Wednesday, September 23, 2015

What Then Must We Do (Abolitionist Version)

[Apologies to Leo Tolstoy] (173 pg pdf)

Corrina Shoemaker's (Tenten's) talk at the demonstration last Saturday against yet another Killer Kop Kompetition in Albuquerque moved me more than I think I have been moved by any other testimonial I've heard during the decades I've been an activist against violent policing. She tore at my heart.

Tenten makes clear that she is not an abolitionist, that as a society we need the police, and we need them to be responsible. When they killed her brother they were not being responsible, they were being reactive -- as it happened to a non-existent threat. The Killer Kop Kompetition celebrates and reinforces that reactive tendency among police -- kill now, worry about the consequences later (or don't think about them at all). Thus, it's irresponsible, and it encourages irresponsibility among police.

On the other hand, I came to the conclusion some time ago, after witnessing too much police "reform" go nowhere or actually become an excuse for even worse forms of policing, that abolishing the police (or police departments, a distinction I'll get into in a bit) is the only responsible course at this point.

I say this even though I know that there have been serious efforts at reform of police departments, and I know that some of those efforts have resulted in significant decreases in use of lethal force by those departments (I often cite NYC, Oakland, and Albuquerque as examples.) It can be done, and it's not hard at all. Nor does it take forever.

Reducing the rate of police homicide can literally take place overnight. It doesn't require solving structural racism or economic inequality first. It takes changing the rules authorizing the use of force and an order from the chief.


It's happened in a number of cities, and it can happen all over once there is a will among police chiefs and city managers and mayors to reduce the killing.

That will is being developed, slowly, imperfectly, through agencies such as the PERF (Police Executive Research Forum) which produced the seminal "Re-engineering Training on Police Use of Force" Report (84 pg pdf) earlier this month. This is the direction police departments are going, but it is taking forever on the one hand, and there is so much resistance from certain elements such as police officer unions, DAs and courts on the other, that a reduction in the overall rate of police homicide seems constantly out of reach.

Nice talk doesn't really get you to the point you want to be.

So. What then must we do?

I say "abolish" -- abolish police departments, for that's where the problem lies.

In a sense, I agree with Tenten that we need police -- or at least a cadre of professionals that function to serve the needs of communities -- something like the police are ideally supposed to do. What we don't need are their departments that function as quasi-autonomous armies of occupation within -- but completely divorced from -- communities.

Police departments which are oppressive and destructive,  lack transparency and accountability, and are unable or refuse to behave responsibly toward the communities they are supposed to serve need to be abolished.

I've seen an awful lot of blame placed on individual police officers for their actions, as if their actions take place entirely independently, and that's simply wrong. Police officers do not operate independently or autonomously; they are employees of departments which operate as enforcers of a system of oppression. They do what they are told and what is expected by their commanders in a hierarchical organization.

In other words, when they kill or brutalize individuals, police are doing what they believe they are supposed to do -- their "jobs" as it were.

While there have been far more charges against individual officers in the past year (since protests began in earnest) than previously for crimes including murder, it is still surpassingly rare for officers to be held criminally liable for acts while on duty. Two things account for that fact: 1) law protects officers from criminal liability in almost all cases of use of force while on duty; 2) DAs and courts are loathe to hold officers directly responsible for acts while on duty no matter the consequences to communities -- for DAs and courts rely on police officers to function as reliable enforcers and testifiers of fact in criminal cases.

So it is nearly impossible to hold individual officers criminally liable for acts while on duty. On the other hand, civil cases against officers often result in multi-million dollar awards to victims, indicating that in fact police misconduct, brutality, and murder are recognized and sometimes compensated by civic authorities and courts -- but not as criminal acts. In other words, civic authorities and courts acknowledge that police actions can be/are a fiscal liability, but haven't yet come to a realization that something ought to be done about it...

The payouts to victims, which cumulatively amount to billions every year, are simply the "cost of doing business..."

The destruction of individuals, families and communities that result from violent policing doesn't enter the perceptions of those authorities willingly paying out fortunes to victims.

They're not about to change. Why should they?  As long as someone (else) is willing to pay for the misfortune caused by police...

Why indeed?

That's why abolition is the only real solution.

We need something like police in our communities -- but not an army of occupation or a slave-catching/Indian-killing militia. Those are the models for police forces in America, and they need to be set aside. The police as currently constituted and generally operated are an anachronism, and as such they have become an element of social and community destruction... In my view, they can't be reformed because the models they are following are antithetical to the needs of the communities and society they operate in.

Police departments need to be abolished.

"Reform," of course, will happen first -- as abolition is too radical a solution to the problems of American policing to be accepted right off. But "reform" won't work in the long run. The original impetus for police departments -- in the military conquest and occupation of the continent, in the militias sent to hunt slaves and kill Indians -- will always assert itself, no matter what else is done.

"Reform" can only achieve a somewhat milder form of occupation/oppression.

If we want the occupation and oppression to end, though, police departments need to be abolished.

I doubt we'll see it in my lifetime, but you never know....

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