Thursday, June 4, 2015

Flipping the National Conversation

Well, with the overkill (so to speak) local coverage of the death of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner on May 25, it's pretty clear to my rheumy eyes that the phase of the "national conversation" about violent policing has changed once again. It went from the appalling facts of the shooting of James Boyd, a homeless mentally ill camper, in the hills above Albuquerque, to the multiplicity of police killings of black men (and women, who were initially forgotten about in the "conversation") both armed and unarmed, to a consideration of "best practices" by the panel of experts appointed by the President (though its recommendations, both interim and final, were largely ignored -- such is the way of the world -- to now coming almost full circle to consider the pure evil of the criminals out there who shoot and kill police officers with such a disregard for human life, yadda yadda.

But a couple of other things have happened, too.

After it became clear that the only near real-time tracking of police killings in the whole country was being done by a crowd-sourced website called "Killed by Police" and repeated calls on the government to track these killings were being ignored -- or rather, they weren't being followed through on, despite the fact that there has been tracking and reporting legislation in place for decades -- a couple of other intrepid media outfits, the Washington Post and the Guardian, took it upon themselves to do (some of) the tracking that "Killed by Police" has long been doing (since May 1, 2013) and to publish findings relatively quickly (ie: not wait for annual or quarterly reports, but actually publish results in a timely fashion.)

The Guardian's coverage is very similar to the tracking of media reports done by "Killed by Police," and I think they do acknowledge KbP as one of their inspirations for doing their own coverage. The data they have assembled about police killings since January 1 of this year is impressive and they analysis of that data by the Guardian is equally impressive.

Washington Post's coverage is not nearly as extensive, as one of their objectives is to only cover police shootings. While that accounts for the majority of police involved killings in this country, it is not the totality of the carnage, not by a long shot (so to speak) and the way the WaPo's coverage is caveated and slanted is clearly intended to minimize the appearance of carnage at the hands of police and to make it seem as if those who die deserve it.

That's pretty much been the police and local media position on violent policing for as long as I've been following the stories, for decades now, so the WaPo's perspective fits in with the status quo that has long been a feature of local reports of police killings. The typical reports include the police perspective first and foremost, starting with the stenography of police press releases on the incident. They might or might not include contrary witness and/or family reports of what happened (frequently they do not). They almost always take the police reports as truthful and accurate, even though they are often filled with lies and fabrications. Local reports will cover demonstrations, should there be any, but often the coverage of demonstrations "Otherizes" the demonstrators or outright criminalizes them. The victim of the police killing is always, always smeared. The fact that he or she has had "numerous run-ins with the law" is featured and played up -- even if they were only traffic stops or minor issues -- as a means of making the victim out to be the bad guy. Almost always, the officer(s) who kill are protected from any criminal liability for their actions because of a little thing called "fear." So long as the officer(s) says "Fearing for my life and the safety of others ..." at the right time and to the right people (the police officer's union will provide gratis legal advice so as to make this statement useful and meaningful) the officer is almost certain to be exonerated from criminal culpability. By and large, civilians cannot use that legal sleight of hand, however.

Until the killing of James Boyd in Albuquerque in 2014, the pattern of coverage and the "conversation" was almost always the same: local only, but sometimes extensive in the locality wherein the killing took place; nearly complete victim-blaming by the media, with little or no questioning of whatever the police department chose to say about the incident and the victim; implicit hero-ization of the killing officer; contempt for the victim, dismissal or "Otherization" of survivors, family, and protesters.

The Boyd killing changed and began to nationalize the coverage and conversation. When the APD chief released the video of the shooting, he said that the actions of the officers were "justified." He said that what they did was justified because Boyd had two knives and thus was an armed and dangerous threat to be neutralized.

Except that isn't what the video really showed. It showed Boyd surrendering to the police, the pocket knives nowhere to be seen (they were in his pockets). The video showed Boyd gathering up some of his things and beginning to walk down the hill toward police. The video showed one of the officers (whose helmet cam was recording the scene) say "Do it!" and immediately a flash-bang grenade was launched and a dog was released. The video showed Boyd dropping his things and pulling out his knives while officers (still thirty to forty feet away) shout at him to get on the ground. The video showed Boyd turning to face uphill and away from the police as six shots are fired at him, three from each of two officers. All six shots strike him, and the video showed Boyd collapsing on the ground mortally wounded. The video then showed subsequent actions by the police that I won't describe.

The video was quite clear about what really happened, and the narrative the police were spinning out to the media and the public about "justification" --- because of some mortal threat Boyd represented to the lives of the officers and the safety of others -- was simply false.

It was the last straw. There had been so many killings by APD so frequently, and often so outrageously, that even the local media had started questioning what was going on. The mayor and police chief always, always defended the actions of police, and the DA never, ever found that any of their killings were unjustified. This had been going on for years, and finally, enough of the survivors and victims had gotten together to press the Justice Department to do an investigation of the pattern and practice of the APD. That investigation was underway, though slowed, when Boyd was shot and killed.

Small-scale protests against police killing had been going on for years, and civil awards to victim families had reached tens of millions of dollars, but the killing of James Boyd unleashed a torrent of condemnation from the public. Demonstrations grew to include thousands of protesters, and in one unfortunate night of protest, the APD used horses and ordnance against the protesters. Thanks to the wind, the police actually wound up gassing themselves and the residents of the dorms at UNM. Oh well. There was some vandalism by protesters as well and as usual, thought the vandalism was quite minor (mainly spraypainting several police substations) it was blown completely out of proportion by the media and used as justification for the police crackdown on protest.

Only the protest didn't stop. It continued through the spring and into the summer. Early protests apparently got the DoJ to release it's long-stalled pattern and practice report, leading to the media referring to its "scathing indictment" of APD's pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing. In fact, the report was an indictment, quite remarkable in its way for the blunt honesty of its findings that the APD used force and lethal force too frequently, too often unconstitutionally, and that reforms were necessary.

Until then, the APD had been lauded by city officials for their excellence. Suddenly, that was no longer the case.

Numerous police departments around the country had previously been found to have a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing. It was so common as to be expected, and there had already been extensive media coverage of the slaughter APD was engaging in long before the Boyd killing. When the son of the Deputy County Manager was killed by police, for example, it was clear to anyone paying attention that police killing was not at all confined to the Otherized poor and dispossessed. Anyone could be a victim, no matter their prominence and position, or worse, anyone's son or daughter could be killed by police.

However, findings of pattern and practice violations and recommendations and even orders for reform were frequently fought tooth and claw by police departments, and in many cases they were openly defied. Police simply would not adhere to reforms nor would they listen to the public. Defiance was too frequently the rule and the killing and violent policing went on without let up.

I laid the blame for this on people like David Grossman whose "killology" trainings and seminars made killing out to be the highest accomplishment a police officer could achieve. It was the officer's raison d'etre. To kill -- righteously -- was the whole purpose of Warrior-Police. It was sickening to read or watch his presentations and justifications for police violence, for it was clear (to me at least) that the man was quite mad and was going around the country infecting police departments with his madness and leaving police officers convinced that their killing spree was not only justified, it was required by their oaths and their natures.

Others, like Bill Bratton, had used their positions as police chiefs to institute a version of policing that formalized falsity and didn't curb the killing. It merely made justification for overpolicing and killing by police much easier. Through false narratives about broken windows and other minor offenses and defenses of intrusive policing methods, and through acknowledgement of "tragedy whenever someone loses their life" -- while fiercely defending officers who take those lives -- Bratton and others like him managed to make over-policing of poor and minority communities and routine death at the hands of police seem normal, and furthermore -- most dangerously -- Bratton and others managed to make this kind of policing and falsity into American "best practice" policing.

As the deaths piled up and the brutality of police was revealed more and more frequently by cell phone and body-cam videos, however, more and more people saw for themselves what was going on, and more and more of them were revolted  by what they saw.

It was noted that FBI statistics of police killings were grossly understated to the point of ludicrousness. The police kill-rate was two to three times greater than the FBI's "official" statistics suggested, and those who used FBI statistics were subjected to ridicule, as was the agency itself, as it made no attempt to gather and present accurate information or statistics on police killings.

When James Boyd was killed in March of 2014, people recognized that mentally ill and homeless people, whether armed or unarmed, are frequent victims of police aggression and death, and they have little or no recourse as there is so little mental health and/or homeless service available -- and accessible -- to the public. Treatment and services are very hard to come by and sustain thanks to the way mental health and homeless service have been cut back especially since the Reaganite dismantlement of the state mental hospitals and mental health service system as it once was.

When Mike Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August of 2014, the conversation about violent policing changed to focus on the fact that black men, often unarmed black men like Mike Brown, are subjected to violent policing and killing by police at a rate far out of proportion to their numbers in society. There were hours of "negotiations" with James Boyd before he was executed in the Sandia foothills. Many black men were simply shot on sight on a belief that they were armed and dangerous. The mere sight of a black man was too often considered an a priori threat to be neutralized. Mike Brown was unarmed. He was shot at as he ran away from the officer. He was killed as he turned to surrender.

And as is almost always the case, the officer was considered "justified" -- because he was frightened of a Big Black Man who had "demon eyes."

Ever since, the national conversation has focused on the prevalence of police abuse and killing of black men, almost to the exclusion of any other victims of police violence. This focus has caused more than a little tension due to the fact that blacks are by no means the only victims of police violence and killing. There are many others; the problem is the violence the police bring to situations not calling for it.

Blacks too often are victims, and blacks too often are considered existential threats to police simply by their existence. This is derived in part from military beliefs and training that propose that the mere presence of an armed -- or thought to be armed -- Iraqi or Afghani or other native of some foreign land under American attack or occupation is sufficient justification for killing said native, regardless of any other fact at all.

But it also comes from America's long history of black and brown oppression and murder. It simply doesn't occur to police that an "Otherized" racial/cultural minority is actually "human." They have become objectified to such an extent in the minds of many police officers that their killing is seen essentially as nothing more than pulling out a weed.

This is demonstrated by the many killings themselves and by the fact that so often, police officers who use force or lethal force provide no first aid to their victims and all too frequently prevent EMS from attending to them.

This happened in the South Valley of Albuquerque not too long ago when a sheriff's deputy shot and wounded Billy Grimm, claiming that he saw Grimm with a gun, and then the officers refused any medical aid to Grimm for hours after he was shot, though EMS was available within minutes. They claimed that Grimm refused their orders to exit the truck he was in, and it was only after he did so and a dog was unleashed on him that officers felt the scene was "secure" enough to allow EMS to enter and tend to their victim. By then, of course, it was too late, and Grimm died in the hospital shortly thereafter.

Shaun King at dKos has documented numerous similar incidents in which a victim has been shot and mortally wounded by police -- who then refuse to provide any aid whatsoever to their victim and often prevent others from rendering aid.

This callous indifference to human life displayed over and over again by police officers, every one of whom is trained in first aid, is one of the hallmarks of American policing, obviously a matter of department policy that is nearly universal.

It's criminal negligence, though some court decisions have stated that officers have no affirmative obligation to render aid to those they have injured. Some of the consent decrees that have been entered into with police departments require police officers to render or summon aid to their victims immediately ("Provided it is safe to do so" -- always the caveat). But this is policy, not law. Court decisions can protect officers if they don't render or summon aid, but the policy of the department can easily change the dynamic, just as policies can stop the killing.

In Albuquerque and Oakland, among a few other places, the killings by police have all but stopped.

It can be done.

The national conversation is now shifting to the risks police officers encounter on the job, including the fact that they might get shot or injured. Well, yes.

It's one of the hazards they supposedly signed up for. The problem is that too often, facing any risk at all is considered to be an unacceptable hazard for a police officer. Killing a subject that might pose a risk is the far better alternative, no? Large numbers of the public have been saying "NO!" quite clearly and loudly, but with the wounding or death of several officers recently, the conversation about that risk is now under way.

What sort of risks should officers expect to face and handle? Police unions and many departments say "None at all." A risk is by definition a threat, and threats are not to be faced, they are to be neutralized with whatever force the officer deems necessary, including lethal force, in every case.

That has long been the position of police and their departments. But the questions that have been raised about violent policing have shone a light on police behavior that was often ignored or thought acceptable in the past. No longer is unquestioning acceptance of grotesque behavior by police considered necessary. The questions that have been raised -- about the constant killing, the "Otherization" of Americans subjected to violent policing, the racial elements in violent policing and police killings, the distance of police culture from that of the communities police are supposed to serve and protect, and the risks and hazards police are expected to take -- have reached a kind of crescendo.

My view has long been that police are way too violent, they kill and maim far too often and unnecessarily, and they are enabled by a corrupt system of injustice that protects them from accountability let alone criminal liability. That has to change.

There are signs it is changing.

Until recently, police departments as a rule had no idea they were doing anything wrong or that the louder and louder objections from the public were something they needed to listen to rather than simply suppress. The hundreds of millions of dollars -- indeed, billions -- paid out to victims of violent policing meant nothing to them. The money didn't come out of their budgets, and because police as a rule are not held criminally liable for any use of force they deem necessary -- regardless of other facts -- they saw no reason to change their behavior under pressure from the public. The public was often seen as enemies, and those who actively protested police violence were often seen as "enemy combatants."

This was wrong from every direction, but police were -- and to a great extent are -- incapable of seeing the truth of the matter, presuming that they can enforce their will through greater levels of violence.

That conversation may be next. Should police become even more violent than they are? Is 3 a day too few to kill? Should every police encounter include a bit of ultraviolence -- just because?

Or should policing become more or less a substitute for absent social services? Should violent policing be consigned to the ash heap with so many other theories of policing that have come and gone?

Should the police be abolished?

That's where this conversation needs to be directed sooner rather than later.

We need to find a better way of ensuring something close to dignity, peace and justice in our society, because what's been happening is going entirely the wrong direction.

[I'll try to add links later, as I am pressed for time today... ]

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