Tag Archives: police

Good For Us, Good For Them

Here’s a question for you. If a gun is bad for civilians to have, is it also bad for the police to have?

That’s not just a case of sour grapes, of, “Well, if I can’t have them, they can’t either, so there!” We have a real problem in this country with police shootings. In all of 2011, German police fired 85 shots in encounters with other people. (Some thousands more were fired in putting down dangerous or sick animals.) Of those 85 shots fired, 49 were warning shots.

Let me say that again. All of the police, in the entire country of Germany, in the year 2011 fired 36 shots at human beings. Of those, 21 shots hit their targets.

In the United States, a single policeman can easily exceed the lead output of all Germany’s cops in a single shooting.

There’s the case of a Garland, TX police officer who rammed his car into a suspect’s truck, got out, and fired 41 shots into the side of the truck, reloading at least twice in the process.

He seems to have at least hit the truck with most of the shots.

Los Angeles police unloaded 90 rounds on some guy who they say took a “shooting stance.” I haven’t been able to find how many of those shots actually hit their target (vs. how many were sprayed at large around the countryside), but I can guarantee you it wasn’t 90.

New York police went on a shooting spree, firing 16 shots at a murder suspect who aimed a gun at them. Which is fine, except that with those 16 shots they managed to wound nine innocent bystanders. Oopsie!

Florida police fired 110 shots at one suspect, hitting him 68 times.

I could go on and on. Police in the US fire what seems like an excessive number of shots in so many encounters that they had to make up a term for it: Contagious Shooting Basically, when one person starts shooting, everyone wants to get in on the act.

In at least most of these shootings (and most police shootings in general), the cops are justified in using deadly force. I’m not saying that none of the people should have been shot, or that the police are always in the wrong. I want to be very clear about that. There are decent cops out there doing the best they can, and most of the time when the police shoot someone, well, I probably would have shot them too if I’d been in the cop’s position. I can’t fault someone for that.

But sometimes they get carried away, use excessive force, and endanger bystanders. And sometimes they’re completely unjustified. They shoot people for no good reason, then try to cover it up. They shoot people for being the wrong color or threatening corporate profit margins.

And they always shoot the dog.

And, of course, they almost always get away with it. Police departments conduct their own investigations, without public oversight, and it is very, very rare that they find that one of their own did something wrong, no matter how egregious the case may seem. The story above, about the Garland, TX cop who shot the unarmed motorist 41 times? (Well, shot at him 41 times; he obviously missed a lot, looking at the picture of the truck, but he hit the guy enough times to kill the hell out of him.) He’s on ‘restricted duty’ while the department ‘investigates.’ Four months later, there is no word about the outcome of their investigation, but he still seems to be collecting his $64,465/year paycheck

Here’s a prediction: If you were to walk up to someone who had irritated you in traffic, pull out a gun, empty the magazine into the side of their car, reload, empty that magazine, reload again, and fire several more bullets, killing the offending motorist, there is an excellent chance that you would be arrested. A police officer might be fired, but probably not.

What I’m getting at with all of this is that I think the police should be restricted to using the same weapons as the rest of us. The Saigon police at the height of the Vietnam war carried .38 caliber revolvers. There is no reason for police officers to be as heavily armed, or more, than a Marine in a firebase in Afghanistan. If, as so many people tell us, ‘assault weapons’ are weapons only good for killing as many people as possible in a short period of time, why do those same people want the police to have them?

With that in mind, I have sent my legislators the following legislation. All it does is restrict the police to using the same weapons that are legally available to the residents of their jurisdiction, and provides for (significant) penalties if they violate it. I’m serious about this. Read it, and if you think it’s a good idea, contact your Representative or Senators and tell them.

To ensure that law enforcement agencies represent the standards of the communities that they serve, no agency whose representatives, agents, employees, or contractors carry weapons shall use, issue, or carry any weapon category, type, brand, model, caliber, or capacity, or any ammunition, accessories, or attachments for such weapons, that are not legal or available for the common citizens of that jurisdiction. State and local law enforcement agencies must comply with the restrictions applicable to the residents of their state or municipality, Federal agencies must comply with the relevant Federal laws. Officers of a State agency operating in a municipality with stricter availability laws will still only be restricted by the relevant State laws. Likewise Federal officers operating in a State or municipality with stricter availability laws shall only be restricted by any relevant Federal, nationwide, restrictions.

This law shall apply to all government agencies excepting only the military branches (U.S. Army, Marine Corps, National Guard, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard).

Any resident of an agency’s jurisdiction may bring suit against an agency which is in violation of this law. Each proven violation shall result in a fine of $1000 per resident of that jurisdiction levied on the agency, payable directly to each resident.

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?