Saturday, October 22, 2016

On The Apology For Past Racial Policing

I've been fuming about this for a while. It's not that the statement by the head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (a new outfit for me) isn't welcome, it is that it frames the problem of abusive policing as historic, not current, and it essentially absolves police themselves of responsibility, blaming vague social and political forces for the policies and actions of departments and officers.

That argument can be made, but it is just that, an argument. It's not an apology, it's not a correction, it's not restitution, it's not reform.

Here's what the statement said:

There have been times when law enforcement officers, because of the laws enacted by federal, state, and local governments, have been the face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens. In the past, the laws adopted by our society have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks, such as ensuring legalized discrimination or even denying the basic rights of citizenship to many of our fellow Americans.
While this is no longer the case, this dark side of our shared history has created a multigenerational—almost inherited—mistrust between many communities of color and their law enforcement agencies.
Many officers who do not share this common heritage often struggle to comprehend the reasons behind this historic mistrust. As a result, they are often unable to bridge this gap and connect with some segments of their communities.
While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future. We must move forward together to build a shared understanding. We must forge a path that allows us to move beyond our history and identify common solutions to better protect our communities.
For our part, the first step in this process is for law enforcement and the IACP to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.
At the same time, those who denounce the police must also acknowledge that today’s officers are not to blame for the injustices of the past. If either side in this debate fails to acknowledge these fundamental truths, we will be unlikely to move past them.
Overcoming this historic mistrust requires that we must move forward together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. All members of our society must realize that we have a mutual obligation to work together to ensure fairness, dignity, security, and justice.
It is my hope that, by working together, we can break this historic cycle of mistrust and build a better and safer future for us all.
The lead in to this statement asserted that thousands of police officers have been killed and hundreds of thousands injured in the line of duty "over the years," and this apparently is to make palatable the coming "apology" among the Brethren in Blue. If you want to play the Dead Game, it might be worthwhile to point out that "over the years" hundreds of thousands of Americans have been killed by police and millions have been wounded. Families have been ripped to pieces and whole communities have been oppressed and destroyed by abusive and violent policing. The relatively few officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty, generally more in car wrecks, accidents, and heart attacks than by any other means, cannot begin to compare to the number of lives lost in civil society by the actions of police.

To cast this as historical and ignore the current situation simply beggars belief.

But that's where we are in this Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

That's where we are. And a number of commentators have pointed out that this statement is "better than nothing." "It's a start..."

I've pointed out that -- statistically -- we're in a less violent period of policing and social violence than at almost any other period of our history. It doesn't seem so in part because there is far more available documentation of police violence now than there has been in the past. Some of it is truly horrifying, and so much of it demonstrates that police too often shoot or otherwise engage in violence when objectively there is very little or no threat to them or anyone else, and their use of violence is simply not necessary.

They do it because it is expected of them and because they can.

They can do essentially anything in the line of duty and get away with it so long as they use the Magic Words, "fearing for my life and the safety of others".

That's what's wrong. Police are jacked up to fear literally everyone and every thing. Their lives are always in danger from some shadowy source; the safety of others is constantly at risk. Even when there is no objective threat. They fear that something might happen and react to the potential rather than the actual threat.

When force protection is the prime directive, as it seems to be, then harming and killing those who are perceived as threats becomes the means to implement the directive.

And it so happens that men and boys of color are perceived as definitional and existential threats to police officers, far more than white men or most women.

The perception does not match the reality, but that doesn't matter. According to the law and much police training, the officer's perception at the time is all that matters -- so long as it conforms with a mutable standard of "reasonableness." That standard is that another officer would perceive the situation and the necessity to use force (lethal or non lethal) in the same way. If all of them are trained to perceive black and brown men as existential threats of course they're going to see the situation and the need to use force the same way. Even though there may be no objective threat at all.

When their chief requires them to use force, including lethal force, whenever they perceive a threat -- which might be nothing more than disobedience -- it's no surprise that's what officers do. They follow commands -- for if they don't, they'll be disciplined or fired. Under those circumstances and rules of engagement, it's better for the officer to use force, even if the situation is dubious, than risk the wrath of their commanders for not using force.

It puts civilians in a bind, because under many circumstances, there is no way for them to comply to avoid the use of force against them. As we've seen, in some circumstances, black males purported  to be threats, not actual threats at all, have been shot and killed on sight, simply because someone said they were threatening. In other cases, black males who do not immediately obey confusing or conflicting commands are shot and killed. Black men "armed" with cell phones or packages or nothing at all are shot and killed and the officers who kill under such circumstances face little or no consequence. "Reaching" for anything -- including ID pr a cell phone -- is cause enough for summary execution.

We can go on and on and on listing the many ways a black or brown man can be legally murdered by police. It happens essentially every day.

Hundreds are killed every year -- God only knows how many are injured -- who are objectively no threat at all, except to the fevered and fearful perceptions of police officers who kill them.

Even most of those who are objective threats do not "need" killing. I've said and I will repeat that police killings can be cut by 90% or more -- which some cities have done (prominently, New York City) by changing the rules and the authorities under which police use force, including lethal force.

It's not rocket science. It can be done.

To apologize (sort of) for historic injustices is fine, but to do so without acknowledging the current problem of racialized and violent policing gets us nowhere. To assert that the situation isn't as bad as it looks, since so relatively few individuals are abused or killed by police -- relative to the number of police encounters overall, for example -- is beside the point when it is possible and necessary to further reduce abusive and violent policing to the point where it is essentially nonexistent.

Ideally, police should be modeling 'good behavior' not violent and abusive behavior. I would say that for the most part, 'good behavior' is what they try to show in most of their encounters with the public. Most officers try not to be overtly racist, abusive or violent most of the time. Most of their encounters are resolved peacefully-- or at least nonviolently.

The excreptions tend to involve young men of color far more often than white men or women of any color, or they involve disobedience, unsubstantiated reports by callers to 911, misunderstandings of police commands*, misperceptions of threat by police officers, inability to obey due to mental or physical problems and/or (ab)use of substances, or some combination of these and other factors.

[*Note: police should not be in the business of issuing "commands" to civilians. It is completely the wrong relationship between the People and those charged with serving and protecting said People. Officers follow the commands of their chiefs and supervisors, they should not be issuing commands to the public.]

The fact is that there is a current and ongoing problem of abusive and violent policing, a good deal of which grows out of the historic patterns and practices of police departments. They started in many instances as slave catchers and militias for the purpose of chastising Indians and other undesirables. That's kind of hard-wired into many police departments. Apologizing for history is fine, but it's not enough. Corrective action is necessary, and there's no indication that this association of Chiefs of Police recognize that.

That is not to say that there is no recognition anywhere within the police culture. In fact, recognition that correction is necessary is relatively widespread among police chiefs. And it is strenuously resisted among police officer unions -- whose members feel threatened every time they put on the uniform, and who, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, assert they are under assault every moment of every day.

Resolution of that contrast of perception may not be possible, though certainly many officers and chiefs are trying to find common ground.

The "national conversation" about race and abusive policing has been going on -- and on and on -- for years, and it seems always to be stuck in the same place, as the dead continue to pile up. There have been changes in some police departments that reduce the killing, but in others, there's no change, and the number of dead at police hands is still about 100 a month, year in and year out. To change that, requires a goal -- to cut the number killed by police in half year by year until the number is reduced by 90% or more.

It can be done.

But the goal has never been set let alone met in more than a few jurisdictions. It must become a national goal.

The chiefs have to set the goal for their departments.

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