Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Police Brutality. And Police Safety.

by Caroline and Crorey

As siblings, we come at the question from different directions.

We have been arguing about the issue of police brutality pretty intensely for the past few weeks.  We both agree that police brutality is wrong. We both agree that police safety is paramount. And we agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that takes such a toll on lives. Especially black lives. Especially young black lives. Especially the lives of young, black men.

We also agree that the toll is not just physical. The psychic impact of the internalized prejudice against a young black male - it isn't able to be quantified in numbers or summed up in a casualty chart.

The discussion between us has been very animated, but because we love each other, we have been able to keep perspective. And we agreed to open this discussion between us up to public review. Not because we have the answers, but because it is too important not to discuss the issue carefully. In love. In compassion.

The opening salvo was a meme. The quote, from Peter McElliot, was:

 
Crorey responded with what he considered a clever retort, that as long as 'rape' is a job, and rapists run the risk of being killed in the performance of their job, that the statement has validity. Caroline considered it an ill-formed comparison, and stood firm in her stance that victim blaming is not how the problem is solved.
With two more points made in discussion, it got taken offline. Neither of us wanted our discussion to be misunderstood as attacking each other, and we did not want to involve our friends on one side or the other.
But what we discovered was that as we carefully listened to what the other was saying, the sides were not so far apart.


Our brother has served as a prison guard.  We heard stories – the ones he could talk about – where he had to use considerable force to keep inmates in line.  (Crorey wisely stopped wrestling with Parker about that time). Unlike Parker, however, neither of us older siblings have any experience dealing with people who accept violence as a way of life. (At least, not since a few unfortunate stuff-the-smartass-kid-in-the-locker incidents in high school.) 
But we do know that unchecked power given to police, combined with underlying - and often reinforced - assumptions about specific groups of people, is a deadly combination. 
As citizens of the modern Western world, we assume police as a function of living in a state. Part of what we submit to - when we surrender ourselves as 'citizens' - is that we will live by the laws of the state, and that we accept the policing that comes with being a citizen. But that was not always the case. It used to be that the military force was used for that policing function. And all of the problems that that entails.
So in the early 19th Century, a British parliamentarian suggested the use of a professional police force, based on a few principles, with the intent of keeping law and order among the civilian population. These principles still guide and influence police work nearly two centuries after he wrote them.

  • The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  • The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior, and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.
  • The police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain public respect.
  • The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes, proportionately, the necessity for the use of physical force and compulsion in achieving police objectives.
  • The police seek and preserve public favor, not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to the law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws; by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the society without regard to their race or social standing; by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  • The police should use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to achieve police objectives; and police should use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  • The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public, and that the public are the police; the police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interest of the community welfare.
  • The police should always direct their actions toward their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary by avenging individuals or the state, or authoritatively judging guilt or punishing the guilty.
  • The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

It seems as though we have bought into a contract without reading the rules, and are all agreeing to abiding by the rules of that contract.  And what is worse, the contract is broken by some of those who are given responsibility over the citizens.
Yet the average policeman is doing a thankless job, a public service, at considerable danger to himself.  Keeping himself safe should be part of the bargain.

What we all want is a safe society, where utopian police give chase to utopian villains.  Robin Williams once commented on how civilized the UK police force was:
“In England, the police don’t have a gun, and you don’t have a gun.  So they say “HALT!  Or I shall say ‘HALT!’ again! 

We thought it would be good to revisit the contract, line by line, and see if we could identify places where we could improve.  Both from what we see of police, and what we see happening in society at large.

Figure 1.  A local bit of graffiti on an abandoned school in New Orleans.

The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment.

The alternative to prevention of crime and disorder is repressing crime and disorder.  Police serve to create a society free of crime through their efforts.  Once the official effort turns to repressing crime and disorder, the police have broken their contract. 

Because the police, by contract, are providing an alternative to severe punishment, the severity of legal punishment is also up for discussion in this point.  One of the tenets of our legal system is that the punishment should fit the crime.  Does our legal system do that?  Or do we have a system that both uses police to reduce crime, AND uses stiff penalties as a preventative measure? 

Hm.

The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior, and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.

The police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain public respect.

The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes, proportionately, the necessity for the use of physical force and compulsion in achieving police objectives.

These tenets are the centerpiece of the consequences that we are talking about.  When police lose public approval, they cannot do their job.   The result of that loss is that policing then requires a greater amount of force.  And more.  And still more.  The horse is not, in fact, in front of the cart in this case; public approval comes first.  Its loss is causal to police ineffectiveness, not the other way ‘round.
Or, maybe, it is not causal.  Maybe it is not a one way street, but rather a balance. Both public approval AND police effectiveness balance on each other.  And according to this wording, the weight of the responsibility lies on the police to ‘secure the willing cooperation of the public’.  The degree of cooperation that CAN BE SECURED then makes it their job possible with less force.  That balance is going to be constantly shifting, but the responsibility to find the approval rests in the land of those with authority

The police seek and preserve public favor, not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to the law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws; by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the society without regard to their race or social standing; by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

Equal treatment under the law.  This tenet is the basis of the mega-hashtag for Black Lives Matter.  And it is one of the areas where our police force is having the roughest time.  Because of the inculcated, deep-seated, and unconscious racial prejudices, there is almost no ability for there to be a ‘ready offering of service’ independent of social standing and race. 

Offering individual sacrifice to preserve life is one where the police do an outstanding job of preserving public favor.  We know that these civil servants are underpaid, and they do a dangerous job.  It is one of the reasons why the debate over this issue rages.  We respect that, while challenging other mechanics of the process.

The police should use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to achieve police objectives; and police should use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

This is the crux of the entire issue.  What is the minimum physical force needed to bring offenders back in line?  Obviously, using choke hold on a giant selling loose cigarettes and passively resisting arrest (he was not complying, but not fighting back, either) goes too far.  But hauling a woman out of her car for failing to put out a cigarette?  (Odd – the previous sentences make it sound like cigarettes might be the problem…)  Shooting a fleeing suspect in the back?  Is it evidence of excessive force when a suspect dies on the way to jail?

These are real questions, and for these examples, the answer is obvious.  But then you read the next story of a Memphis officer being shot and killed at a routine traffic stop. Or when a New Orleans police officer being killed while transporting a convicted felon.  When that happens, suddenly, the need to protect our officers, providing them with as much safety as we can.  Their families deserve to have safe return of all officers home every day.  Every.  Single.  Day.

We are looking for difficult answers – how to ensure (as much as possible) the safety of the officers while requiring that those very officers use their (often deadly) force with caution and without prejudice.  There is an accepted risk in taking a job such as police or firefighter.  These brave men and women have chosen careers putting their lives in harm’s way in order to protect the common good.
 
They deserve to come home every day.  But sometimes they don’t.  Because they have a dangerous job.  It is one of the risks, and a terrible price. If a member of one of these forces becomes so frightened of losing their lives that they are no longer to stand in the risk in order to do their job and help people indiscriminately, we ought to require that they stop going into the fray.  We should find another place for them within the force without shame or demotion.

Additionally, we have the inherent mistrust between police and many of our black and brown skinned brothers and sisters.  A long and brutal history, systemic racism, and a militarization of our police force only further the opportunity for individuals in the police force to see the general public as ‘the enemy’ rather than the community to which they themselves belong.
The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public, and that the public are the police; the police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interest of the community welfare.

In unguarded moments, Crorey has expressed his scathing sentiments about air conditioning. (The irony, however, is that he has never made his argument while standing outside....)  Communities, he claims, fragmented when the whole of our population got chased inside our house-boxes to enjoy the delightful, climate controlled meat lockers we now call homes.  Community policing, as a result, became outsourced to a militarized police force. 

The neighbor who peers through curtains to see what shenanigans are going on is one of the most powerful negative reinforcement forces in the world.  I am less likely to beat my spouse, let my grass get too long, or tag graffiti on the neighbor’s wall, if my neighbors are all out on front porches watching and talking about it.
 
That battle is the responsibility of the community.

Police reinforce that, but they are part of the community at the same time.  They get a salary to do what Auntie Gertrude already does.  That reinforcing of community mores is important.

The fact that we have ceded responsibility of that effort is a problem.  The resulting ‘take back the night’, community watches, neighborhood rent-a-cops, and night out parties are all efforts to reverse the delegation of community policing to the armed forces that are our local police force.

We need more of the community to reverse the violence.  And less reliance on cops. Well, unless that neighborhood watch program is led by George Zimmerman...
 
An interesting article was posted this week about the idea of making the police force a response agency – called to the scene when a crime is committed, rather than a prevention agency.  Our laws do not allow prevention of crimes, but we expect our police force to do just that.  What Mullen suggests is an imperfect solution.  But at least it is something that is not the expected, deeply-entrenched beliefs.   Maybe it would help.

The police should always direct their actions toward their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary by avenging individuals or the state, or authoritatively judging guilt or punishing the guilty.

Many Dateline exposés and TV dramas depict the anti-hero as a corrupt member of the police force, focused on revenge or acting as judge and jury.  The current discussion, however, does not focus greatly on that aspect of the police tenets.  We delegate such items to our Federal prosecutors’ sting operations and Law and Order episodes.

The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

We see a lot of police actions in the media.  Unquestionably, the wide-spread use of cell phone cameras to capture video has facilitated the reporting of such incidents – they undoubtedly happened before, and to an incredible extent.  We are seeing more evidence.
 
Are we seeing an absence of crime and disorder, though?  Is it an efficacious way of dealing with crime – the further subjugation of people who are already marginalized? 

Our goal is clear.  We all – every single one of us – want a society of law and order, where people are all treated equally under the law, and where those who enforce laws are safe. 
 
The question remains, how do we accomplish the goal?  We recommend the following:

1.      Community policing.  This is not white-night-out.  This is arm-in-arm, together with police, marching on city hall.  It is staying outdoors as a neighborhood to watch the kids play.  It is also watching them get into mischief and grabbing them by the ear to show them that the community declares such acts as out of bounds.  There have to be adults at the pool party. 

2.     Pay police.  New Orleans is having a hard time finding enough police to work in the area.  Part of that is a cultural thing – the police are viewed with suspicion here regardless, and those who choose such a career are viewed with suspicion.  But they are also poorly paid.  Those who qualify for the job[1], and who are devoted to helping people will struggle in a city where rent and real estate are increasingly expensive, where public schools are untrusted and private schools are expensive, and where grocery prices are high.  So, after a few years, the competent officer will take a job elsewhere. If we pay police, we will attract more and better.  (Same goes for teachers, by the way).

3.     Keep taking videos.  Sunlight is the best disinfectant.  As more videos surface, the more egregious offenders will curb themselves.   The ACLU has a site for several states where apps have been specifically targeted so that you know your rights while filming: https://www.aclu.org/feature/aclu-apps-record-police-conduct

4.     Be respectful to police.  Disrespect does not help anyone.  Clearly, this does not give a free pass to people who are entrusted with our lives.  But the police are the public, and the public are police.  Be a help. 

5.     Join in with other groups and listen.  A friend of mine attended a neighborhood church in solidarity against  an idiot flying a large confederate flag next to an AME church.  Bob listened and joined in against the intimidation that was taking place.  It made a difference.  The flag was gone that week, and the tenant was asked to find new housing.  There is power in the solidarity of the community.

6.     Hold the police to a high standard.  And honor those who do abide by the rules - both citizen and police.  
 
7.   Get political.  Demand that your police department train ALL officers in crisis intervention, harm reduction and de-escalation skills.  Find if your city is still enforcing ‘broken windows’ policing which overwhelmingly targets black and brown communities, and demand a new action be taken. Know your rights.

We understand that much of this discussion seems like a kum-ba-ya kind of utopian idealism. Violent offenders will not be deterred by a block barbeque.  We will not suppress internalized racism in our police departments with a camera phone or a slight raise in pay.  But our current situation is untenable, and some things have got to change.  Black lives matter.  Police lives also matter.  Maybe if we start making a dent, we can make it safer for everyone.



[1] Job description from a recent advertisement: Responsible for patrolling an assigned area to prevent and discover crime and to enforce regulations. Responsible for responding to calls, taking necessary action at the scene of crime or disturbance, conducting investigations, making arrests, testifying in court, and completing reports/forms and routine paperwork. Requires an associate's degree in criminal justice and/or additional certifications and at least 12 to 18 months of law enforcement experience. Familiar with standard concepts, practices, and procedures within a particular field. Relies on limited experience and judgment to plan and accomplish goals. Performs a variety of tasks. Works under general supervision. A certain degree of creativity and latitude is required. Typically reports to a Police Sergeant.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Henderson said...

Well stated. We, as a community, need to take back our responsibilities as part of said community. By removing ourselves from the interaction with our neighbors of years past and locking ourselves behind our deadbolts and in our gated communities, we have abdicated our responsibility as citizens of the communities in which we live. This is another subject that reminds me of the "First they came…" poem/statement by Paster Martin Niemeoller (supposed to be o with an umlaut) to the point of being uncomfortable.