Changing Of the Guard: Is The Urgent Movement To End Police Brutality Here?
The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.” – Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables,” whose top villain is the policeman Javert
A black man is walking down the street. Suddenly he’s swarmed by cars. A man jumps out and tells him to stop. He’s confused and before he can fully react he’s being thrown down violently, quickly, aggressively. He’s just walking down the street; why are they stopping him? Suddenly he’s thrown on the ground as he asks over and over what’s happening, what he did. They lock his hands behind his back, accuse him of not listening to them though he’s still trying to figure out why they swarmed him. It’s the unanswering hand of mild police brutality at its most basic.
They just suspected him because he’s a man walking down a dark street at night. And they felt they had to interrogate him. Was it because he was black? Was he really acting suspicious? Was this necessary? And is this making the streets safer?
Policing must be a difficult task. To balance between keeping control and letting people enjoy their freedoms; a balance between keeping citizens safe and keeping themselves safe. Many Americans, especially minorities, claim that police systemically harass and kill minority men and women, especially black men and women, at a disproportionate rate to white people. Many other Americans, most of whom are white Americans, claim that this isn’t true; or if they admit that it’s true, they point to the higher rate of crime among men and and women of non-caucasian descent, saying the higher percentage of minority killings are a result of higher rates of crime, not of police profiling. So who’s right?
A recent Frontline special gave a glimpse of the Newark police department as it tries to deal with the challenges of policing low-income neighborhoods where crime, and especially drug-related crime, has run rampant. And what it showed is the struggle for American policing to deal with the modern challenges of large urban swaths of disenchanted and disenfranchise. What it also showed is a systematic oppression of its black, poor citizenry, often by minority officers themselves, as a result of lumping average (or at the worst nonviolent criminals) citizens in with the gang-members they resemble only due to a similar skin tone, parlance and possibly even clothing choices; police actions which may claim to be rooted in a philosophy of crime reduction by putting down a heavy hand on any and all suspicious activity (quite the subjective criteria here) but is really rooted in a combination of fear and possibly in some cases even dislike. A police philosophy which, even if claiming good intentions, has only fomented distrust among the very people said cops are supposed to “protect and serve.” And, again, one can’t help but notice that such overly harsh punishments and tactics are meted out on low income minority citizenry at much higher rates than white folk, though no doubt part of that is due to the higher crime rates in the neighborhoods to which many disenfranchised minority populations have been pushed by gentrification and other infrastructural movements that are often likened to putting “the element” in a sort of pen.
These facts have sent shockwaves of outrage across America. And in some cases this outrage has had some results; for example Baltimore police, in response to the Freddy Gray incident, just instituted a new use of force policy.
But police brutality is and killings are still a big problem. Especially for poorer minority communities. So is American law enforcement really guilty of oppressing black and Hispanic people because of race or is that just the face value of the relegation of such populations to lifestyles of violence and crime? Is this rash of police shootings that have infuriated liberal and minority populations something new or just increased visibility of past abuses? And if so, where do we go from here?
The History of American Cops and Police Brutality
American policing began in the 1830s, when large immigrant populations began to populate cities and the main job of a cop was to stop “disorder.” Many of those immigrants and other poor people were working in the factories and the only way they could call attention to 80-hour work weeks and locked doors in factories full of flammable materials was to protest, which was met by a swift billy club to the face and unleashing of angry dogs. Gotta keep the factories on time, after all. According to an EKU book about the history of policing:
Defining social control as crime control was accomplished by raising the specter of the ‘dangerous classes.’ The suggestion was that public drunkenness, crime, hooliganism, political protests and worker ‘riots’ were the products of a biologically inferior, morally intemperate, unskilled and uneducated underclass.”
Another side of the history of policing came from the forces tasked with rounding up runaway slaves. So in the south minorities were often beaten for trying to escape slavery; in the cities minorities were beaten for protesting their subhuman standard of living.
This continued into the 20th century as evidenced by the many law-enforcement endorsed beatings of black men in the south and the view of KKK lynchings as doing one’s civic Christian white duty. But such hideous abuses of state-sanctioned authority wasn’t limited to the south. I remember a story my aunt told me about a night in her young adulthood. She was working class white living near Patterson Park in Baltimore, a place notorious for drug and gang-related activities. This was before all the private school kids moved down there and made it a happening place to live; no back then it was a mixing pot of poor and working class people from all ethnicities united along the economic fringe. One night she was driving when she accidentally hit a black homeless man. He got up; he was drunk and started swearing, “Goddamn bitch,” and spitting up blood as he hobbled off into a dark alleyway. She hurried home to report it and say where she last saw him so that somebody could help.
“What color was he?” the police operator on the other end of the line asked her.
“Well, that’s one less on the streets isn’t it?” the cop said.
“Fuck the Po-lice”
In 1988, five young black men from Compton, California, tired of constantly being harassed by police officers wrote a song to express their frustrations. The Compton police were notorious in the community since their efforts to “clean up” the drug/gang-related violence in the mostly-African-American neighborhood often consisted of randomly stopping any young black man they saw, especially if they saw them in groups, and accosting, cuffing and frisking them. “Fuck the Police” is one of the seminal hits of NWA, a group whose members would go on to be some of the biggest voices in American entertainment (and many of whom would go from voice of protest to voice of the mainstream). This was for all intents and purposes one of the largest protests of police brutality, outlining how the department lumped all black men in with the couple real gangsters running Crenshaw. The pattern of harassment and undue violence, especially dealt out when black men with the wrong look crept out of their ’hood into the nicer parts of L.A., echoed law enforcement’s long history of knocking around lower-income citizens in the name of keeping order.
It reached beyond Compton, to other low-income neighborhoods populated by mostly-minority populations who were tired of being harassed but though that was simply how it had to be. And it also reached the suburbs, it reached youth in revolt who had never been roughed up by the police but were still just as incensed by the abuse of power. And it makes sense since most non-WASP Americans at one point were smashed by the but of the cops.
The history of of organized crime in America can trace its roots back to Italian and Irish and Jewish populations in America constantly harassed by police. The capos would collect protection money from these immigrant populations to pay off police while at the same time building their own empires as protectors of their people. While often this just traded one violent overlord for another, at least the cosa nostra collector let you know what he wanted and only resorted to violence if you refused to pay.
Of course in the 1950s, in many cities this wasn’t necessarily the case any more. For working class African-Americans and whites alike, the postwar economy allowed for decent jobs and the ownership of homes a man could be proud of for low-skill jobs. It also allowed many blacks to leave their fervently racist ancestral enclaves in the south and set up shop in cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, all over the country. This newfound pride led to protests of racist laws and led to police clashes like the legendary ones in Selma, vestiges of the riot-breaking history of policing. A new generation emerged that wouldn’t settle for being second-class citizens. But as post-industrial decline turned many of these families’ dreams to dust, and industrial jobs dried up first for minorities (if you’re a white foreman and you have to lay off somebody, why not the blacks?), middle-class African-American and Chicano neighborhoods were hardest hit. Add in the American drug boom and suddenly you have large populations of disenfranchised minorities with few job options but a degrading minimum wage job that couldn’t pay the bills or drug-dealing. Which then gives police incentive to return to preventing disorder in the American way.
But it wasn’t until the emergence of a new technology that the rest of America saw firsthand how bad this act of “preventing disorder” had become. That technology, of course, was the video camera. And that moment came in the beating of Rodney King.
I didn’t know…
After WWII, many German citizens said they didn’t realize what was happening in the concentration camps. Along those lines, many white and/or suburban Americans didn’t realize what was happening to minorities until the ravenous assault of a black man driving under the influence. The Rodney King beating incensed American citizens white and black alike. When the police were found not guilty, South Central L.A. was looted on national television, which for some justified beliefs in the criminal element of poor minority populations but to others showed the very real frustration and hopelessness felt by a portion of American citizenry. Madness manifest into brick-through-window burn-this-mother-down carnage. The revolution was televised, Willie May was shown pushing that shopping cart at a dead sprint and police brutality became a public discussion topic.
It also showed what the police really think. Cops stayed out; let the animals destroy their own businesses, burn down their own neighborhoods. Instead Johnny Law just lined up at the border of Beverly Hills, an impenetrable wall with a clear message: Fuck up your own little cesspool but keep away from the rich folk.
With the invention of the camera phone more such incidents have been caught. With the rise of the Internet, we can all hear about how a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice was shot to death by a nervous young cop who had no right to the responsibility inherent in the ability to take a life with a firearm. We could watch as Eric Garner was choked to death for selling loosies from his corner store. We could spend countless hours reading up on Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, looking at pictures and surveillance; watch the video of police shooting unarmed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times as he walked away from them.
Calls for dashboard cams and recording devices in uniforms have led to police now having to deal with their every action being recorded. Some have argued that this makes it difficult for cops to do their jobs; that often they have to make split-second decisions that shouldn’t be analyzed by Monday-morning quarterbacks. But most people are wondering: Is this what has been happening all along and we’re just seeing it? Or is American law enforcement out of control?
How do you fight crime in drug-violence “cysts”?
On the other side — and yes, even here there is another side — one could argue there would be no more complicated job than policing a high-crime neighborhood, or “cyst” as they’re known by David Simon, vaunted low-income-crime-fueled-neighborhood expert who created “The Wire” (a show that never won an Emmy despite being one of the best programs of all time, awards-shows-so-white indeed). Often these neighborhoods are populated by minorities who have been relegated to lives of crime by a system stacked against them. There are countless studies about how America’s public education system has let down many low-income areas (mostly thanks to budget cuts). About how the dearth of decent working-class jobs has led to the disintegration of low-income urban families. About how children in South Central grow up with PTSD as a result of the drug-related violence, and transversely about how many people growing up in these communities see few ways to make money and succeed without selling drugs. The median home price in Compton is $321,500. How are you supposed to buy a house for that price on $7.50 or $12 or even $15 an hour?
We see how social services that might help these neighborhoods are underfunded and undersupported, as are the police forces tasked with protecting civilians and fighting overwhelming crime. Many police officers, in response to accusations of unnecessary violence in serving these neighborhoods, point to the one motto they hold above all others: “First and foremost our goal is to come home safe.” And that’s fine from a human standpoint. But that’s not the point of policing. Or at least that’s not what we’re told it’s supposed to be about. “Protect and serve” we’re told. It’s not about you; it’s about the citizens you supposedly serve.
We forget that law enforcement are humans who have families and want to go home to them, at any cost. We forget that the average training of a police officer is 18 weeks. And that the only education requirement for a $52,000 job as a cop with a license to kill and a task of keeping peace in areas often likened to war zones is a high school diploma. And that America has so many guns it’s very easy for some to slip into the hands of criminals from skeezy gun owners looking to make a fast and furious buck.
So how do we fix policing to make it safe for the men and women just trying to keep the peace while not resulting in unnecessary deaths of the very citizens they’re supposed to be protecting?
I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.” – Sunil Dutta, Ph.D., a 17-year veteran of the LAPD and author of a WaPo OpEd about policing.
Broken Windows, Broken System
The Broken Windows theory was originally posited by James Wilson in a 1982 Atlantic article, where he walked with police who had made inroads with the community they were policing. Ironically, this took place in Newark, the very city Frontline analyzed and saw a very different situation. Wilson said the success of these cops was about ensuring that the streets were safe and orderly, and that ignoring small crimes or signs of societal breakdown like “broken windows” would lead to larger crimes. But like every movement based on eloquent buzzwords, broken windows been twisted to a belief that by cutting down on people spitting on the sidewalk, we’ll end gang violence. So instead of being a call to first and foremost build peaceful relationships with the citizens of a community, it’s become a call to enforce petty crimes with heavy action. And that approach has been proven not to work before and just last week by a NY Department of Investigation report, much to the chagrin of former and current NYPD commish Bill Bratton, whose whole reputation rests on his success with this approach during his first term in the Big Apple (despite the fact that others have found stronger correlations not with broken windows but with abortion)(which would also help to explain why he wasn’t able to replicate this success in L.A.)
“Stop and frisk” is a similar theory which violates illegal search and seizure laws with the intent of disarming and taking drugs from people who just “look” sketchy.
These approaches have led to a police ethos based in over-enforcement, where judgment calls and first glances are justifications for aggressive and frightening confrontations, especially in high-violence poorer neighborhoods, which are often peopled by mostly-minority populations. Of course this will lead to rising tensions, which will lead to fear on both sides but one side is trained to neutralize the situation using deadly force if they feel it is necessary to keep themselves safe. And when is deadly force more necessary than when you fear for your safety? It’s not necessarily because these victims are black; not because they’re in an area where anybody could be carrying a loaded unregistered weapon and not because the cops are undertrained and not because these people are poor and as such undesirable in capitalists America and not because PCP and crack and meth can cause a sane man to lash out like a rage zombie. It’s more a combination of all of these things into a perfect storm of fear, dislike and the general violent chaos that for years was left to run free in such economic-strife-ridden areas.
While the Frontline special showed enforcement claiming to want to build trust in the neighborhoods they police, the result of their application of the broken windows theory is obvious to all who watch the tape. It will simply breed mistrust. Especially when you couple that with the epidemic of police murders and and the many highly-public cases of police corruption.
Oakland definitely in the House
Few of the countless recent stories taking police forces to task are more striking or more exemplary of why many see the police as just a gang with government backing than Oakland. A teenage prostitute was the plaything for dozens of men on the Oakland police force. Some paid her; most just gave her access to police records and other perks to keep her and her friends “safe,” whatever that means. She has claimed to have had sex with more than 30 cops, up to the rank of sergeant, even while under the age of 18. This has led to a rotation of three police chiefs in about 5 minutes and sent shockwaves through a law enforcement community already under fire for troubling activities. And there are plenty more similar cases on top of a long history of corruption in large, urban police departments .
So there is history of corruption — and corruption in the present — that leads to mistrust of law enforcement. But there is also seemingly a philosophy among police that they are deserved of their position of power, that it’s not granted by the people or the system but simply inherent to the piece of metal clipped onto their breasts. In New York men turned their backs on De Blasio as he spoke at the funeral of a cop because of remarks he’d given previously against police brutality. They didn’t stop to think that their power isn’t God-given; its given by politicians as the mouthpiece for the people. They didn’t stop to think that chain of command ends with De Blasio and so their disgraceful actions shows they perhaps don’t understand that their job is to enforce laws signed into power by shot-callers in suits. Such acts of disrespect destroy any complaints the police make about feeling disrespect from American citizens.
America is a rebel nation, a nation with a proud history of fighting authority. Even today, the Trump populist movement is about people rebelling against the government establishment. And when the Bundys mounted a stand-off against the Federal government, people came out of the woodwork to claim these white trash insurrectionists were fighting for freedom. We hold the checking of authority as one of our dearest values. So why doesn’t law enforcement understand that? And even more, why do they think that leading with aggressive actions towards a citizenry taught all along not to inherently accept the dictatorial hand of tyranny will breed respect of authority? If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the real people in charge don’t have itchy trigger fingers, don’t lead with attack, don’t need to affect a tough guy voice and use words like “scumbag” when addressing the people who are supposed to listen to them. People with actual authority don’t feel a constant need to reassure themselves and others that they’re in charge.
So where do we go from here?
This is not a call for the disbandment of police forces. This is about pushing for a new philosophy in American policing. A call for movement away from claims that the people’s role is to listen to authorities without question because America was founded on the exact opposite. A reminder to the police that they call for respect but that respect is for the system not its arm; even more America is a nation that touts the simple truth that respect is earned, not just given.
This is also a call for the end of such fruitless efforts as stop-and-frisk and broken windows that on subjective hunches justify maximum force; a call for the end of an over-enforcement movement that simply hasn’t proven effective after several decades of adoption.
And there is hope. Law enforcement departments all around the country are being overhauled, leadership is being changed and officers are being scrutinized. There is finally a call for accountability, something we have always demanded of our public officials but for some reason never really pushed for their enforcement arm. While there have not been any convictions for many of the recent touchstone cases, the fact that they’re going to court at all is at least a step in the right direction. And the fact that an embattled police force like that in Newark would allow a ride along from an investigative show that isn’t in place to glorify them shows that they are at least paying lip service to being ready to make a drastic change.
With America’s gun debate (the one we’re not having because one side just rambles on about their misinterpretation of the 2nd amendment because of corporate brainwashing while the other focuses on arbitrary bans that don’t address the real issue but make nice slogans) goes a secondary one about whether police should have permission to deadly force. Or even be allowed to carry guns (the Brits don’t get guns and they have much lower crime rates and no police shootings).
In Wyoming we have guns, yes, but we also have bear spray. And since grizzlies are protected, you’re supposed to use the bear spray should one attack, especially as bear spray has been proven effective. So if my canister of Counter Assault can stop a 600-pound charging mass of fur, muscle and claw at about 25 feet, why wouldn’t it be able to stop a suspected violent offender as he runs at you, much less as he tries to run away? There’s an idea — the gun is a right an officer EARNS after years on the job with proven restraint and respect for the people he or she is policing. And yes, I realize this’ll happen after we all agree on a voluntary gun regulation that limits people to a weapon that they have any reasonable use for as a private citizen, which means never, but it would be a very effective proposal, especially for the problems departments are having with troubled and/or rookie cops (that is, the ones who’ve most often been involved in the shooting of unarmed citizens).
But regardless, I do smell a changing of the wind, if only because increased visibility is leaving most departments with no choice but to evolve and adapt to a society that no longer will accept being pushed around by the government’s low-level enforcers. If only because actions that previously might have resulted in a “your-word-against-his” situation with the tie going to the blue-suit can now be posted to the Internet for the world to see. And if only because you can Google “percentage of black men killed by police” and find an article showing that in 2015 police killed 986 people and of those, 40% were African-Americans despite making up only 13% of the American population.
Over-aggressive enforcement philosophies have not made any blighted areas in Baltimore, Chicago or Los Angeles any safer, just like banning the AR-15 won’t stop shootings or slow the purchase of powerful weapons that have no justifiable use for the owner. In both cases, there needs to be a strong psychological shift towards a less-extreme, less-heightened tone. And in both cases, the solution will be that people need to be educated beyond a fear of the different and of the historically maligned, along with a healthy dose of increased aid for our society’s social and mental services orgs.
Some cops are dicks; some are racist sadists who get their jollies by jack-booting the kinds of people their ancestors would have whipped out back for the plantation master. But I like to believe that most cops are good people just doing a hard job they’re not well-enough trained for. This inadequate training, screening and oversight is unacceptable, however, since this job holds people’s lives in the balance.
The role of law enforcement as the violent queller of disorder is an atavistic remembrance of a time when America had sweatshops, slaves and muskets and the haves were given free reign to grind the have-nots into the ground for the sake of profits. The only way police will be able to effectively fight crime in difficult neighborhoods, the only way the police will escape the current wave of hatred being lamented by boys in blue, the only way the police will ever gain the people’s respect is by embracing one of the most revered age-old wisdoms — paying respect. By realizing that the history of policing in America may have been enforcing the interests of the well-heeled robber barons and controlling the lower class with violence but the future rests in working WITH their communities. And by realizing that their power doesn’t come from the badge; it comes from the people.
Addendum: I wrote and posted this on Friday, July 1st. Four days later Alton Sterling was killed with 5 shots to the back while being held down by two cops. The next day Philander Castile was shot four times in the chest during a routine traffic stop while reaching for his license and registration — he had just told the officer he had a gun and was registered to have it. These were signs that whatever progress I may have thought we’d made through the reassessment of police strategy and the increased visibility of law enforcement hadn’t done much to keep innocent black men from being gunned down by the hand of authority.
The next day, a man no doubt puffed up by constant calls to fight government tyranny with a gun, opened fire on Police officers at a Dallas BLM rally, killing five cops. While that is a tragedy, that is a tragedy we cannot address. That is, we could address it by coming down hard on those who would proffer the narrative that it is a patriot’s duty to arm himself against government tyranny. But what we can address is a police practice that often puts young men with minimal training and experience into situations where they hold life and death in their own nervous, inexperienced hands. We can also address the fact that current policy emphasizes being tough on crime over building relationships with the very communities they police.
All the deaths last week were tragedies. But Micah Johnson, a man rejected by the military and various black national organizations for his mental instability, is not a federal agent paid by citizen money to keep people safe. The people who killed Sterling and Castile were hired to keep them safe and as such have abused the power they were given by the people over the people. That is tyranny, fascism, any of a number of things Americans profess to hate. And that is what is our patriotic duty to stop.