Saturday, October 8, 2016

Curbing Violent Policing... Why and How

Violent policing is routine in this country and in many other crisis-ridden societies. It's not a new standard by any means, even though Americans tend to look at the current state of police conduct as something new and unprecedented.

According to statistics I've seen, though, policing now is less violent and deadly than at almost any time in our past. We see it as unprecedentedly violent in part because there is far more visual evidence of police violence than ever before. The ubiquity of video of police conduct means they can't hide behind their traditional curtain of lies, though they still try and they will lie outright even in the face of contradictory video evidence. It is their way, and efforts at police reform doesn't change that.

Though this arguably a less violent policing era, there is still too much violence inherent in the culture of policing, and there is far too much brutality and death at the hands of police. It is not a law of nature that police behave the way they do. There is no law of nature that requires them to kill on impulse. There is no law of nature that requires the public to obey police orders immediately or face a bloody beating or die.

Obedience will not necessarily save you in any case.

The problem is that police are given too much authority to use force and very little concept of their responsibility for the sanctity of life. They are filled with negative notions about the "scum" and "trash" they have to deal with, but they have few or no concepts which will lift people up. They do not value the lives of those they come in contact with, every one of whom they consider a potential existential threat. If their contacts are black, brown, mentally ill, homeless or disabled, they too often respond with an utter lack of insight, compassion or empathy. Thus the dead and wounded pile up, even though in absolute terms, the number seems to be quite low compared to previous eras.

The point I've made many times is that realistically, the police don't have to use lethal or even less lethal force more than a tenth of the number of times they do. I use statistics from cities like New York and Oakland and others where police killings have been reduced by up to 90% simply by changing the rules for use of force and enforcing those changes on officers in the field.

In these and other cities, the goal was set to reduce the killing and to curb police violence -- and it was done. It's not rocket science, and it is not an insoluble problem. It doesn't require endless conferences, task forces, public meetings and a "national conversation" to accomplish.

It requires orders from the top that the killing stop. It requires clear and enforceable rules for the use of any kind of force during encounters with the public. And it requires violations to be punished.

To endure, it also requires changes to police culture, particularly the "us against them" belief system, and the "comply or die" behavior.

The reason for doing this is simple: violent policing is modeled by society in general, forming a basis for dealing with almost any problem. Beat the shit out of somebody or shoot them dead. Threaten. Belittle. Demean. Dominate. Demand submission. Immediate compliance or face the consequences. Victim blaming. One could go on and on describing the destructive results of violent policing on society as a whole.  Other destructive results include the kind of blowback we've seen, where snipers target police. It's a wonder it doesn't happen more often. But it's the kind of blowback violent policing is bound to produce. Reduce violence by police and there will be a parallel reduction in violence against police. Again, it's not rocket science. It's common sense.

The "national conversation" has been going on for years, seemingly with little to show for it apart from the widespread recognition that policing has an inherent racial bias. Black and brown men especially are targeted by police as Bad Dudes, regardless of their actual threat. They are seen as dangerous simply by their presence. This is due in part to training and conditioning which assumes that black and brown men are the primary perpetrators of crime and will be the most commonly encountered threats to officer and public safety.

This assumption is partly due to a misuse of crime statistics, partly due to institutional racism (as in the origins of police departments as slave patrols, posses and militias to hunt down and 'bring to justice' disobedient Others) and partly due to a cultural belief within policing that sees police as anti-crime troops sent to occupy Tiger Town. Of course to justify their occupation, crime of some sort must flourish. How ironic, then, that as crime rates have plummeted from historic highs a few decades ago to historic lows today, police budgets and the number of police have increased exponentially, while the number of dead at police hands continues at an average of three a day, every day -- a good third of whom present no objective threat to police or anyone else, and almost all of the rest could have been dealt with without use of lethal force.

Of course I've mentioned two police consultants who go around the country training and convincing police officers and their supervisors that killing is their highest accomplishment, and aggressive and violent policing is the correct means of dealing with "today's" potential threats from terrorists and active shooters and such, which means that every encounter should be approached as if the subject were a terrorist or active shooter because potentially they might be. You never know.

"Better to be safe than sorry."

Shoot first, worry about the consequences afterwards, and don't worry about the subjects they kill at all. Their departments will inevitably smear and blame the victim. Inevitably.

This is too often just what happens.

I am reluctant to blame the officers for this state of affairs because they aren't the ones who come up with the policies which lead to so much death and destruction. They carry out their orders. If they don't, they can be disciplined or fired, such as what happened to the young officer in Weirton, WV, who didn't kill a suicidal man, and who was fired for not doing so -- thus "endangering" other officers. [In the linked story, the tradition of lying about events is honored by the police department and the city manager...]

The problem is not so much officers in the field though they are the ones committing most of the violence; the problem is at the top where policies are made and expectations are set.

The "top" includes police chiefs and sheriffs as well as city managers (who have authority over most police departments) and county managers (who are in authority over even elected sheriffs departments) and local elected officials (who have theoretical authority but little practical authority over policing policies).

Policing power actually flows from local elites and moneyed interests through layers of government. Police essentially serve as guards and guarantors of those elites and moneyed interests.

Policing policies and practices will change when the it is in the interests of those elites to change them.

Economic pressure is the surest way to force change on a resistant elite.

There are growing calls for economic boycotts and other forms of economic pressure where violent policing practices continue to be fostered and implemented. On the other hand, we're seeing the demise of the Warrior Cop in city after city where maintaining those principles of policing is proving to be counterproductive.

We're close to the tipping point where police departments can no longer be celebrated for acting like occupying troops in communities of color, but it will be a long slog to transform them into positive elements in a complex social, economic and political matrix. It's under way but inertia is so hard to overcome.

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