Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Police Reform? Not If It Is Allowed To Be Solely About Race

Stephanie Lopez was arrested by Bernalillo County sheriffs deputies on charges of child abuse and witness intimidation. This is a real thing.

Stephanie Lopez is the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, ie: the APD officers' union. I've seen her in action for some time thanks to my own activism against police violence in Albuquerque and around the country, and compared to many other police union presidents she seems quite sane and even compassionate. She looks out for her officers' interests, but she's also very conscious of the need for police accountability and for the need to reduce police brutality and the number of police involved killings.

She's on administrative leave from the police department and the union while these matters are sorted out in court. Her replacement as union head is Shaun Willoughby who has not typically been as sane. But then, there's been an element of good-cop/bad-cop in their public presentations throughout Albuquerque's police-reform saga (a saga that's still going on.)

Police reform in Albuquerque has meant that APD no longer routinely kills suspects. At least one of the sniper squads has been disbanded, and there has been a real and sustained emphasis on deescalation of force and crisis intervention. Obviously, the word went out from the top to "stop the killing" and it has almost stopped -- at least by APD. There are other police forces at work in the area, including sheriffs, other city's police departments, and state troopers, none of whom seem to have gotten the message, and all of whom have kept on killing.

Since the reforms kicked in last year, an APD officer was killed and a number have been wounded (one by friendly fire that is suspected not to have been friendly at all...). The two APD officers who executed James Boyd as he was surrendering have been charged with murder, but they are out on bond until their trial sometime next year, and the officer who shot and killed Mary Hawks successfully sued to get his job back despite his repeated failure to follow procedures regarding his body cameras and other matters.

Let's say that reform of APD has meant two steps forward and one back, which is progress, yes, but not enough.

In Albuquerque, though there was a racial component in the abuses that were protested and which ultimately led to reform, the focus was not on race. The focus was on failures by the department and the city which led to so much abuse and killing. Failed mental health care and homeless services. Failed crisis intervention. Failed apprehension and custody tactics and so on. All of which led to a constant litany of death and destruction, most of which was avoidable.

Race and class were part of the overall picture of abusive, violent and deadly policing, but they weren't the whole thing, and the reforms did not focus solely on class and race issues.

The reforms seem to be working, but whether they'll become permanent, who knows? The arrest of Stephanie Lopez, however, makes me wonder. There is so far no sign that her arrest was arranged -- shall we say -- to eliminate her relatively conciliatory approach, but that's the upshot. Willoughby is not a conciliator and may prove to be problematic as the reform effort continues. We shall see.

Meanwhile, there is apparently a media push to acknowledge that the "national conversation" about policing has reached a climax of sorts and that "reform" is now the leading topic of discussion. The reforms being discussed by the "nation", however, appear to be almost exclusively focused on race and the disparate level of police violence and killing employed almost universally in this country against communities and people of color.

Wait. No. The problem of violent policing is not and has never been entirely a matter of race, and if the "national conversation" (which is really a matter of the elites talking to one another and has almost nothing to do with what the public wants/needs) devolves the problem into one exclusively of race, then quite simply the problem will not be solved, in fact, it may be made worse.

I've said many times here and elsewhere that police in general see armed people of color, particularly males, whether or not they are actually armed and whether or not they are threatening others, as existential threats to be neutralized with as much firepower as can be brought to bear. We see the videos of such summary executions -- which is what they are -- all the time, practically every day. They are horrible and in almost all cases, they are egregious, unnecessary. In some cases, regardless of "justifications" they are outright murder.

More white folks die at the hands of police, it's true, but the rate of killing by police falls most heavily on black and brown men. Abusive policing in general falls most heavily on black and brown men. Mass incarceration falls most heavily on black and brown men. Mentally ill black and brown men are exterminated at a profoundly disturbing rate. But they are not the only ones.

What seems to have happened during the media-memed "national conversation" about violent policing is that it has been characterized in almost exclusively racial terms. The Black Lives Matter movement has tried to avoid that exclusivity while at the same time focusing attention on the disproportionate levels of violent policing experienced by the black community. That seems to be recognized relatively widely today, and it is acknowledged as a problem even by many police chiefs. Something should be done about it. 

The problem of disproportionate policing is one thing, the problem of police violence and murder is another, and yet they have been conflated by a media which seems to want to keep the focus on policing the Negros, while barely recognizing that police violence is systemic. One has to deal with both the disproportionate policing that has virtually destroyed millions of lives and families and communities, and the violence the police routinely employ against civilians of any color or gender, violence which can and way too often does include summary execution.

If the issue is allowed to be solely about race, there will be little or no reform of police conduct; the killing will not stop. Mass incarceration may pause for a while, but the destruction wrought by violent policing will not be remedied.

If there is to be real and lasting reform of police conduct, it has to be system-wide, top to bottom, and I detect real resistance at the top to engaging in that kind of reform, starting at the very top with the DOJ and the FBI, neither of which even bother to collect let alone analyze statistics of police violence. At the top, the Attorney General and the FBI Director defend police conduct, almost without exception and almost regardless of how egregious. The FBI Director has falsely and repeatedly claimed that something called the Ferguson Effect (ie: scrutiny of police conduct) is responsible for a spike in violent crime, a spike for which there is no statistical evidence. Neither of the recent Attorneys General will hold police accountable for their actions, pretty much no matter what they do. The numerous consent decrees mandating reform of police departments throughout the country are primarily designed to regularize and professionalize police conduct,  not to reduce the killing and the violence police employ but to rationalize it.

Make it consistent. Make it defensible. This can mean an even greater level of violence by police, because there is no real intent to reduce the violence, at least none that I've seen, in the consent decrees.

Some police departments take it upon themselves to ratchet down the levels of violence they have been using against the public, but many do not. Some actually increase the use of violence in the face of protests, and their chiefs show utter contempt for the public in the process.

That internalized contempt is part of the problem of reform, and part of why I'm not convinced the kinds of reforms that are necessary are possible. Abolition may be the only viable way to do it, but there's very little sign that abolition is even conceivable in light of current "conversations."

Of course abolitionists of yore faced the same -- indeed worse -- odds.

James Boyd was executed by two police snipers as he was surrendering in the Sandia foothills in Albuquerque in March of 2014. Those snipers were later charged with murder, and their trials are scheduled for some time next year. I don't expect them to be convicted, but the fact that they were charged and will be tried is "something." Protests against that killing got under way in Albuquerque soon after Boyd was killed, and they triggered protests against police violence and killing much more generally. Those protests have continued relentlessly all over the country ever since, and it's been almost two years now. People are not letting this issue go.

Many police chiefs have recognized there is a problem with violent policing and mass incarceration, and some have taken steps to address the problem, but so far the rate of killing by police has not been reduced, in fact, it has increased since the protests against it went viral.

Control of police violence has to be exercised from the top. The police departments are hierarchies. When the chiefs and their bosses, the mayors and city managers, tell the police to stop killing, they will. So far, that order has only gone out in a very few cities.

Many more police chiefs need to hear the call and issue the stop killing order before the bloodshed will be significantly reduced. But it can be done.

Maybe next year....

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