This post picks up where I left off yesterday. Let’s dive into chapter 1 “The Limits of Police Reform”, section “Reforms”, sub-section “Diversity”.
Reformers often call for recruiting more officers of color in the hopes that they will treat communities with greater dignity, respect, and fairness. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to back up this hope. Even the most diverse forces have major problems with racial profiling and bias, and individual black and Latino officers appear to perform very much like their white counterparts.
That is bleak. And the figures point to the police departments in general having skin color and ethnic distrubitions that mirror the United States (USA 📖)’s population.
And studies show that diversification doesn’t help.
Use of force is highly concentrated in a small group of officers who tend to be male, young, and working in high-crime areas.
Knowing this fact, why would we put young and low-experience police in complicated situations? Perhaps to reinforce a system, give them experience in those “high-crime situations”? Condition them?
Also, remember, police forces fail to comply with reporting. So we don’t get a clear picture of this reality.
[Diverse forces use excessive force and discrimnatory practices] in large part because departmental priorities are set by local political leaders, who have driven the adoption of a wide variety of intensive, invasive, and aggressive crime-control policies that by their nature disproportionately target communities of color. These include broken-windows policing, with its emphasis on public disorder, and the War on Drugs, which is waged almost exclusively in nonwhite neighborhoods.
Oh the War on Drugs, another system invoked from a moral high ground. Another tool of oppression. Who buys the drugs?
Who has the money to buy the drugs? Remember, we’ve been chipping away at marginal tax rates and watching the rich grow fantastically rich.
First we had Reform and Diveristy, and now we get into Procedural Justice. The very systems we leverage via paperwork and bureaucracy to grind people’s lives to rubble.
By conceptualizing the problem of policing as one of inadequate training and professionalization, reformers fail to directly address how the very nature of policing and the legal system served to maintain and exacerbate racial inequality. …
At root, they fail to appreciate that the basic nature of the law and the police, since its earliest origins, is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo. Police reforms that fail to directly address this reality are doomed to reproduce it.
Well-trained police following proper procedure are still going to be arresting people for mostly low-level offenses, and the burden will continue to fall primarily on communities of color because that is how the system is designed to operate—not because of the biases or misunderstandings of officers.
A system, by its nature seeks to preserve itself. And get better at what it does. Our policing system started with a mindset of preserve itself and its larger context.
This sub-section discusses the fact that the police, unlike any other city service may use force. They are also a potential revenue stream for the city (e.g., through issuing citations that carry fines).
These two factors create a natural conflict between the police and those they target.
And police programs are structured with the idea that community members should bring concerns to the police, who will work with them to resolve the issue. However, the tools are often limited to punitive measures. And those that engage the police are often those that are long-time residents and home owners. And with redlining practices and systemic destruction via urban development of persons of color neighborhoods, long-time residency and home ownership are a fleeting possibility for many people of color.
The research shows that community policing does not empower communities in meaningful ways. It expands police power, but does nothing to reduce the burden of overpolicing on people of color and the poor. It is time to invest in communities instead. Participatory budgeting and enhanced local political accountability will do more to improve the well-being of communities than enhancing the power and scope of policing.
Okay. So engage in accountability measures within your city. That is actionable.
Fundamentally, seeing someone act with impunity boils my blood. Especially someone that can legally use force. At present, the United States has established qualitified immunity that “has become a nearly failsafe tool to let police brutality go unpunished and deny victims their constitutional rights1.”
From the moment an investigation into a police shooting begins, there are structural barriers to indictment and prosecution. When there is reason to believe that the shooting might not be justified, prosecutors tend to take a greater role. However, they must rely on the cooperation of the police to gather necessary evidence, including witness statements. Police officers at the scene are sometimes the only witnesses to the event. The close working relationship between police and prosecutors, normally an asset in homicide investigations, becomes a fundamental conflict of interest in all but the most straightforward cases. As a result, prosecutors are often reluctant to pursue such cases aggressively.
For prosecutors to do their job (e.g., impose fines or send people to jail) they need investigators to line up the people. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. And these prosecutors are often elected, meaning they have political motiviation, tools, and structures within which they operate.
Maybe separate the general prosecutors and those that prosecute police?
However, even when a prosecutor is motivated, there are huge legal hurdles. State laws authorizing police use of force, backed up by Supreme Court decisions, give police significant latitude in using deadly force.
Ah yes, prosecutors can only prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. And our system shields police officers.
Another challenge that won’t be fixed by independent prosecutors is the mindset of juries. Popular culture and political discourse are suffused with commentaries about the central importance of police in maintaining the basic structural integrity of society as well as the dangerous nature of their work—as misguided as both may be. The legal standard for judging police intensifies this tendency to identify with them.
In light of today, maybe this perception is shifting in today’s gross impunity when police conceal their badge number, disregard the first amendment, and apply draconic tactics (e.g., firing “non-lethal” ammunition in methods that can result in lethal force and kettling) on protesters.
But, so many people in the United States seem to accept this escalation; After all they’ve been acting with impunity on persons of color, why not on those entitled millenials who are ruining Applebees.
This is a tough chapter, because there’s glimmers of accountability coming from the Department of Justice. But under this current presidency and Bill Barr’s leadership of the Department of Justice, any gained ground is almost certainly eroding.
Under the Trump administration, there is even less reason to rely on this strategy to rein in local police. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear he will be giving local police a free hand and that federal investigations and prosecutions will be few and far between, as they were under George W. Bush. Instead, we must hold local officials directly accountable for the behavior and mission of local police.
Well fuck, we should never look back at Jeff Sessions with rose-colored glasses. But right about now, I can feel a nostalgic call to days of greater personal delusion that say “Remember how good you had it with Jeff Sessions?”
Fundamentally, when you act with impunity, you don’t want your actions recorded. And when you don’t have to comply with the law, just don’t record them.
There is a problem of officer compliance. In numerous shooting cases, officers have failed to turn on their cameras. For example: One of the officers present at the shooting of Walter Scott in Charleston did not have his camera turned on. Not a single one of the officers present at a shooting in Washington, D.C., in 2016 had their camera on. Eighteen-year-old Paul O’Neil was killed by police in Chicago who did not have their cameras on. One study actually found that departments using cameras had higher rates of shootings.
I would imagine the collective narrative is “Well, we the voters have added accountability by requiring body cameras. I’m sure those who uphold the law will adhear to our requests.” But, when turning them off (or ensuring that they aren’t charged) is a viable tactic, off course someone resentful of a requirement may well channel that resentment.
Ultimately, body cameras are only as effective as the accountability mechanisms in place. If local DAs and grand juries are unwilling to act on the evidence cameras provide, then the courts won’t be an effective accountability tool. Giving local complaint review boards access to the tapes could aid some investigations, but often these boards have only limited authority.
A glimmer of hope, but numerous loopholes. What about faulty cameras? After all technology fails? Do you get a free pass when your camera’s off? No? What are the consequences? What about unexpected failure?
In other words, technology introduces numerous complications.
Any hope we have of holding police more accountable must be based on greater openness and transparency. Police departments are notoriously defensive and insular. Their special status as the sole legitimate users of force has contributed to a mindset of “them against us,” which has engendered a culture of secrecy. For too long police have walled themselves off from public inspection, open academic research, and media investigations. Entrenched practices that serve no legitimate purpose, failed policies, implicit and explicit racism among the rank and file, and a culture of hostility toward the public must be rooted out.
There’s a lot within that single paragraph. But my mind started thinking about who are highly scrutinized people: politicians for the words they say, and atheletes for the plays they make (or fail to make). Is that what they feel will happen if they were to be more transparent?
Regardless, police officers have a unique experience that only they understand. I certainly understand that. However, that narrative becomes dangerous because they’re already looking at an us vs. them mindset when weighing who they serve and protect.
As NYU law professor Barry Friedman notes, our failure to adequately oversee the actions of police puts our society at peril, especially as new technologies give police the ability to see into ever more aspects of our private lives.
Today’s protests and police escalations of violence highlight our failure to heed that warning.
Disarm the Police
Since 1900, the police in Great Britain have killed a total of fifty people. In March 2016 alone, US police killed one hundred people.
And I weep a bit thinking about how our school shootings compare to theirs.
Local police departments can get surplus armaments at no cost—with no questions asked about how they will be used. Small communities now have access to armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and a variety of “less lethal” weaponry, such as rubber bullets and pepper-spray rounds.
Wow! That I did not know. And yet, during a pandemic, hospitals and healthcare workers couldn’t get shit from our Federal government.
The fact that police feel the need to constantly bolster their authority with the threat of lethal violence indicates a fundamental crisis in police legitimacy.
They have the authority. And I would wager, anyone that continues to point and reference a tool, especially when invoke a (moral?) authority is likely to use that tool.
The origins and function of the police are intimately tied to the management of inequalities of race and class. The suppression of workers and the tight surveillance and micromanagement of black and brown lives have always been at the center of policing. Any police reform strategy that does not address this reality is doomed to fail.
I come from software development, we aspire to iterate on systems to continue their improvement. But iterating on a fundamentally broken or incorrect system is foolhardy.
What we are witnessing is a political crisis. At all levels and in both parties, our political leaders have embraced a neoconservative politics that sees all social problems as police problems. They have given up on using government to improve racial and economic inequality and seem hellbent on worsening these inequalities and using the police to manage the consequences. For decades, they have pitted police against the public while also telling them to be friendlier and improve community relations. They can’t do both.
I ain’t no fool, most of today’s elected Democrats would be seen as staunch Republicans of decades past.
Our politicians and narratives fail the police. Deflecting accountability down to the police, who are shielded from accountability through legislation. That is a sure-fire way to bring about fascism (Which has most definitely arrived in the United States).
And now Vitale introduces another key tenet of our system. We hunger for revenge, and have equated punishment with justice.
And we get what I believe is the first mention of that beloved phrase: “a few bad apples.”
But not all police mean well. Too many engage in abuse based on race, gender, religion, or economic condition. Explicit and intentional racism is alive and well in American policing. We are asked to believe that these incidents are the misdeeds of “a few bad apples.” But why does the institution of policing so consistently shield these misdeeds? Too often, when biased policing is pointed out, the response is to circle the wagons, deny any intent to do harm, and block any discipline against the officers involved. This sends an unambiguous message that officers are above the law and free to act on their biases without consequence. It also says that the institution is more concerned about defending itself than rooting out these problems.
The system sustains itself.
We don’t need empty police reforms; we need a robust democracy that gives people the capacity to demand of their government and themselves real, nonpunitive solutions to their problems.
Reflecting on Chapter 1: The Limits of Police Reform
So much of this seems self-evident, but the research and crafted narrative help walk through the failings.
We see now that the police, emboldened by the inflamatory divisive vitroilic words of President Trump, have completely accepted their us vs. them mentality. We also see that we have embraced in that narrative, having been on the receiving end of their framed goal to resolve societal issues through police action.
Our homogenized white-washed national reflex is to worship those that put their life on the line to support our self-proclaimed freedoms. Our politicians have yielded power to them. And granted them almost limitless imunity.
Gone are the days of Officer Clemmons and Mister Rogers.