Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What's the Matter With Vallejo, and How Do You Fix It?

When I saw this story from March the other day while checking out Twit feeds from DeRay or Shaun King, I was gobsmacked. A single police officer has shot and killed three people under less than stellar circumstances and said officer is promoted to detective.

There have been demonstrations, quite a few of them, but the city on San Pablo Bay is not exactly up in arms about the rash of killings by this one officer, and the city administration is content to simply pull the veil over its actions and the actions of police in the hopes that soon enough passions will die down and business as usual will continue.

It's a mess, one of those typical messes that were once completely routine, and the reason why in so many cases, absolutely nothing was done to correct a system of policing that relied on brutality, violence and random lethal acts to maintain "order."

Since the protests began in Albuquerque last year and spread nationwide after the execution of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in August, "business as usual" has been more and more difficult to maintain, but at the same time, police brutality, violence, and random killing seems to have increased rather than decreaed, and more and more, the media is focusing with utter horror on the very rare incidents of police encountering lethal force.

In other words, from a media perspective, it's still OK for civilians to be mowed down in their multitudes -- so long as it can be shown that they "deserve it" -- but it's horrific whenever a police officer meets a mortal fate in an encounter with a civilian.

Sigh. Plus ça change....

After all, a police officer's primary responsibility -- his job as it were -- is to go home to his family  each night,  right? 

If a few no-account scum have to die in order for that to happen, so. be. it.

End of story.

People believe this. They repeat it all the time. They seem to have no idea at all that people do not have to die at the hands of the police, that the officer's job is not to "go home to his family each night," or the killing has to stop -- and it can stop.

I've said before that sometimes the daily stories of police killings become ends in themselves, a kind of cop-porn/death-porn, with no suggestion at all that there might be alternatives to the constant killing. It's like there is a heavy investment in keeping the police killing spree going -- because it sells. 

Almost glee at each and every new atrocity; nary a hint that it doesn't have to be that way.

Vallejo is a strange, smallish Bay Area town on the edge of California's San Pablo Bay -- which connects with San Francisco Bay. It once hosted the workers at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. My grandfather (actually, my mother's step-father) worked there during WWII as a machinist helping to build ships sent to the Pacific Theatre. He and my grandmother lived in Vallejo. Both of them died before I was born, so I never had family in Vallejo.

My connection with the town is as a pass-thru place on the way to San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley or wherever the destination may have been in the Bay Area. I did some work there but not much, and I came away from it with an odd sense of disconnection.

The only claim to fame Vallejo has had since the shipyard closed in 1999 (or whenever it was) is an amusement park on the north side of town, one I've never been to, never had an urge to stop at -- though the roller coaster is visible from the freeway, and the highway to Napa and such passes right by the entrance.

I have been to the Solano County Fair at least once, maybe twice. I remember a knot of young cowboys spitting and cussing at the Fair while we enjoyed the livestock exhibits and the musical entertainment. Solano County is one of the areas of California which still can boast some real cowboys...

What I remember from working there briefly in the late-90s/early 2000s is that it was pretty rough edged, and the people tended to be as rough as the town. This was partly because it was one of the few places in the Bay Area where ordinary people could still afford to live, but that was changing fast. Living costs were going up fast, but with the closure of Mare Island, the opportunities to make a living were shrinking for many residents.

This transition was happening in many places in California at the time, and dislocated people were being left to fend for themselves. This led to a contemptuous police attitude toward people who might be on the edge of survival.

And so it seems to have been in Vallejo, where one police officer, Sean Kenny, has shot and killed time after time, in murky circumstances at best, and earned a promotion. Some have speculated that his promotion to detective was a clever way to get him off the street, but who knows?

As the death toll from police killings rises inexorably, it's been noticed that a relative handful of police are responsible for the the bulk of the killing, and in many cases the officers involved are repeat offenders. A pattern is beginning to emerge.

In Albuquerque, we noticed for example that a few officers appeared to be the delegated killers, snipers whose job  it was to kill suspects/subjects like James Boyd who refused to comply, or who otherwise complicated policing. Surprisingly -- or maybe not -- their names are often... "Sean."

Apparently this Sean Kenny in Vallejo was the delegated killer sent on calls where lethal force might be called for.

And so he killed, time after time.

And the police department did everything in their power to make sure the public had as little information as possible after the fact -- apparently to tamp down any likelihood of protest.

There were protests nonetheless, but they were (apparently) ineffective. Despite changes in staffing, the police, DA and the city manager's office are still in stonewall mode, simply refusing to provide the public with more than the sketchiest information, much of which is directly contradicted by eyewitnesses -- some of whom were never interviewed by investigators.

When police, DAs, and city managers collude to ensure the public has as little information as possible, it's not accidental. It happens because that's the policy decision made at the top. That decision is often made cynically -- because the "people" are viewed with condescension and contempt -- or it may be because of old-line traditions, "it's always been this way and we see no reason to change things...".

It may be due to a combination of factors. What seemed to have happened in Vallejo is that there was a culture clash between a largely white-rightist police force and city administration on the one hand and a shifting racial and economic demographic on the other made for tensions that authorities believed could only be relieved through use of force.

And so force was used, often and sometimes lethally.

So far as I can tell, it's still being used, frequently and inappropriately. The point being to keep those no-accounts in line.

When the economy of Vallejo collapsed after the closure of Mare Island, the city declared bankruptcy. It was traumatic for the city administration, and that trauma seemed to filter throughout the city's employees, including the police. But I somehow doubt the Vallejo police were ever measurably less violent prior to the trauma of bankruptcy.

Violent policing is a matter of policy. It is what is expected and demanded of officers in the field -- so as to maintain "order," don't you know.

You fix it by changing the policy.

In order to change the policy, you have to convince the Powers That Be that police policies MUST change.

To do that, you have to be a voice the police and the city administration (ie: city manager, not so much elected officials) believe they MUST listen to.

And who would that be? In most cities, it is the city's wealthiest and most financially potent individuals and interests.

They are the ones who tell the city manager what kind of policing they want.

The city manager tells the police chief who tells the rank and file.

And for the most part, they make it so.

The complication is that the wealthy and powerful talk to one another, city managers talk to one another, and police chiefs talk to one another. Sometimes a consensus is formed within each of these circles, and every now and then a consensus forms between them. Suddenly, "change happens." The public doesn't have to force anything into being, it just... is. Nor usually is the public consulted.

Policing policies are changing slowly, city by city, a process that is likely to take a generation or more, but there are also signs that consensus is being sought within the circles and then between them to -- potentially -- radically change policing from its current violent and deadly model to something more socially responsible and culturally sensitive.

Whether that will be any quicker than the city-by-city approach now under way is an open question.

Fixing policing policy in Vallejo is one of hundreds of "fixes" that need to be made. Resistance is certain. Yet overcoming that resistance is necessary.

Once the people at the top are convinced that further resistance is futile, the policies that enable violent policing and over-use of lethal force will change. Often the change comes overnight.

No comments:

Post a Comment