Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hopeful Signs -- Maybe -- On the Violent Policing Front

Never let it be said I'm a total pessimist. I'm not. I'd rather think of myself as an optimist, but as the year plus since James Boyd's killing in Albuquerque and the rate of police killings nationwide has increased not decreased, and politicians keep running away from the basic demand: "Stop Killing Us!" I've got to wonder whether this violent policing emergency is even being addressed by the High and the Mighty -- let alone being anywhere near a solution.

The problem with violent  policing is the violence, mayhem and death that results.

It's not racism or classism. Though both are factors. The immediate problem -- and the emergency -- is the violence.

So far as there is any statistical evidence at all, the police are becoming more violent and deadly not less since nationwide highlighting and protesting of police violence and murder got underway last year.

More violent and deadly, not less.

OK, what can be done about it?

The protests and all the activism obviously haven't done the job; just the opposite. When something you're doing has the opposite result of your intentions, it's usually a good idea to consider alternatives or consider not doing what you're doing and try something else.

While I've never had a problem with the protests nor with the activist cadres who have taken the risk to intervene and interrupt business as usual in all manner of ways, that alone has never struck me as sufficient to change things. Protests and demonstrations are necessary to highlight the problem and move the media and public sufficiently to demand action on the part of politicians and their appointees.

All right, we've had LOTS of demonstrations since James Boyd was killed a year ago in March (as I've said many times, the protests in Albuquerque over his killing were what triggered the nationwide protests over police killings that began in the summer of 2014 after the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO.)  So many in fact that one can almost expect to run into one almost anywhere, almost any time.

Supposedly, the political class has heard the people's outrage and outcry and are on it, the evidence being the tidal wave of indictments for murder and manslaughter which have come forth from DAs in the aftermath of so many police killings, starting with the charges against Keith Sandy and Dominque Perez who killed... James Boyd. They've had their extended preliminary hearing (finally) and they are facing trial for murder 2. Whether they will be convicted is another question altogether (I think not), but at least they and a surprising number of others are going to trial for the homicides they have committed, so at least there's that.

But that hasn't seemed to stop the killing or even reduce it -- except in a handful of places, one of which happens to be Albuquerque where the rate of police killing has plummeted since the aftermath of the James Boyd killing, after spiking outrageously following the "scathing" DoJ report which found that most of the killings by APD were unjustified and that the department routinely engaged in unconstitutional policing.

Many other police departments have faced similar "scathing" reports from the DoJ and many did nothing about it at all, except perhaps to defy and resist any and all attempts at "reform."

"Scathing" reports and resulting consent decrees do not necessarily lead to police department "reform." Far from it. 

What does -- and this goes back to my initial foray into the issue of violent policing and brutality in Sacramento in 1996-97 -- are orders coming from the top. And the "top" means the police chief and/or sheriff and the city manager and/or county executive.

In most cities elected officials do not have direct authority over the police. Consequently, elections and voting rarely affect police behavior. That is an intentional part of the political structure set up during the Progressive Era to insulate police and city administration from the supposed passions of the electorate. In that structure, police officers are accountable to their chief, the chief is accountable to the city manager, and the city manager is (theoretically) accountable to the Mayor and City Council -- but he or she will often make an ostentatious display of ignoring or defying elected officials. In most cases, it is so difficult (and expensive) to fire or discipline city managers that they can usually get away with pretty much anything they want.

City managers as a rule are obedient to the demands of the financial elites of their cities. Them that have, gets, in other words. Everyone else, for the most part, doesn't exist.

Consequently, a city manager will ignore the protests of the people -- people who often don't even know who the city manager is or that he or she is the actual supervisor of the police -- unless the money-people in the civic jurisdiction say "change things."

That's how police and other reform happens. It doesn't happen because people march in the streets and hold vigils at the police department. It happens because somebody "who matters" -- and has the power to make things happen -- says so. No other way. (Well barring that Revolution that never seems to come...)

So far, it doesn't appear that city managers have collectively decided that doing something about violent policing is necessary. If that's so, it's because the people they listen to (which in most cases are not the elected officials) haven't said they want something done about it.  Doing something about it can have lots of unintended consequences after all, one of which is destabilizing structures of power. That's one thing city managers and the people they listen to seek to avoid. Stable structures of power are what keep the system functioning through thick and thin, after all.

However, a bright sign, a hopeful sign, is that police chiefs have begun to recognize that the current structure and practice of violent policing is unsustainable. That's a huge step, it seems to me. A few months ago, I wouldn't have thought it possible, but last May, the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that considers issues important to policing in this country (and abroad) held a meeting attended by what seems to have been hundreds of police chiefs, deputies, federal law enforcers and DoJ execs, and even police representatives from England and Scotland. Recently, they issued a report from that meeting (84 pg pdf).

I read it and was really stunned at what the chiefs and their deputies were saying.

In a nutshell: they agree with the protesters. Police in America are way too violent, too many of them are stone racists, and the system as it is is unsustainable.

While they primarily blame politicians for this state of affairs, they are also aware that there's a whole lot of culpability within police departments as well.

It's got to change.

They seem to realize there is a problem with American police culture and practice, and it's not just one of "optics." It's a problem of attitude and behavior, and it has discredited policing all over the country.

It's a problem of killing. It's a problem of brutality. It's a problem of disrespect of the public. It's a problem of ignoring the whole idea of public service.

Police chiefs recognize this -- or so it seems -- and they know the situation cannot continue the way it is. Things have got to change, and behold, they come up with ways to change things, in order to reestablish mutual respect with the communities they are supposed to be serving but clearly aren't.

Re-engineering how police are trained is a big part of the program, but it goes much deeper. Values are also a factor, perhaps the major factor, in the reform the police chiefs were talking about in May, starting with the extraordinary concept of valuing all human life, including that of the suspects/perpetrators police so often kill or maim.

The killing stops when the orders go out to stop it. Not before. But the killing stays stopped when police are convinced to value all human life, no matter what. In other words, when the police on the street don't even think of using lethal force against someone they suspect of a crime -- or who is disrespectful or otherwise obstreperous or obnoxious -- then the real reform has taken place.

That's one hopeful sign. Another is the report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, (116 pg pdf). The central point of this report is a fundamental value and behavior change by police: from "warrior" cop to "guardian." I have issues with that terminology and ideal but I will leave them aside for now. The key point is that there is a deeper understanding within the policing community that things have gone wrong and have got to change at the root, not simply the optics of policing. The president's task force was heavily skewed toward police and federal law enforcement representatives and interests and yet they still came up with a pretty solid set of reforms that could -- if implemented -- begin to overcome some of the worst aspects of the current fashion for violent policing and routine use of lethal force. If, for example, SWAT teams were used appropriately instead of routinely, there could be some very positive effects. If police departments demilitarized, there could be some other positive effects. If police officers stopped acting like an occupying army, who knows what sort of benefits would accrue? This report goes on like that, getting into many of the aspects and behaviors of police which have caused so much distrust and destruction of lives and families and whole communities over the years. It doesn't, however, call for an end to the killing. That's perhaps a bridge too far for the task force members.

Another hopeful sign -- which also, unfortunately doesn't directly call for an end to the killing by police -- is the recently released 10 point plan by CampaignZero, an offshoot of the #BLM movement. While it doesn't directly call for an end to the killing, nor does the president's task force (the chiefs were discussing how to end the killing or at least reduce it to very low levels) it does set out a roadmap for police reform that can over time ratchet down the level of force -- particularly lethal force -- used by police in the USA. The focus is on racial disparities in policing, however.

Once the problem of police killing civilians in such ridiculously high numbers and inappropriate circumstances is addressed and the numbers fall, the other problems of policing in America and the grossly unjust aspects of the so-called justice system and its many parts can begin to be tackled realistically.

But in my view, the killing has to stop first. That hasn't happened -- except in certain locations under very specific circumstances where the order went out to stop it. Overall, the rate of police killing has increased, not decreased in the past year, and somehow those in power have got to get a handle on it.

I'm not sure what it will take. But at least there are signs that the current bloody and intolerable situation is not sustainable. Change will come.
"Hell You Talmbout" live in New York


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