Not On the Road Again: Missing the Run to La Peñita

Having grown up in Southern California, the Pacific coast of Mexico has a familiar comfort for me – and it’s warm in the winter. You can actually get out in the surf in January in La Peñita, a small fishing village of about 20,000 people halfway between Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta. I spent the summer of my junior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara traveling throughout Mexico – by VW van or course. I lived with a family in Guadalajara for two months that summer. In those eight weeks, I learned far more Spanish than in all the classes I’d taken at the university. That is when I first could really speak Spanish. I’ve been re-learning it ever since.

Traveling can provide a perspective not otherwise easily obtained. Of course, if you go from one major hotel-chain location to another, or stay in one “all-inclusive” resort, it would be like stopping at a different Burger King joint in any city in the U.S. – the anti-quality of sameness.

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Overlooking La Peñita

That is one of the reasons we chose La Peñita. It is a real Mexican town, even though quite a few Canadians spend the Winter there. Another is that it’s a small fishing village. We had fresh garlic and herb Dorado that Cynde baked for dinner our second night there on our last trip – caught that morning, bought in the afternoon, cooked in the evening – not shipped from anywhere, not “previously frozen” at Whole Foods, not processed in any way other than being cleaned and filleted, once carried from the boat to the Tienda de Pescado. Mmmmm!

Sometimes, in the midst of life in the swirl of the growing dangers of the climate crisis and post-electoral madness of Trumplandia, a little change in perspective can do wonders, just like a fresh-caught fish dinner. The drive down through Juarez, Chihuahua, Torreón, and Durango, with a slight detour to Mazatlan, was itself an education, each time we’ve made it. So many welcoming and friendly people. Same urban dirt and dense traffic in these cities as you will find in any medium to large city in the world.

But I wonder whether the Mexican violence meme may be overstated. I must look up the comparative crime rates with, say, Albuquerque, which reputedly had the greatest rate of citizens killed by police in the U.S. one recent year, before the Justice Department put the ABQ police department in receivership. The non-stop evening news stories of shootings, drunk driving crashes, domestic violence, and drug arrests reflect a certain U.S. social disorder.

My best perspective on Mexico so far, I obtained by engaging with regular folks in the stores and streets of that little town, La Penita, getting the lay of the land and feeling the pace of life. I will miss the long weeks hanging out there this year; medical issues always seem to complicate life.

Drone Cop. Part I: Destroying Citizenship by Dehumanizing Police

Remember “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven’s landmark sci-fi thriller movie? A future monolithic corporation controls a crime-infested Detroit. It transforms a dead police officer into a cybernetic law-enforcement “unit” called RoboCop. The cyborg hero devastates urban criminality, and soon the streets are safe.[1] RoboCop is little more than an cybernetic enforcement drone; the remains of his humanity is an open question.

Well, science fiction, warts and all, sometimes gives us as good an eye on the present as on the future, even though its plot and characters may be weak or its tone juvenile. Such stories often point to the problems of the present in the guise of a technically advanced future. “Robocop” is something more than human, but he is also dehumanized by his cyber-mechanization. His modus operandi is always overpowering force of violence – a high-tech old west “shoot first and ask questions later” modality. However, in the real world cops are people too.

The death of Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster, after being shot in a routine traffic stop, occurred in the context of widespread public criticism of the excessive use of force and high rate of killings by Albuquerque police in the previous decade. The Department seemed in seriously dysfunctional when a Justice Department investigation led to specific requirements for reform. Yet, the community energetically rallied around Officer Webster and his family while he lay struggling to live.

Community support grew even stronger when Officer Webster died a few days after the shooting. People came forward and lauded him as a true hero, a “guardian angel” who had gone above and beyond the official duties of his job whenever he had the opportunity to help people in need. Officer Webster, a combat veteran, evidently was widely recognized for being a true peace officer. The growing trend toward drone cops, completely isolated from the people, is the exact opposite. Officer Webster seemed an exception to the emerging rule in policing.

Today, drone bombings and missile attacks on human “targets” abroad have proliferated on the presumption that “suspicious activity” may involve terrorists in Yemen, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. The adaptation of that mental model of operating in “conflict zones” to police practices by civilian “law enforcement” is well underway, although fundamentally flawed. At the same time, presidential “hit lists” must give us pause, even if the targets are overseas. In so-called “targeted killing,” – a term that conjures images of precision, likely unjustified – pretty much everyone near the target is defined as “the enemy” unless proven otherwise. So called “collateral damage” is widespread, though under-reported via re-definition. Children in Yemen are called “terrorists in training” by drone operators at their stations back in Nevada.

At what point in the militarization of domestic law enforcement do neighborhoods become “combat zones,” and to what extent, does enforcement take the place of law? And what is the result? What is the effect of local police in the U.S. adopting the combat model of operations? Clearly, it is already happening in various jurisdictions around the “homeland.”[2] We’ve seen some of the result already. The destruction of small villages in Yemen, killing innocent civilians, is analogous to the excessive use of force and indiscriminate shooting of civilians on city streets across the “homeland.”

As dangerous as drones over our cities and towns may become for aviation, no less to civil liberties and human rights, an even more dangerous “dronification” is happening to police officers themselves. They are being turned into Drone Cops. To understand what a drone cop is, consider the contrast with the traditional concept of law enforcement and the role of peace officer in communities. Traditional peace officers were members of their community tasked with assuring the safety and security of the citizenry. They knew their neighbors.

What distinguishes a drone from a manned aircraft? It is the pilot of course. Yes, on-the-ground operators do “pilot” the drones. The technology of “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) allows for two possible tasks: surveillance and targeted killing. Perhaps inadvertently, they sometimes bomb wedding parties and other innocent gatherings. This may be due to “faulty intelligence” (weak electronic information compounded by cavalier attitudes about who may be defined as an “enemy”). But it is also caused by a blurring of definitions of “enemy” vs. “civilian.” A similar blurring results as police are dehumanized and become Drone Cops, who also have come to have just two tasks: surveillance and targeting for violence too often involving killing.

The idea, for example, that any Afghan male who seems to be of an age suitable for military service is to be predefined as a “terrorist” unless subsequent to his death he is proven otherwise, is beyond Kafka in its absurdity. But it is convenient for the trigger-happy commanding officer “managing” an ad hoc conflict zone in a non-war. A similar mindset seems increasingly prevalent in urban law enforcement circles. Young men of color are routinely pre-defined as criminal without regard to circumstance or behavior. They become dehumanized “enemies.”

The death toll for civilians in the conflict zones that has been created by the questionably named “War on Terror,” keeps rising without consequence for the presidentially sanctioned killers. Some who found their own dehumanization to be intolerable have become whistle-blowers.[3] Unverified distant technical means, such as a cell phone being near a location, are used to target persons on a “kill list.” The illegality of extra-judicial assassination aside, the essence of the exercise is its indiscriminate practice of terrorizing citizens of other nations. The meaning of terror is heightened by drone strikes in far away places. What can be more terrifying than a drone attack on your village? The culture of unending war produces terrorist enemies by its own terrorist practices. Terror is also a product of the unending “war on drugs” by Drone Cops, which ultimately becomes a war on vulnerable people.
Part II of this essay will address the replacement of the human decision-maker in law enforcement with the application of technology to control populations.
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[1] Netflix description accessed at: http://dvd.netflix.com/Search?v1=RoboCop&oq=roboc&ac_posn=1
[2] A strange term, “homeland.” It is akin to the terms “fatherland” and “motherland,” which connote nationalistic ideologies, usually asserted by empires. It is interesting to note that the term came into use in the United States largely in response to the attacks of 9/11, which were the first major successful retaliatory actions by deranged Middle East adversaries who identify U.S. military presence, occupations, and actions as a threat to their societies. The blurring of the distinction between foreign combat zones and “the homeland” by the 9/11 attacks seems to have brought the term to use as attempts were made to reorganize security within the nation along the lines of military security at the edges of empire. The implications of all this for domestic law enforcement include the ease with which municipal police departments have become militarized, both in equipment and in attitudes toward the public, both of which foster an image of the public as potential “enemy combatants” and blur any distinction between citizen and criminal.
[3] Four drone-war whistle blowers told their stories of personal dehumanization and indiscriminate killing-at-a-distance on Democracy Now!, November 20, 2015. Accessed at: http://www.democracynow.org/2015/11/20/exclusive_air_force_whistleblowers_risk_prosecution

The Incredible Darkness of Being…a Cop: Warrior or Peacemaker in a Dangerous World. Part III

Note: A condensed version of Part III of this series was published
in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Sunday, April 13, 2014.

It is hard to imagine, after watching the police video footage of the shooting to death of a mentally ill homeless man, James Boyd, by Albuquerque police on March 16, 2014, how that group of officers might have been trained, if at all. It seems that threatening and using violence were the only two skills they possessed. The growing paramilitary police culture would appear to dominate Albuquerque police training, behavior and leadership.

The fear among those officers was palpable – but fear of what? At least a half-dozen heavily armed, equipment laden officers confronted a disoriented man with a knife. Aggression is often a product of fear. Mr. Boyd clearly was mentally disturbed and irrational. Both he and the officers appeared confused and fearful. The officers seemed to act out some ritual of domination rather than seeking a peaceful solution to an at most marginally threatening situation. Their video reminded me of the ‘wilding’ children in Golding’s iconic novel, Lord of the Flies, pursuing “Piggy,” the victim of their bullying, who feared the “liberation into savagery” that the concealing paint on the faces of the brutal ‘tribe’ had created. I suspect that the concealing garb of today’s “warrior cops” performs a similar function. It is no secret that the gangs of Los Angeles consider the LAPD as just another rival gang. The parable of violence against civilized intentions applies equally to the conundrum of law enforcement in the U.S. today.

Increasingly externalized technological surveillance-control over civil society pervades the paramilitary trend in law enforcement that pits the “warrior cop” against an imagined enemy population. This is disturbingly analogous to the situation that U.S. armed forces have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, where “the enemy” and civilians are indistinguishable. That always results from invading a country where ‘insurgents’ then resist occupation. Many police departments in the U.S. already frame the police-citizenry relationship as warrior-cop versus the citizen-as-enemy. The Santa Fe New Mexican editorial on March 26, 2014, got it exactly right. There should be no place for paramilitary police forces in our cities. How many of today’s police recruits are battle-scarred veterans of the traumatizing ambiguities fighting among occupied populations?  Why should failed wars of choice be a model for domestic police?

A peace officer is not a war fighter. Yet SWAT teams flourish in cities, towns, and even college campuses. They are excessively and inappropriately deployed. Over the past several decades, especially since Nixon initiated the “drug war,” the role of peace officer and its inherent civil function – keeping the peace – have steadily declined as the fantasy role of the “warrior cop” has replaced them in “law enforcement.” The infusion of funds and military equipment as rewards for petty drug arrests has crippled the peace-keeping function by corrupting police culture with militaristic ideas of combat mission and entrepreneurial drug-war profiteering – not coincidentally swelling the profits of the privatized prison industry. We have become Incarceration Nation at war with ourselves for corporate profit.

Any sane solution to institutionalized rogue police violence needs to be grounded in a serious reflection on what we can reasonably expect and ought to demand from our police officers and institutions. Clearly, we must raise our standards for both professional preparation and professional performance way above their present low levels. The APD leadership is in major denial in this regard. I have long believed that the only viable approach to the difficult position of police in society is to select candidates with extremely careful vetting, select only those with the highest personal ethics and history, require very high educational standards and provide extremely rigorous training, and once accepted offer high pay commensurate with the nature of the work and its requirements, then demand the highest standards of performance. In such a system, I suspect that many current officers would not come close to cutting it.

Effectively keeping the peace requires far more training than is provided the indiscriminately accepted recruits in New Mexico – and elsewhere. The absurdly blatant ‘citizen-as-enemy’ slant of the recently revised State Academy curriculum – shaped by one man’s twisted vision of “evil out there” – only exacerbates the problem by instilling more fear of the citizenry in unprepared officers sworn to “protect and defend” the people. Education is absent, training wholly inadequate. Peace officers should have college degrees in the social sciences, criminology, and law, and be paid accordingly. They should have years of training in a martial art such as Aikido, the Japanese martial art devoted to redirecting an assailant’s aggressive action, subduing, and disarming him/her without injury. Any officer with such skills could have subdued and disarmed James Boyd without causing anyone’s injury or death. But that would require very high standards of discipline, education, training, and compassion as strict qualifications for admission to a peace-officer profession. Such is not the case in a state and nation obsessed with violent “solutions” to all problems and with little sense of the central place of compassion in a civilized nation.

The Incredible Darkness of Being…a Cop: Warrior or Peacemaker in a Dangerous World. Part II

We Americans have a strange schizoid view of public service. A dedicated Santa Fe school teacher finally quit recently, because he had a family to support and he could make much more clerking at Trader Joe’s with better and cheaper health insurance, working much fewer hours and not having to take his work home every night. Are we willing to pay teachers for their hard work? Mostly not. Same goes for police. We are not willing to pay for proper training – in fact we don’t really grasp the extent to which police training often is totally inadequate – then we expect officers to perform heroically and don’t understand when we discover a police culture of corruption and excessive violence, racism, and disrespect for the ordinary citizens (us) they are sworn to “serve and protect.” Failure to respect public servants breeds their disrespect of citizens. Shall we ‘privatize’ police like we have prisons? Well, you see where that led – to more incentives for abuse, bogus arrests, and regressive policies. If we don’t value police, teachers, and other public servants, why do we expect what we are not willing to pay for?

If the viral video of the Albuquerque police shooting death of James Boyd tells us anything it is that we have lost all credible control of the role of “law enforcement” as a public institution in service to the citizenry. The “authorities” are now buzzing around about improved training curriculum and the department is bringing a retired commander back to oversee vague “reforms.” Give me a break. What the APD does not need is another insider who, one must assume, is part and parcel of the police culture that failed us.

After a three-year investigation, the Department of Justice released its report on April 10, 2014, which found routine excessive use of deadly force and unjustified use of “non-lethal” weapons where situations could have been de-escalated. Too often situations were allowed to escalate to the point where SWAT teams were overused and crisis intervention teams were underused. Every questionable shooting was deemed “justified” by the district attorney. Command personnel condoned all manner of behavior, leaving the impression among poorly trained officers that anything goes.  Bureaucratic corruption seems to have trumped basic human values.

Any real reform of a broken system requires sweeping changes in command personnel to break corrupt lines of authority by changing expectations, which means bringing in nationally recognized authoritative professionals who are then given the power to completely overhaul the system. But such a vision is not observable in either the Albuquerque mayor or city council statements about their “solutions.” A distinctly “band-aid” approach seems to dominate. Why? When an institution has failed, its members have been living in an institutional culture that fully rationalizes the practices that have led to failure. They don’t necessarily recognize the pathology of ‘business as usual.’ That is why the DOJ report may not have gone far enough.

An important factor, not usually seen as related to police work, is the ever growing obsession with violence in the American culture. While it is only expressed as action in a small number of cases – it just takes a few mass shootings to get our attention – the role of deadly weapons and “weapons of mass destruction” in the American consciousness has certainly grown since 9/11. The combination of imagery of violence as both danger and solution and the availability of more and more technologies of violence as tools of policing inevitably lead to excessive police violence – especially when officers are under-educated and poorly trained.

Violence in image and story is not always expressed in action. The pervasive violence in Japanese video games, in contrast to American life, is associated with very low rates of actual violence and a near total absence of guns in that society. Canadians apparently have more guns per capita than the U.S., but sustain a much lower rate of injury and death by firearms. One must ask, what is it about American culture that produces both violent cultural images and violent behavioral outbursts? Why must police be trained to view every traffic stop as a combat situation? Why must police training be focused on combat to the detriment of peacekeeping? The answer lies somewhere in the cultural expectations of both the population and the police in their encounters, and in the changing expectations and imagery about violence and its proper role in police practice. The underlying problem, I suspect, is that we have a very unrealistic understanding of what is possible and what is proper in the exercise of law enforcement.

The right-wing mantra that all government is bad does not usually extend to attitudes toward police. But misguided arbitrary support for police usually favors their militarization, not improved education and training as peace officers. By taking a more realistic approach to seriously educating and training officers, including high levels of martial arts skills, and employing them in an atmosphere promoting conflict resolution and compassion, it may be possible to restore police to their rightful role as peace officers. Part III of this essay will explore the contrast between contemporary police culture and training vs. what might be considered appropriate preparation for and practice of a  “peacekeeper” role of police in a civil society.

The Incredible Darkness of Being…a Cop: Warrior or Peacemaker in a Dangerous World. Part I

Almost everyone would agree that the world is a dangerous place these days. Technically, the U.S. has never fought a war on its own soil. Nevertheless, expanding the West and the capture of parts of Mexico were executed on the lands of others, as was the original establishment of the thirteen colonies of New England, all of which were then converted to “our soil.” We frequently observe outbreaks of violence and overthrow of governments elsewhere around the world. The U.S. often intervenes in those far away places, but always claims to be “spreading democracy” and protecting U.S. “interests,” or, more commonly these days, fighting a “war on terrorism.”

Our government projects the image of a worldwide policeman, “keeping the peace,” while secretly practicing torture and conducting presidentially sanctioned extrajudicial remote assassinations via drones. If it were not for occasional whistle blowers, we would never know. No nation has ever invaded the U.S., but we have invaded many. Yet, despite denials, our nation seems to increasingly engage in violence around the world and revere aggression as a matter of national and personal pride. Violence has been deeply rooted in the American culture since its beginning and continues to be reflected in everyday life as well as the mass media and its images of vanquishing “the bad guys.”

Domestically, there has never been such a surge of mistrust between the people and the institutions of law enforcement and justice as exists today. That mistrust has grown in parallel with the militarization of police forces and the legal favoritism toward the most powerful interests in the nation.. “Law enforcement” has become increasingly isolated from the people, as it moves ever closer to becoming the armed force of the power elite.

Our perception of violence has changed. Who now goes hitch hiking on the highways of American without fear? Indeed, who would pick up a hitch-hiker without fear? The mood of the country has changed since the 1950s. Crime rates have declined in recent years, but with no less fear of violence. What gives? Well, we know that a lot more guns are out there and we are acutely aware of the growing number of mass shootings at public locations such as schools and shopping malls. And, there are those rare but shocking shootings of police during ostensibly routine traffic stops. Despite lower crime rates, it is not unreasonable for police officers to fear the unexpected. So, we want them to be prepared for unforeseen danger. The old story of everyday police experience still holds – long periods of boredom occasionally but rarely punctuated by the adrenaline surge of a life-and-death crisis. Nevertheless, these days something is different.

During the Great Depression, the infamous bandits, Bonnie and Clyde, were the epitome of criminality but they were also cultural icons of rebellion in the eyes of the public just as the chaos of the times was surging and a sense of national instability had grown widespread. But Bonnie and Clyde’s status as criminal superstars arose from the creation of legend by the newspapers as much as from their actual exploits. They provided an entertaining distraction from the uncertainties of everyday life and the hardship of the times. But they were the exception. Fear of violence in the general population was not as widespread as fear of hunger, and fear of the general population was not prevalent among police, who were still considered, for the most part, “peace officers.”

Today we have fear of the growing instability of both economy and climate, in addition to the international political instabilities exacerbated by the “war on terror,” and all their ramifications for everyday life. We also fear the growing failures of political institutions to address the crises of economy, climate and domestic politics, as well as a vague but growing fear of violence. These fears extend even beyond the level of technical knowledge of economics, climate science, or crime – they pervade the public consciousness and the media whether fully understood or not. Vehement denial of societal problems stems from ignorant fear as well as from acceptance of propaganda.

All of this frames the growing concern about police violence, which parallels the constant stream of news of questionable killings of mostly men of color, but not always. The most recent shooting death of a mentally unstable homeless man, James Boyd, by Albuquerque Police on the outskirts of the city, coalesced those concerns because it was so clearly seen as unjustified when the video recorded by the police themselves went viral. The department was already under investigation by the Department of Justice for its excessive number of police shootings and deaths in recent years for a department of its size. This tragic case provides a window of opportunity to examine changes in the role of police in our cities and how those changes may affect the future of violence in America. Part II of this essay will examine the illusions and facts of police action and training in this disturbing context.