22 August 2014


I have consumed a large quantity of analysis and footage and news concerning the protests, riots, looting, shooting(s), and on and on down the litany of civil libertarian woe. My main reaction, which is typical to me, is to summon my cynicism. Not much appears likely to change. The police don't appear ready to dial down their rhetoric, equipment, or tactics. Even or perhaps especially in front of media. The public appears broadly indifferent outside of groups that were already closely following these kinds of issues (police militarization, racial profiling, police brutality/aggressiveness) with what does not appear to be a major shift beyond the slow drift away from paranoia that dominated the previous three decades.

Some thoughts.

1) It is not relevant empirically that the police killed this person instead of some other person (or some other person who was killed by police elsewhere). People should be outraged and demand transparent methods of evaluating the actions where ever police are involved in the death of a "civilian". We, the public, should view that as a failure. Even if, and I wish this were more obvious than it appears to be, the person killed was accused of or witnessed committing a crime. It's possible that the death may be later justified in self-defence, but it should always be transparently investigated. Preferably by a third party agency rather than the police itself. I would also press for this in cases of non-lethal violence (assaults, tasings, deployment of tear gas or pepper spray). Police generally are poorly trained in marksmanship, use of non-lethal weapons and tactics, and in the de-escalation of force from the evidence of these cases of death and injury, and one reason for this is the lack of a proper and transparent accountability to the public that is served by policing.

2) People complaining about these actions in Ferguson and elsewhere are not being "anti-cop" or "anti-police". Most people making such complaints, even the civil libertarian wing who has monitored the growth of militarized police forces and the expansive use of procedures like no-knock raids, asset forfeiture, and stop and frisk searches, mostly upon disfavored minorities, would acknowledge a role for police to serve the community in the pursuit of justice and law and order. The complaint is that the tactics, strategies, training, and activities of police are often inappropriate, possibly unconstitutional and certainly not respective and protective of individual civilian rights regardless of whether they are violating those rights, often well beyond the minimum level of force required to carry out their duties, and have developed legal structures and protections that make them both individually and as a whole unaccountable to the communities involved. And all the while the victims of these actions have limited voice to make a strong defense of their innocence, or the disproportionate nature of such activities.

The major change that makes this issue apparent, one hopes, isn't that our police have become more violent and hazardous to communities, but that our communities have more tools to realize and become aware that police are trying to avoid accountability and transparency (camera phones, video surveillance, body cameras on the cops themselves or in their squad cars, etc). The worry is that the problem is more endemic to the recruiting and training of police procedures, and that brutality and violence are as a result a preferred means of affecting law enforcement for some, if not many police officers. Removing such officers from the force will be increasingly difficult the more widespread the problem is. If it is cultural rather than "bad apples".

3) We do not have currently good transparent data to evaluate whether it is cultural or bad apples. Police do not generally disclose their use of aggressive search warrant tactics, the discharging of firearms, even the deaths or assaults of citizens or civilians caused by police actions (whether justified or not) are not well documented. No one keeps track of this data. Very few states require the collection and documentation of it and federal data collection is voluntary and relies upon self-reporting. Worse still, it is often difficult to document or track the "bad apples", if that is the problem, as they can shift between departments, or between districts and jurisdictions of large urban areas, without being disciplined, charged, or otherwise interfered with in the problems they are causing.

In Ferguson several years ago, there was a severe beating of an innocent man in police custody (arrested because his first and last name matched a warrant, but with a different middle name and social security number), evidence of a purported assault on an officer for which this beating supposedly occurred was destroyed or conveniently missing, and the police attempted to have him charged with "destruction of property" for bleeding on uniforms. A charge which they later retracted that had even occurred. No one was disciplined, and without there having been a legal deposition (during which they may have admitted to having offered false testimony to gain the charge in the first place), there would be no official record of who these officers were.

One possible option would be to start to use Yelp! style public reputation models for rating police interactions, such that "bad apples" who have a poor reputation in the community, whether from violence or other inappropriate actions, would be at least moderately easy to identify. I have myself mostly encountered police during traffic stops. And some of these were polite and efficient, if otherwise unpleasant, and others were unpleasant and borderline abusive. I would emphasize nothing as yet untoward has occurred to me (other than perhaps getting a ticket or two when I might have gotten off with a warning from a different cop). But there was a clear difference in the interactions that some were coming from a more authoritarian world than should be the case for police to seek to maintain while others recognized their duties to enforce the law with a minimum of disruption. If such a system were widely available, I would rate those second variety more highly and positively, and rate the former negatively.

4) One of the largest problems with policing isn't the heavy duty toys provided by the Pentagon. It is that the system of accountability makes it difficult to first recognize "bad apples" and second to properly or appropriately discipline them. The Pepper Spray cop, Lt John Pike, was found to be cleared of wrongful actions by the police's own investigation, which took months (during which time he was still being paid). Independent investigation documented insubordination (disobeying orders not to deploy with riot gear), lack of training on equipment selected for use (said riot gear, in particular the pepper spray, was not adequately trained with), escalation (showing up to a peaceful protest in riot gear), and brutal force (the actual spraying of pepper spray, incorrectly and indiscriminately), in much less time. He was only fired over the objections of the police investigation. Without the independent investigation and worldwide distribution of video documenting part of his activities, it is very likely he would still be an officer of the law today. Various other officers have committed similar actions, often on video, and remain employed and patrolling the streets of some city or town today. The FBI's internal investigations have found zero unjustified shootings out of the last 150, demonstrating that the problem of accountability may not be simply a local force and lower professional standards as causes.

These problems are not limited to use of force. Wrongful arrests, such as for people taking video or photographs of police activity, are a violation of basic civil rights. Such events typically can cost a city thousands of dollars in lawsuits and settlements. But most of the time nothing happens to the officers who actually created these violations.

5) Police militarization has occurred in large part through the war on drugs and war on terror formulations, whereupon large quantities of military hardware were gifted to police forces, large and small, urban and rural. The logic behind this is typically to proclaim a need for high value intervention forces, like SWAT teams. Most of the towns and cities which are receiving this, a) haven't had assaults, much less murders of police officers in decades if ever, and b) haven't even had many murders and shootings of "ordinary citizens" in decades. Violent crime rates have been falling, in some places fast, and in others barely, for over 20 years. You would not know this to hear it from police officers who speak of "war zones", and general danger and fear of the communities they police and work in. To be sure, they have a risky job which involves occasionally a very high danger to their personal safety. But the actual danger to police, the risk of death or injury, from assault or gunfire from suspected criminals, is extremely low. As is the actual danger in most instances of terrorism, or for mass shooting events and hostage scenarios. And almost none of these individual events requires that we arm police with sniper rifles, automatic machine guns, and armored personnel carriers. Very little of this equipment has been well trained with, or the personnel selected for advanced training rather than simply being a part of a small rural or suburban assault team.

6) The main use for these tactics and equipment is to conduct no-knock drug raids upon non-violent, mostly poor, mostly minority residents and property owners. The reason is fairly simple; in many cases the police can make seizures of a variety of assets during a drug bust, assuming the drug bust is of the correct home and finds drug paraphernalia. The incentives for doing what we would regard as ordinary police work are skewed by the "investigation" of vice crimes like drug distribution.

Taken altogether, as with many of my observations of the society around me I wonder something strange, one could wonder why there aren't people in the streets fighting with police more often in protest and/or riot formats. None of these are positive trends, and there is limited impetus to shift policy on virtually any of these designs (with the possible exception of legalizing marijuana).

One main reason: mostly these forms of mobile oppression are mostly imposed upon the poor and lower status minorities or immigrant communities. Middle class white people are then left mostly alone and see very little of these activities as commonplace. Further, they support these tactics even more when told who they are being used against. A large portion of the injustice of anti-terrorism surveillance is the singling out of Arab-American and Muslim-American communities and individuals. With little or nothing to show for it and at great expense to the taxpayer. People not only don't mind this, but prefer it. Ditto for criminal enforcement of African-American communities or their imprisonment, no matter how petty the legal infringements. Inconveniences of oppression are imagined to be much less inconvenient when they are imposed upon people "we" want oppressed anyway. Finally, most middle class white Americans do not know anyone who is of some minority, even to the extent of knowing few non-Christians. Which limits the knowledge and perspective such people might offer on the subject.

All of that means
1) Most Americans do not see a reason to be upset enough to demonstrate.
2) Most Americans see demonstrations as unusual and in need of repression rather than legitimate airing of grievances.
3) Which in turn means there's a social custom against demonstration, on this subject in particular.

It would be nice if there were more mainstream protests and movements to reform the conduct and supervision of police, or the legal incentives available to persecute, investigate, or detain and harass people for non-violent and especially consensual criminal acts like those involved in vice crime. But we're not there yet. I have been following these issues for several years with an increasing degree of annoyance. Posting about it feels at this point like a flat and useless "I told you so", but it seems no less important to keep talking about in the hope that there will be people listening.

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