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Hullabaloo


Saturday, November 28, 2015

 

No cop left behind

by Tom Sullivan

"He must have done something," says the voice in my head when I think about Laquan McDonald. It is the voice of my parents' generation, a generation that went from seemingly never questioning authority to always questioning it. Except when members of minorities run afoul of police. I wonder if "He must have done something" was the model of justice our Founders thought they were pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to establish? Or is that the kind of colonial-rule justice from which they fought to separate themselves? Are they now rolling over in their graves?

As police in Colorado Springs led away the alleged Planned Parenthood murderer in handcuffs, I was still trying to process the latest police shooting news from Chicago. The Guardian's database this morning lists 1033 people killed by police in the U.S. so far this year. Police killed "more people in the first 24 days of 2015 than police in England and Wales did in the last 24 years," as reported by the Independent, noting "police in Norway fired their guns only twice last year – and no one was hurt."

Brian Burghart's web site fatalencounters.org tracks police shootings in the U.S. because the government will not. Burghart and colleagues are building a database of people killed in interactions with American law enforcement since 2000:

This site is founded upon the premise that Americans should have the ability to track [under what circumstances police use deadly force]. This idea was conceived in the wake of the Oct. 6, 2012, killing of a naked, unarmed college student, Gil Collar, at the University of South Alabama. Media reports contained no context: How many people are killed by police in Alabama every year? How many in the United States?

It turned out that Collar was on drugs, including marijuana and the hallucinogen 25-I. It also turned out the freshman never got within 5 feet of the officer, and the officer attempted no less-lethal methods to subdue Collar. On March 1, 2013, the policeman was cleared of wrongdoing.

That, in a 9mm shell, is the crux of the issue. In the United States of America, police routinely kill citizens they are pledged to serve and protect, deploying deadly force in encounters such as that one above, or in the Laquan McDonald case from Chicago. Collar was white. McDonald was black. Fellow officers stood by as the accused killer, Officer Jason Van Dyke, emptied his weapon into McDonald, then they stood silent for a year before their department this week released the dash-cam video of the sixteen shots, and then only under court order.

It seems that being a law enforcement officer is another way — besides being rich or a bank or a government-paid torturer — to enjoy a separate and privileged system of American justice. Only with the advent of cell phones and police cameras as the public gotten a window into the brutality scattered officers wield with heretofore legal impunity, especially in communities of color. Jerome Karabel, a professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, writes that "Extra-judicial killings by the police ... now number more than 1,100 per year -- more than four times the number of people lynched or executed by capital punishment in the worst of years."

Seth Stoughton and Josh Gupta-Kagan, both law professors from the University of South Carolina, decried the criminalization of school discipline problems in the Atlantic after cell phone video went viral of a school resource officer flinging a student to the floor and across a classroom. As Burghart also found, data on certain aspects of policing is lacking. They write:

The limited studies that exist are often inconsistent with each other. As with other aspects of policing, more and better data is essential to making informed policy decisions. This includes data about police violence in school settings; the fact that no one knows how often police are using force against children should not just be alarming, it should be horrifying.

While one of those killed in the Colorado Springs shootings was a police officer, Stoughton (himself a former police officer) produced FBI data weeks ago that show assaults on police officers dropped sharply in 2014. Responding earlier this year to the Tamir Rice shooting, Stoughton wrote:

Why do most officers, charged with serving and protecting their communities, persist in asking whether a use of force was justified rather than necessary? I put a great deal of blame on the expansive “warrior mindset” that has become so highly esteemed in the law enforcement community. To protect themselves, to even survive, officers are taught to be ever-vigilant. Enemies abound, and the job of the Warrior is to fight and vanquish those enemies.

That’s not the right attitude for police. Our officers should be, must be, guardians, not warriors. The goal of the Guardian isn’t to defeat an enemy, it is to protect the community to the extent possible, including the community member that is resisting the officer’s attempt to arrest them. For the guardian, the use of avoidable violence is a failure, even if it satisfies the legal standard.

As I wrote here in April,

We are expected to treat police officers as public servants and heroes willing to lay down their lives to protect us. So it baffles me how, as Stoughton writes, "would-be officers are told that their primary objective is to go home at the end of every shift." What is heroic about that? About sacrificing others before you would sacrifice yourself? What is heroic about shooting unarmed suspects in the back or choking them to death for selling loose cigarettes? Stoughton rightly blames the training, and offers suggestions on training Guardian Officers rather than Police Warriors. But beyond that, there is a culture growing within law enforcement, the military, and the intelligence community that, post-September 11, increasingly views the public they are meant to serve as "enemy forces" to be dealt with. Somewhere, Osama bin Laden must be smiling.

Police are the ones supposedly trained to respond coolly and professionally in charged situations. In another context, police shootings would be receiving more study and harsh scrutiny, scrutiny to which law enforcement seems immune. In another context — publicly funded schools, perhaps — lawmakers would point to under-performance as indicative of systemic training failures, blame the teachers and their unions, and call for yanking funding from institutions that fail to meet standards. But police are privileged. Politicians do not blame police failures on predominantly white precinct "culture." They do not call for "No Cop Left Behind" programs and threaten to pull funding for police academies that fail to perform to the highest standards. We don't threaten to privatize police departments, a la Robocop. Yet.

The title for this video of British police speaks volumes about how police are viewed in this country. One would think that would be cause for reforming the training and less blue wall of silence: