Blood On The Streets

So, here we are again. Last night here in Dallas someone ambushed police officers who were providing security at a peaceful demonstration, killing five and wounding seven more.

This is a predictable reaction to repeated instances of police killing black men on what, at best, seems to often be the flimsiest of pretexts. It was inevitable that, at some point, some black people would decide to hit back. Predictable, but unfortunate. Shooting random police officers is definitely counter-productive if you want to try and reduce the violence in America’s cities.

The news media is full now of stories with the traditional ‘who, what, where, and how.’ Who shot who with what and when. The hard question, though, the question that must be asked if we want to break this cycle of violence, is ‘why.’ As with any seemingly senseless act of violence, you can’t prevent future acts if you don’t understand why they’re happening.

Let us be clear that the problem starts with policing. Not the police necessarily, the individual men and women wearing the uniform. I’m certainly not saying that the officers shot last night had it coming, or anything like that. I mean the institution of policing in the United States, how we do it, and what it’s for.

There are basically ways of looking at policing. First, policing can be about protecting the people in the area being policed, preventing crime, making those people’s lives safer and better. This is what policing is in many countries, and what we say it is here in the US–‘Protect and Serve’–but in many communities it really isn’t. It’s the other kind of policing: Police as an occupying force, which sees the people being policed not as a group to be protected, but as a group that other people must be protected from.

This is a huge difference in attitude, and it touches on every interaction between police and policed. And, unfortunately, for a variety of reasons going back decades, most of the people in the areas most conspicuously ‘occupied’ (vs. ‘protected’) have dark skin. Dark skin thus becomes a marker, an indicator that that person is a ‘them,’ one of the people who is not to be protected, but protected against. The cop on the street is likely to see a white person with a gun as an ‘us.’ Probably not a threat, and maybe even a potential ally (especially if the white person is well-dressed, driving a nice car or truck, or shows other signs of the proper tribal allegiance). A white concealed handgun license holder who is pulled over in a traffic stop is much more likely to be let off with a warning than to find himself face-down on the pavement with guns pointed at him.

A black person with a gun, though, is very likely to be classed on sight as a ‘them,’ an outsider, a threat. If the black person also doesn’t show the ‘proper’ middle class symbols in terms of clothes, car, and speech, that likelihood goes way up. A white person with a gun might be seen as a possible ally, but a black person with a gun will almost certainly be seen as an immediate threat, and treated accordingly. Recent shootings by police have highlighted this dramatically.

The black person, of course, knows all this, and knows how police have treated black people for, well, as long as there have been police in this country. He or she is also going to be nervous and fearful. Both sides, then, are coming into the encounter with fear and mistrust of the other. It doesn’t take much to escalate such a situation to violence.

This article is an excellent look at the problem of racism within police forces. The problem isn’t that all police are out to immediately shoot all minorities they encounter. The problem is that they are much more likely to treat a minority person as a threat, an other, and that they are likely to get away with mistreating that person. The presumption is that any minority person killed or injured by the police had it coming somehow. White America, protected and served by its police, sees them as heroes who wouldn’t hurt anyone without a really good reason. Occupied, brown, America, sees it differently.

As Hudson says in the above-linked article, the problem is institutional. He says that about 15% of police will always do the right thing, about 15% will abuse their authority whenever possible, and about 70% will go along with the environment they find themselves in. We can quibble over the exact proportions, but I see little to argue with in the general idea. Some cops are good, some are bad, and most are just people trying to get through a crappy day at work, like everyone else.

A good system could handle that, weed out the bad officers and encourage the good ones. Unfortunately, the system we have, the us-vs-them mentality of many police departments, protects the abusive cops. Police departments are tasked with policing themselves, and almost always find that they did nothing wrong. Even if the cops really did behave properly (not every shooting is a bad shooting), the questionable impartiality of the oversight process makes it hard for outsiders to trust it.

In short, then, the problem seems to be an ‘occupying force’ mentality that permeates many police departments, at least regarding certain areas of their city, which creates an atmosphere of racism, fear, and hostility. (You could argue that the racism came first, and I wouldn’t disagree.) Poor oversight, and a general attitude that the police are usually, if not always, in the right keeps bad cops from being punished, for the most part, which leads naturally to incredible frustration on the part of the people in Occupied America, who feel that the rest of the country doesn’t care what happens to them. (There is, unfortunately, some truth to this. White America doesn’t care about violence as long as it stays in ‘those’ neighborhoods. Only when white people in ‘good’ parts of town are killed do people get upset and start demanding that Something Be Done.) This leads to the sort of thing we had in Dallas last night, which will lead to even more fear and violence from the police, and so on.

Now that we have, I hope, some insight into the root of the problem, what can we do about it?

The obvious long-term solution is to fix the poverty and crime that keeps Occupied America occupied. That’s a difficult problem, though (particularly since White America doesn’t want those people in the workforce, competing for a piece of an ever-shrinking economic pie, but that’s another topic) and outside the scope of this particular essay.

In the more immediate term, we need some sort of impartial body–a group that can be seen as impartial–to investigate complaints against the police. I see this as an absolutely critical step. I think that people could handle a police officer being cleared of wrongdoing in a questionable shooting if the body that clears him is seen as trustworthy. Each state should set up its own review commission, with any current or former law enforcement officers barred from serving on it. The UK’s Independent Police Complaints Commission would make a good model.

An impartial review process, besides its primary goal of ensuring fair treatment by the police, would also be more fair for the police. It is unreasonable to expect them to impartially oversee themselves.

In addition to independent oversight, police departments themselves need an overhaul. The attitude that they are an occupying force there to contain certain neighborhoods, and protect the surrounding areas from those people, must be weeded out. The idea must be impressed on the police that they are there to protect and serve everyone.

Doing that will take time and money. The average police officer in the United States receives about 19 weeks of training. Police officers in Germany receive at least 130 weeks of training. That is a huge investment of time, effort, and money in each police officer, but it pays off for the Germans. The police there are highly trusted, even by minorities. They also shoot people at about only 1% the rate that US policemen do.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to take those new, highly trained, more thoughtful and understanding, police and throw them in dribs and drabs into the existing police culture. They would quickly be overwhelmed, absorbed into the prevailing culture or quitting in disgust. This is where it gets hard. While this new generation of police officers is being trained we must work on breaking up the culture of the existing departments, weeding out the bad officers and encouraging a less confrontational style of policing. It would probably be worthwhile to send some current officers through the new training process. (Or at least an abbreviated version.) This could be the first task of the new police oversight commissions; sifting through the officers’ records and recommending terminations, promotions, demotions, and retraining.

Even with that, it would probably be best to clump the new officers together as much as possible, to build a new culture. Reassign officers in existing precincts to free up space so that the new officers make up a majority in that neighborhood. We could even take the radical step of recruiting promising high school kids from occupied neighborhoods and on graduation sending them to a police academy and then back to serve and protect their old neighborhood. Who better to understand and help the people there? It might be necessary in some cases to completely disband a department and rebuild it from the ground up.

All of this, of course, would be met with absolutely ferocious resistance from the police. It would also cost a lot of money, and getting the new generation of highly trained police into the field would take years. (It would probably take years just to set up the training process, much less complete more than two years of training.) The oversight commissions, at least, would provide relatively immediate relief, if they could be created in the face of police resistance.

If we really want things to change, though, that’s what it’s going to take.

The question is, do we want things to change?

Know When To Fold ‘Em

The people whining about Obama using diplomacy instead of military force to face down Russia over the Ukraine don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. From Truman on down no US President has dared take on Russia directly. The US only threatens smaller countries, that can’t really hurt us. It’s only practical. When North Korea invaded South Korea 1950, we were all over that. The same in Vietnam, 15 years later. When Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in 1948 and Hungary in 1956 and Afghanistan in 1978, we didn’t do shit.

Russia can fight back, on approximately equal terms. We aren’t going to do squat about anything they decide to do along their own borders, no matter who’s president.

Ban ‘Em

23 killed, 109 injured in a knife attack. It’s a good thing this can’t have happened, because only guns can kill that many people. It would be terrible if that many people had really been killed and injured.

Bank Pays Justice Department To Ignore Crimes

The US Justice Department has accepted a $1.9 Billion bribe to ignore HSBC’s money laundering.

At least they’re high-priced whores.

What’s With The Weird?

Marc Champion over at Bloomberg thinks it’s weird that police in Iceland feel bad about having to shoot someone for the first time, ever.

Are we supposed to celebrate when the police shoot someone? Are the police supposed to celebrate? A peaceful society where the police don’t have to go around shooting people all the time might be unusual, but weird? Really?

By the way, the reason Iceland’s police hardly ever have to shoot anyone is because Iceland’s people don’t commit many violent crimes. Less violence in the population, less violence from the police. Simple.

Why is the population less violent compared to, say, the United States? Iceland is socially and racially homogenous, with no real drug or gang problem. Most of the violent crime in the US is gang-related. No gangs, no violent crime, no police shootings. No mystery to it.

Good Work, Schools

As hilarious as it is predictable. School anti-bullying videos turn out to be instructional videos in how to bully.

Who Pays The Price?

Bruce Schneier, as usual, makes some good points, but I wanted to expand on one thing he says.

The people who make the decisions on whether or not to implement some new security law or policy only benefit; they never suffer from the side effects. The police chief isn’t going to have a SWAT team show up at his house. The President isn’t going to be frisked and strip-searched at the airport. They get the political benefit of looking tough on crime/terrorism/drugs/whatever, we pay the price out of our time, dignity, and sometimes our lives.

Down Syria Way

A good overview of what’s about to happen in Syria.

I’m really not sure what our leaders hope to gain from a war there. There aren’t any resources to speak of in Syria itself, so the only logical reason would be to break up one of the regional powers. But politics isn’t always logical.

Democracy Overrated?

Interesting article on the BBC about the necessity of democracy.

I, for the most part, agree; democracy can be useful, but it is not necessary for freedom or civil liberties. What if, for example, in a democracy the majority of the voters support ‘ethnic cleansing’ of a minority? What if the major political parties agree on how they’re going to screw-over the populace and only confine their ‘opposition’ to areas that don’t really matter? What if a ‘democratic’ government decides to keep secret from the people what it’s doing in their name? How much good is your democracy then?

Good government is more important than the particular form of that government.

Independence Day

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.