Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Numbers Game

The number of people killed by police in the United States this year has now surpassed 1000 according to the "Killed by Police" website, the most comprehensive and up to date listing of police kill statistics available.

Because there are two months left in the year and historically, police killings tend to average about 100 a month -- three or more a day -- the total dead due to police violence this year will no doubt be considerably higher than last year. The number reported by "Killed by Police" last year was 1108.The total will likely be above 1200 this year.


This should not be happening. Period. There is no necessity for the majority of police killings. The number of dead at the hands of police could be cut by 90% or more -- if there were policies in place to generally forbid the use of deadly force (or any force, for that matter) and which specified consequences for officers' use of force/deadly force no matter what the ostensible justification. Of course, policies only matter to the extent they are enforced. Unfortunately, where policies restricting the use of deadly force exist, they seem to be only haphazardly enforced.

And of course courts have long looked the other way in cases of police violence. Too often they've been encouraging ever greater levels of police violence -- in order that the officers involved may "go home to their families" each and every night. Force protection appears to be the prime directive therefore. Force protection means that hundreds of innocent people will die at the hands of police each and every year. Force protection is killing Americans who shouldn't die.

Because there are no official statistics on police killings and/or violent policing in general, and there are competing and conflicting numbers available in the press, those in charge of police and policing in this country get to play a numbers game wherein the current fashion is to claim that there has been a significant rise in violent crime in this country due to the fact that there is so much scrutiny of police and police behavior. Statistics are touted which show this or that city -- where protests against violent policing have had an effect -- has experienced a "spike" in murders or other violent crime. The protests and protesters are blamed. The "anti-police" public attitude is blamed. A "War on Police" is blamed. Albuquerque media, for example, has gone into full-meltdown mode over the mortal wounding of a police officer at a traffic stop. This is supposed to represent a front on the so-called "war" on police, even though statistically it's never been safer to be a police officer in this country. There is no "war on police". If anything, there is a war on the public by police.

In some respects, the police have been engaging in a relatively low-key civil war against segments of the public for decades; some would say it's gone on since the establishment of police forces as slave catching and Indian-killing militias, and policing was transformed into a permanent state of civil war against the public with the establishment of independent civic police forces in the 19th century.

Police for their part see it as their bounden duty to protect the High and Mighty whom they serve against the Lower Orders who run wild without the corrective measures imposed upon them by police violence.

It has ever been thus, no?


It has not ever been thus, and it need not be so in the future.

But changing the dynamic of policing toward something more just and less violent is proving much more difficult than I think many of us may have thought. I've been involved in the effort of transformation for decades, for example, and though I have seen and reported some success in changing the dynamic of policing under pressure, the tendency of police forces is to backslide, revert, to become again what they once were or to become even worse -- once the pressure is off.

It's frustrating as hell. It may be, as I've said from time to time, that it's impossible to reform police forces as they are currently constituted because of Original Sin -- the fact that they originated as slave-catching and Indian-killing militias, going right back to the twin original sins of the nation, Black chattel slavery and Indian genocide.

If that's the case, then what do you do? I'm an abolitionist, preferring to abolish the police -- and indeed the entire so-called (In)Justice System in this country and starting over. But that can't happen in isolation. It would mean a wholesale revolution -- something I don't see coming any time soon, if ever. Instead, we get piecemeal, occasional, partial "reforms." Reforms that often lead to greater injustice and violence which then trigger more studies, protests and reforms in an endless cycle.

World without end, amen, amirite?

We can look back on what happened to mental health care in this country for examples of how that process works, sadly.

But there are many more examples if we care to look.

The current system supports many millions of people who are invested in preserving it as it is or only changing it to be harsher, not to mitigate its abuses.

Police are terrified of abuse mitigation efforts -- because they're afraid they'll be held criminally liable for past abuses, and they might be subjected to revenge by those who have been most abused.

The thinking seems to be that reducing the level of police violence will result in massive increases in violence by the public. It's marketed as "Violent Policing is the Only Thing that Stands Between Us and Chaos."

Yes, well. It's not true.

Current models of policing have precipitated chaos more than preventing it.

The situation has to change.

It is changing, slowly, slowly, slowly. Much of the change seems to be based on theories of public relations, the Edward Bernays approach to problem solving, convincing the public they never had it so good -- and it will be so much better when this or that "something" is added to their lives.

On the other hand, the problem of violent policing and unnecessary death and destruction that results is widely recognized within the policing culture itself as a real thing that must be addressed. Part of addressing it means "finding ways" to "work collaboratively with the community" to "reduce the use of force" and violence within the communities "served" by police.

The point of many of the consent decrees which the DoJ has entered into with police departments around the country is not to directly reduce or stop the use of violence and killing by police but to make it meet "best practice" standards and to rationalize the use of force and violence -- make it be "constitutional."

Since the Supreme Court has essentially provided carte blanche legal protection of police for their use of violence and deadly force, the so-called "constitutional" standard for use of force is easy to meet from a legal standpoint. All they have to do is state that they "feared for their lives and the safety of others" to protect themselves legally from consequences of their violence. But there are numerous department policy issues that can restrict and in many cases eliminate the use of force and deadly force on a "constitutional" basis, and that, I think, is what the DoJ is looking for -- changes in policies which effectively bring the department's use of force into line with the constitution on the one hand and eventually reduce the use of force and deadly force on the other.

But the necessary changes are not happening fast enough or fully enough to seriously impact or limit the destruction wrought on the social fabric by violent policing. The lesson of violent policing is that violence is worthy and the appropriate way to rule. That lesson starts in schools where the presence of police officers (called "resource officers" for some arcane reason) leads to authoritarian violence and worse, resulting in generations of children indoctrinated into a culture of violence and retribution that continues on no matter what.

The numbers suggest that violent policing cannot be ended any time soon. Even if it is reformed, the culture of fear and violence that is fundamentally a part of the police framework will go on.

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