happens in individual jurisdictions.
And as we see in the Pasco video, summary execution in front of witnesses is still a common police practice.
Change comes when there is no alternative.
For many police departments, perhaps for most, there are still plenty of alternatives to changing a culture of violence and death that's become the standard or best practice.
The argument against police violence needs to focus more on the culture of violence and death than on the individuals. Yet shaming the individuals who kill and enable killing and violent policing is necessary as well.
Still a long row to hoe.