e_moon60 (e_moon60) wrote,

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Police Behavior & Response to Criticism

In the aftermath of several police killings of black men in questionable circumstances, the overreaction to peaceful protests against same (in Baton Rouge and other localities) and the subsequent widespread public criticism (including on social media), and the shooting of several police officers in Dallas after a peaceful demonstration,  many police departments have begun arresting people who post anti-police comments on social media.  Others (including a NYC police commissioner) have called for "dialling down the rhetoric" of criticism of police.  These are tactics that will not succeed in lowering the tension between police and those who criticize them (black OR white) and will instead make an already bad situation worse.  Here's why.
Police misconduct antagonizes not merely those directly harmed, but other citizens as well.  When police act like gangs of thugs, when they act dishonestly, when they hurt and kill innocent people, when they are not protecting, not serving, but harming citizens--and particularly when they then position themselves as victimized innocents and make excuses--they create the very antagonism they are now complaining about.   When they then attack those who are critical of their misconduct, they harden the attitude of citizens who see--not protectors at all--but predators out of control. 

I am not saying citizens should kill police or threaten the families of police.  But I am saying that what police have been doing, the face they are showing to us, citizens, is harmful not only to us, but to them.   Things are bad enough now that citizens alone--those who want peace (and protection from predators)  cannot accomplish the needed changes themselves.   Nor can police just vaguely admit to "a few bad apples"  and think that covers the rest of them with glory.  The rhetoric that needs to be "dialled down" is the rhetoric of police, the persecution by police of racial minorities, protestors, and activists who are exercising their legal, Constitutionally guaranteed right to disagree, to protest bad behavior, and to criticize, the many excuses made for bad, harmful policing. 

I am opposed to violence against police officers for two reasons.  First, killing people (including police) is wrong.   Not just illegal (bad laws can make good things illegal, as some cities have made feeding the hungry illegal) but morally wrong.  But the second reason is this:  intentionally harming police officers only reinforces their paranoia and gives them the excuse to claim that they are the victims.  They already have highly emotional ceremonies celebrating the deaths of their fellows who are killed "in the line of duty," with pomp and circumstance and dramatic speeches about their "ultimate sacrifice" and their "putting their lives on the line."   These ceremonies, which are always featured on the media, intensify and perpetuate their sense of being special, braver and better than anyone else, and also saintly victims.   Anything non-police do that increases this attitude is harmful.

Police need to realize that they now look like (in those black riot outfits, with their big armored vehicles and assault rifles and grenade launchers) like enemy troops, not the hometown policeman that many people my age grew up with.   They look scary, mean, unreasonable, unapproachable.  When they use foul language, threaten and posture and declare they have a right to "blow you away"--when they break down doors (too often of the wrong house), shoot the family pet,  throw a flash-bang grenade into a baby's crib (and then refuse to acknowledge their resposibilty for the baby's life-changing injuries), scream at people, throw them on the ground and punch and kick them, shoot without warning and after someone is down,  lie (until a videotape proves it) about a citizen attacking them,  sexually assault those in custody (and lie about that)...it is no wonder that many people who have not even been arrested see them as little more than thugs in a protection racket.  Of course they're not all like that (just like not all Christians hate gays, not all Muslims are terrorists, not all black men are criminals) but enough are--enough data are out there, to make the "friendly policeman on the corner" a very distant memory, almost a ghost.

Until police can see themselves as they are seen--until they can realize, admit, and hold themselves accountable for the harm they have done, and understand that this image of hulking enemy soldiers in black eager to beat up on and kill citizens will never accomplish what they claim to want--a better relationship with those they protect and serve--the situation cannot really improve.

There are two ways to accomplish this.  In some jurisdictions, police chiefs have changed their policies to emphasize peace-keeping, de-escalation rather than violent intervention, and have recruited officers who want to do community policing, want to work with a community, and be part of it, rather than glory-hounds who hope to star on a new COPS episode.  Police academies could do a much better job training officers in human-scale policing, in understanding that "protect and serve" does not mean "protect and serve people on the right side of the tracks" but *everyone*.  All races, all religions, all social and economic classes, all kinds of family.   That a missing black girl is as important as a missing white girl.   That the murder of a trans woman is the same--legally and in importance--as the murder of a straight white man.  That "takedowns" and door-bashing are not the high end of police work.  The high end is regaining trust from those who have been most mistreated, so that they will do their part in making the community safer for all.

But if police will not step up and clean their own dirty linen--get the bad apples out of policing permanently,  not let new bad apples in, hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior--then it will be necessary to change laws (and I think it will take both, to get it done in what's left of my lifetime.)    At the state and federal level, laws need to be changed to a) demilitarize the police--remove from them military equipment that should not be used in domestic policing.  Having such equipment is like having a gun--it tempts the owner to find a use for it (to justify having it.)   Moreover, it tempts police to think of themselves in a war setting--as soldiers with an enemy--rather than as police with citizens to protect.  And this very attitude creates a corresponding attitude of resentment and fear, rather than healthy respect, further polarizing the community.   SWAT teams, originally organized for very specific unusual situations, became a kind of status symbol for departments, and then (since they were rarely needed) new uses for them were thought up that had previously been handled perfectly well by ordinary police (or for that matter process servers.)  And they have become more aggressive, more eager to use violent means before attempting de-escalation in too many cases.

Laws--not local policy--should set standards for the use of lethal force, what constitutes police misconduct and unnecessary violence--and should require evidence other than an officer's word that the officer was justified in using it.   Right now many state laws protect police from the consequences of misconduct--are more lenient in how police behavior is judged than in how non-police behavior is judged.  (E.g. if an officer claims to have been in fear of his life lethal force may be justified--even if the person he killed was unarmed, in a wheelchair, a child, or merely opened the door at police demand.  But the same is not true of a woman in fear of her life from a battering husband or boyfriend: the burden of proof is higher for her.)   That needs to change; police officers should not be able to claim a lethal threat where non existed.  Laws should require independent investigation of all cases of police-involved shootings, with the local department barred from collecting evidence or interviewing witnesses (since it's clear that evidence can be tampered with by those with an interest in the case.)    Laws should set forth requirements for providing medical care for anyone injured by police (including those shot.  Leaving someone twitching in the street and not calling an ambulance is visible, obvious intent to be sure they're dead.  Very bad public appearance.

Since the police have shown extreme resistance to transparency (don't want to be filmed, don't want to be watched, inevitably claim that "the video doesn't show the whole story") while at the same time public recording has proven repeated dishonesty in reporting and bad behavior, the law should require police on duty should be officially observed (dashcams, bodycams)  and all such records should be made public.  I've heard police say that "you don't have anything to fear from surveillance if you're not guilty"...well, that should apply to police as well.   Failure of a dash-cam or body-cam should be treated in the same way as a criminal spraying paint on a store's security cam or breaking it, creating suspicion of guilt.   Confiscating or destroying a citizen's recording equipment, be it audio recorder, cellphone camera, other camera, etc.  should be illegal and punishable.  Arresting citizens for watching and recording police behavior is wrong--their right to do so has been upheld by the Supreme Court.   Does this make policing harder?  It makes bad policing harder.  It should not have any effect on good policing, the kind of policing that builds trust and cooperation in a community.

Power is a temptation.  Privilege is a temptation.  Police are given both power and privilege...and thus are tempted to abuse them both.  Some do--and will--abuse them both.   Abuse of police power and privilege does great harm (to the citizens first, but then to the police by backlash against them.)  Thus police need more watching so that abuse can be stopped in its tracks and punished if it's bad enough.  That is only fair.  And it is what we, the citizens, deserve: fair, impartial, knowledgeable, competent, fully adult peace officers who really are committed to serving and protecting entire communities: every race, every religion, every one.  If the police will not do it themselves, then it is up to us, as citizens, to be the guardians of the guardians, the watchdogs of the watchdogs.  And as a good shepherd will not tolerate a sheepdog who harms some of his sheep, citizens should not tolerate bad policing even if we are not the sheep who are bleeding or dead.

Tags: justice, police, politics, reform
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