Friday, February 13, 2015

The Summary Execution of A Rock-Thrower in Pasco, Washington and the Tricky Arguments Over Police Violence

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.


  1. Che,
    Part and parcel of all this, of course, is that our military is busy seeing terrorist threats everywhere, as well. Now that the police forces work with/are outfitted by the military and are being trained with military guidelines (we know that many departments send police to the Israeli secret services/security forces for training, if not the US military themselves), the problem is becoming more pervasive. As you say, they see a threat everywhere.

    This is not going to help:

    Not only is the new Sec. Def. a real gung-ho hawk and pro- use of the military against civilians, but we are now being prepared for the idea that ISIS will be doing at least ten "homegrown" terrorist attacks every year for the foreseeable future. Naturally, this warning comes from the FBI and the counter-terrorism guys. I guess they ought to know, since most of this sort of activity seems to be generated from within their ranks anyway....but the point is that we can only expect more frequent death-by-cops as time goes on, not less; I see no indication that any protestation is having a any serious effect on the big picture. The whole idea of ISIS in the US will also be used to increase domestic surveillance exponentially.

    Unfortunately, too many average Americans don't seem to mind this state of affairs. I was completely repulsed by the idiots who supported the cops in NY recently by carrying around signs that read "blessed are the peace-makers"; they clearly did not object to Eric Garner being murdered for selling "loosies" and totally missed the whole point being made by the other (anti-killer-cop) protesters.

    1. Well, that's pleasant news... not.

      More frequent death-by-cop? I dunno. The rate of killing so far this year is rock-steady at three-a-day -- which tracks with data collected by Killed by Police since they went live in May of 2013.

      Three a day. That's all they ask.

      While the rate of killing hasn't increased or decreased except locally there seems to be a real if so far slight uptick in indictments and other consequences for police violence.

      The notion that ISIS will be holding 10 domestic terrorist attacks a year is pretty obviously preparatory propaganda intended to soften up the peeps for the next few rounds of civil liberties restrictions.

      I'm a little surprised that the current protests are being allowed to run their course. Suppression didn't work fast enough or well enough, I guess.

      I expected a serious crack-down (a la Occupy) well before now.

      What seems to be happening instead is an effort to reform perceptions of police through numerous task forces and commissions. In some cases, police behavior is changing as well.

      "Blessed are the Peace-Makers" indeed. I assume they illustrate the point with AR-15s, UZIs and mushroom clouds?

      Hope you're hanging in there! Cheers, C.

  2. I assume you have read this piece in the Feb 2 issue of the New Yorker magazine? It was kind of frustrating to read, at least for me, because the outrage didn't seem outrageous enough, especially on the part of the aggrieved parents. But then, that could have been from the attitude and writing of the author, Rachel Aviv. Seems like there is no hope for real change in this violent country. The default attitude is violence. It's in the genetic US history.

    1. Thanks for pointing me to that article. Corrected link: here. (Blogger comment software can be a challenge sometimes...) I remember that issue arriving at the house and disappearing before I read it.

      The story was a little passionless, yes, in part because of the "New Yorker Style" of writing that tends to meander and minimize emotion.

      I've met the Torreses and seen lengthy interviews with them, and they tend to be very calm is how I'd put it. Calm but very determined. They won a $6 million judgement against the City, and they've filed Federal suit as well.

      They have been among the leading opponents of police violence in Albuquerque, but I think they'd agree, they wouldn't have been if their son hadn't been killed so wantonly. Like many others who thought they were protected from police violence, they didn't understand what was really going on until it hit them. Because they are so tied in with city and county government, they have more pull than is acknowledged in the article. Renetta isn't just county HR director, she's a deputy county manager. Ranks right up there...

      I think Christopher's killing was the incident that started shaking things up for the APD for real. It was followed by many other killings, of course, and the inertia of the violent police culture and civic denial couldn't grasp the necessity for change right away. Brandenburg didn't even try. But more and more people became more and more enraged and pressure mounted until all hell broke loose after the James Boyd killing.

      Everything seemed to happen at once: there were marches and demonstrations that were suppressed with horse police and tear gas, there was vandalism of police substations, there was a constant litany of protest, then the DoJ report was released, and there was more protest, the city council was taken over, the mayor's office was "invaded" and shut down, it got really intense.

      And then in July of last year, the killing stopped. Police violence diminished. The last big demonstration against police violence in Albuquerque was June 21, thousands of people in the streets, and then... things started changing. The mayor met with a few of the families of victims, and he offered his condolences (a first). The police chief and other APD reps started talking in conciliatory tones rather than belligerent ones. The police ratcheted back their hostility toward the public and started a PR campaign to "win back the public trust." They went to coffees with people in the neighborhoods, they did listening events, they softened their approach. They use crisis intervention instead of snipers, and in fact, most of their kill-squads have either been disbanded or told to stand down.

      There has been one killing by APD since last July, a remarkable record given the kill-rate previously. There were two killings by Bernalillo County sheriff's deputies in that period. The APD killing is questionable, but those questions were raised immediately, and so far there has not been another one.

      I don't expect the indictment of Sandy and Perez for killing James Boyd to lead to a conviction, but it is an indication that the way things were could not be sustained.

      "Cautious optimism..." is the best I've got at the moment, but at least the killing has been remarkably reduced -- and the usual chaos and street violence isn't any worse. Dealing with homeless and mentally ill residents is still very iffy, but they're not being killed by police at the rate they once were.