Chaos, Contagion, Hatred and Compassion

One way to gain control over institutions and violate laws is to take unprecedented actions to generate societal chaos. Demagogues know that chaos is contagious and susceptible to manipulation through fear and hatred.

We tend to think that a stable society results from the existence of laws and their enforcement by police. The facts are quite the opposite. Laws reflect social stability, to the extent that the people generally honor and follow them. That is because belief in moral and ethical behavior lead to the comfort of predictability, and thereby produce stable social control. Official malevolence, cruelty, and a perverse will to power can institutionalize immoral behavior, as the new normal, even to the extent of abusing children by tearing them away from their parents and locking them in cages, indifeently inflicting trauma that won’t go away.

Sociopaths, fascists, totalitarians, and racists find opportunity in fomenting chaos, fear, anxiety and the hatred they enable. Scapegoating and the denigration of vulnerable groups allows them to manipulate enough of the people to extend their political power.

The will to power knows neither limits nor compassion. Abusers and sociopaths enjoy the suffering of others, even sometimes the suffering of their allies. They escalate their violence to the extent that people tolerate them.

Sociopaths often become racists simply because they have no empathy or compassion. Their will to power is all that matters to them. They take pleasure in creating an enemy to hate. They reserve all empathy for themselves and maybe their closest associates, unless they find it expedient to turn on allies or subordinates despite the loyalty they demanded and received from cronies or underlings.

Fear and loathing are contagious. Authoritarian enabling brings hesitant haters, otherwise constrained by a culture of civility, out into the open. Explicit taunting and calls to discriminate against vulnerable groups is a classic fascist technique for fomenting hatred and mobilizing collective cruelty.

Trump.Huff.PostBuild the Wall!

“Throw ‘em out of here!”

“They are all criminals, rapists and M-13 gangsters!”

The resentful victims of the economy of exclusion are easy targets of authoritarian propaganda and are emboldened by such prejudicial, if coded, encouragement of racist hatred.

“This hurt is going to last a long time” lamented Dr. Marsha Griffin, member of the American Academy of pediatrics, practicing along the Texas border.

Suffer the Children for the Politics of Evil

On a flight home from Los Angeles, I sat next to a young woman, a millennial apparently, who busied herself the whole flight reading a very slick fashion magazine. I notice a book in the back-of-the-seat pouch in front of her. The title was Buddha’s Brain.

I had seen that title somewhere, but could not remember. I asked the millennial to describe the subject of the book. She replied with clear conviction that it was the answer to, well, everything.. Naturally, I had to find out what this and perhaps other millennials might think is “the answer to, well, everything.” As we disembarked, I vowed to myself to look up this book.

Meanwhile, like everyone, I continued feeling bombarded with additional revelations about “the Feds” arbitrary separation of young children from their parents. These folks’ only “crime” was openly to cross our border at official crossings to request asylum from violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, or some other dictatorship where we support any totalitarian despot willing to go along with U.S. foreign policy.

When Evil Goes Around, Suffering Comes Around

The U.S. trained many Central American officials in the use of secret police, assassination squads, etc., at an institution once called “The School of the Americas,” located in the U.S. Some earlier refugees from political violence ended up on our urban poverty zones. Some of their children fell into local street gangs. MS-13, which originated in Los Angeles, California, in the 1980s, was one of them. Then we deported them to their home nation where those same gangs took hold.

Now, threatened by street gangs or government kill squads, some parents flee from those countries with their children under threat of torture or death. The new federal response is to ignore all legal procedure for assessing and adjudicating requests for asylum. They throw parents in jail after taking their children, some infants and toddlers, from their parents under false pretenses, such as claims they are taking them to give them a shower.

This political ploy may be the worst Trumpery of all (the word trumpery derives from the Middle English trompery and ultimately from the Middle French tromper, meaning “to deceive“). The current administration variously claims to use this family torture as a deterrent to others intending to seek asylum (true, and evil), that they are only following some law the Democrats passed (lie, there is no such law), or that it is complying with a biblical admonition from God (lie, in the form of selective biblical misquotation).

In fact, Trump administration practices violate both international and U.S. law and custom in their gross and violent actions resulting entirely from the administration’s own choice. These people are committing gross abuses of the human rights of the families involved. Sessions has the unmitigated gall to claim that if the parents did not want that to happen, they should not come to our borders seeking asylum. We have laws and procedures for asylum seekers, which the administration routinely and cavalierly violates, just like so many others. The Attorney General of the U.S. refuses to carry out our laws, in order to achieve a frankly racist and definitely evil political purpose.

Cultural Consensus and Compassion in America

Ralph Nader has argued that if Americans could just get past their partisan debates about abstract political ideology and discuss only the dangers or benefits to their communities by a given action or policy, they could easily come to agreement in their mutual interests. That might not be true in all cases, especially where special economic interests in the outcome are at stake.

However, when the lives and sanity of innocent children are at stake, almost every American would stand up and object to the cruel and unusual, and entirely illegitimate abuse of children that our government is currently conducting in the name of “law and order.” Most Americans are compassionate when they see suffering. Wake up!

Learning from Buddha’s Brain

The book, Buddha’s Brain, is a compilation of principles for living well that result from the integration of the recent findings of neuro-science with 2000 years of Buddhist meditation practice. This remarkable convergence demonstrates the value of practicing mindfulness (clarity and focus of attention on what is important in any moment) and the compassion that results when we are able to widen our circle of “us” to include all of humanity, and even the world. That is when violence, abuse, and torture wane. Do not dismiss all millennials because some were raised with too much sense of entitlement. Some millennials are clearly paying attention.

Call your Senator and your Representative today and demand that they pass a law immediately, explicitly forbidding the separation of children from their parents by any government agency, unless and until the parent is convicted of a crime, sentenced, and imprisoned.

On this matter, a national consensus without compromise is the only way to redeem the moral standing of the American people by our mindfulness of the evil that confronts us so that we can exercise human compassion by demanding that caring for children must overcome petty politics. If we do not act to demand compassion, we are complicit in the torture of children.

Good Cop, Bad Cop: You Can’t Train a Psychopath to be Compassionate, But You Can Destroy a Good Man’s Compassion

The continuing surge of news stories about highly questionable police killings of unarmed civilians, is shocking enough on its own account. The victims are mostly young black or brown men but also women and even children. It is important to keep in mind that this pattern of police violence did not start with the advent of smart-phone video or police body or dashboard cameras. A new awareness of a problem is sometimes confused with the idea that it is a new problem. Understanding that police violence is a long-standing problem is made that much more disturbing by the plethora of video evidence streaming across social media on a daily basis.

New media do not create new problems, except for problems of unprecedented exposure or changed patterns of communication. They just facilitate greater awareness of problems we had been less aware of. The line between legitimate police enforcement of the law and illegitimate police use of power has always been blurred. But now, that blurry line is getting exposed in ways never before contemplated.

I have watched countless videos of violent and near violent police-citizen encounters on social media over the past year or two. The most common element that comes through is a widespread emotional distancing of police from citizen – a distinct lack of empathy. Also, an apparent need to intimidate citizens expresses an effort to demonstrate absolute authority and control by officers. A near universal police disdain for persons of color detained on the street or in their vehicles, is routinely displayed. One of the most remarkable factors is what appears to be the unawareness by police of the impact that video exposure of their behavior may have.

Professional Pathology

As in any profession, you have good cops and you have bad cops. The good ones were good before they became cops. The bad ones may have started out bad, but others only became bad after years of disenchantment with humanity along with being socialized by their senior peers. What many critics of police do not understand is the impact over time that the experiences of being a peace officer can have on a person of good will. Years of exposure to the absurdity and depravity of some human behavior can taint an officer’s outlook on life.

That officer may increasingly come to see every citizen through the lens of all the perverse situations he may have experienced in his career. In the course of time and action, compassion is lost and cynicism is gained. The process is reinforced by interaction with fellow officers with similar experiences and some who were psychopaths from the start.[1] This is very similar to the experience of the war-fighter of an invading force who is confronted daily with situations where he has no basis for distinguishing the enemy from the civilian population and quickly learns to treat everyone as the enemy. For the police officer, of course, the experience is not nearly as intense or concentrated in time.

It is common sociological knowledge that in every profession a certain “in-group” mentality develops from the specialized work and common experience of the members of the profession. We have certainly seen this phenomenon in the medical profession, among lawyers, and even restaurateurs. The consequences for each profession are different, some much more dangerous than others. If we don’t like the patronizing attitude of a restaurant owner, or a poorly prepared meal, we simply don’t go back next time. Not so in our relations with the police officer.

Among doctors and lawyers the concepts of “patient management” and “client management” suggest an attitude where the “professional” believes his special knowledge makes him superior to the person for whom he is supposed to render his professional services. The reluctance of some doctors to fully explain the details of a medical condition or procedure may have as much to do with retaining authority as with maximizing billable hours. This is reinforced by the patronizing attitude that assumes that the patient is not smart enough to understand the arcane knowledge of the physician. Such attitudes and practices are often amplified by communication with colleagues within the profession. Some “group-think” can even rise to the level of social contagion in any profession. Social contagion in police work can easily lead to violence.

Self Selection in the Psychopathology of “Enforcement”

As shown in police body and dashboard cameras or bystander smart phone videos, the behavior of citizens subjected to police violence most often posed no threat to the officer. Well, certainly no physical threat. The sure-fire way to stimulate police aggression or even violence upon yourself is to challenge an officer’s sense of his own authority. In most cases that escalated to violence, the traffic stop was typically for something trivial. In many cases, any indicator of a lack of total subservience of the civilian to the officer is absolutely not tolerated. It becomes the basis for an escalated aggressiveness by the officer(s) followed by unjustified violence and too often, death. Even subsequent submissiveness or subservience is often not enough to satisfy the officer’s threatened sense of power, and he may just keep beating the victim until another officer pulls him off. What gives?

A student in an undergraduate sociology class I taught maybe twenty years ago reported in a classroom discussion, an observation I will never forget. I’ve mentioned this in other posts related to police. This young Black potential officer noted that in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Academy most of the cadets who he knew from high school, “loved to beat people up.” Even at my advanced age, I too remember the guys in high school who looked for easy targets for their violence. Most of them expressed an interest in either the military or police as career choices. The process by which violence-prone individuals are self-selected into police work remains almost entirely ignored in the recruitment of candidates for law enforcement. It is even common for recruiters to seek out the most aggressive of candidates. The administration of law enforcement across this nation, instead of rooting them out, protects violent officers from discipline, dismissal, or prosecution. A police officer, of course, must be prepared for violence, but he need not prefer it. Too many do.

That brings me to the topic of the psychopathic personality. While some disagreement exists as to the exact components of this condition, certain elements, when present, are extremely dangerous to have in a police officer. One is a total lack of empathy with other human beings, combined with a learned capacity to feign empathy. Another is the pleasure the psychopath gains by inflicting pain on others – it’s a matter of exerting total control over another living being. Serial killers are psychopaths; they exert absolute control by torturing and killing their victims without remorse. I see a similarity here with the behavior of the cop who escalates his aggression at the slightest hint of “insubordination” in the civilian he has detained, continues well beyond any modicum of reason, and sees nothing wrong in his behavior.

High Standards and Critical Functions

Some experts who have used Robert Hare’s checklist [2] to score politicians and chief executive officers of corporations for psychopathic traits have concluded that a disproportionate number of persons in authority are in fact psychopaths. The argument goes that some of the traits of the psychopath are quite useful in climbing the ladder of power in an organization, and in establishing and keeping control. Psychopaths are fixated on their own power and seek to expand it, unrestrained by any moral principles. That results in a higher proportion of psychopaths in such positions than in the general population. In a somewhat different way, police officers are in positions of authority, less so within their own organization than over an entire population. They are allotted great power and great discretion in exercising it. Since police officers carry weapons as “tools of the trade,” and psychopaths enjoy hurting people, maybe we should carefully screen candidates for police academies to eliminate psychopaths. I fear just the opposite has been happening for a long time. Unfortunately, too many rookies who start out as problem-solving peace officers, gradually lose much of their compassion and take on psychopathic behaviors.

In the company of skilled psychopaths and under conditions of high stress and occasional mortal danger, it is not so difficult for an initially good man or woman to become cynical, ruthless, and uncaring. A compassionate rookie cop can become a practicing psychopath even though he was not so in terms of his original personality. Much of such a transition to “bad cop” is perceived as a survival adaptation to terrible conditions. But in a police department, such collective behavior results from a contagion of violence. How else can we explain blatant cold-blooded murder committed with full knowledge of the fact that it is being videotaped? Many idealistic youth were trained to kill in Iraq or Afghanistan and came back quite disturbed by their experience. Those who easily took to killing were probably closer to the psychopath end of the scale. As with the high-school bully, neither should end up as police officers.
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[1] Typically, “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used to describe the same general personality disorder, a pathology characterized primarily by a ruthless desire to exert absolute control over, and inflict pain on living beings, a lack of empathy or compassion, little if any sense of right and wrong, and a learned skill in masking these traits. Psychopathy is sometimes linked with narcissism and Machiavellianism, and several other traits. See Wikipedia for Robert Hare’s diagnostic Psychopathy Checklist.
[2] An amusing, if disturbing, account of the struggle to understand psychopathy and the industry that has grown up around it, is told by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. London: Penguin Books, 2011.

A Teachable Moment: Criminalizing Everyone

A recent “dust-up” in Santa Fe, New Mexico, between the school district and the police department ought to be an important “teachable moment.” But the opportunity to resolve institutional overreach and get back to basics is likely being ignored.

It all started when a highly respected middle-school teacher Marcy Slaughter allegedly threw a paperback book at a misbehaving student. A fire drill had just ended before the final bell of the day rang. The teacher asked her students to remain in their seats for the moment. As you may remember, fire drills are sometimes occasions for frolicking as preadolescent students become agitated by the activity, especially a few days before the end of the school year. According to most reports, four students in Ms. Slaughter’s class decided that she had no right to hold them after the bell and began walking out of the classroom. Their teacher, in frustration with their insubordination, threw one or more – “flimsy” by another student’s description – paperback books at them.

Escalation Unbounded
One of the students complained to her mother; the mother called the police – and the media! She did not call the school. Police immediately charged Slaughter with felony child abuse and charged Principal Marc Ducharme with obstructing a report of child abuse. Neither teacher nor principal were notified of the charges, nor were they arrested. An adequate investigation was not conducted prior to the charges being filed with the support of members of the office of the District Attorney. “Heavy-handed” is a rather mild characterization of these actions. Principal Ducharme had reported the incident to his superiors at the school board, in line with district policy, as he pursued his own investigation into the event.

There is certainly enough blame to go around in this incident. The students were blatantly disobedient to their teacher. The teacher clearly overreacted. The student who complained to her mother clearly ignored her own culpability, as did her mother. The police, instead of acting like “peace officers,” took a combative stance in seeking any basis they could for filing criminal charges. In several articles and columns in the local newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, the unreasonableness of the behavior of various parties was widely acknowledged. Yet the institutional implications of this incident were barely mentioned and only in terms of resolving the inconsistency between school district procedures and police criminal procedures. This incident was a symptom of a much deeper dilemma. Unfortunately, the most important aspect of this teachable moment was missed. The blame game dominates too many institutions today, at the expense of problem solving. But there is more and it touches the very fabric of the social order. Why does something like this happen?

“Higher Authority” Usurps Functional Community
Compassionate resolution of disputes reflects a civil society. That is not how things are going in Santa Fe, in the nation or in the world. Conflicts are routinely escalated rather than resolved. Appealing to “higher authority” marks social-system failure. We humans are in serious trouble. Today, ever-increasing unwarranted authoritarian power is executed with bias, injustice, and abuse. Political power is widely enforced by expensive military and police command-and-control technologies – from “stop-and-frisk” and SWAT home invasions to drone attacks. Authority is claimed at the end of the barrel of an AK-47 or by suicide bomb. In this case, a relatively minor conflict in a public institution was escalated into a criminal case when instead, a conflict resolution process should have been initiated.

It is now common for “social control” to be exercised not by any democratic process or interpersonal negotiated consensus. Instead, arbitrary “rules” of increasingly totalitarian bureaucracies are simply “enforced.” That is a failure democracy cannot tolerate. A Los Angeles police officer, who was at the same time a member of the Crips gang, once told me, “The police are just another gang, but with more power.” In the current case, a police officer inserted himself into a minor case of civil conflict and forced an interpretation of “crimes” having been committed. The prosecutor’s office enabled that overreach. To what end? As a result of the media exposure of the absurdities involved, the prosecutor eventually dropped all charges. The media moved on to other news, but never addressed the implications of the incident for civil society or democracy.

Police are no longer “peace officers.” Instead, high school bullies are self-selected, recruited and trained to treat every citizen as the enemy. The New Mexico state Law Enforcement Academy trains cadets to embrace a paramilitary “warrior cop” mentality, with a strong emphasis on unrestrained use of force. Though it may seem extreme, especially to white middle-class suburbanites who rarely have contact with police, this combative police culture is not uncommon. Nationally, typical police cadets receive 58 hours of weapons training, 49 hours on defensive tactics, but only 8 hours learning to de-escalate tense situations.

The cult of the warrior cop is all about confrontation. While the police were not in any physical confrontation in this case of classroom disruption, their behavior was nothing but confrontational. They should not have been involved at all until and unless some actual crime had been determined to have occurred based on a thorough investigation. Instead, they exhibited aggressive overreach. Similarly, a badly behaving adolescent whines to her mother, who immediately complains to the police – and to a television station – without even contacting the school. She sought vengeful “justice,” entirely ignoring her daughter’s misbehavior, thus encouraging police overreach. Such uncivil self-righteous anger is increasingly as common in America as is excessive police action.

Civil Democracy or Police State
Some conflict is inevitable in any society. Criminalizing one side of a civil dispute does not resolve it. Widespread unnecessary police homicides of unarmed vulnerable persons are symptoms of a dying democracy, as is the rush to criminalize everyone. The “charge first, investigate later” police approach in this instance stems from the same combative police culture that has placed police in crisis across this nation. Continued police intrusion into domestic and civil affairs is as dangerous as is foolishly expecting police to solve all social problems.

Santa Fe Police Chief Garcia and District Attorney Pacheco’s mutual buck-passing upon public exposure of their excessive practices reflects stubborn but embarrassed culpability. As Milan Simonich aptly put it in his 5/18/2015 column in The Santa Fe New Mexican, this problem should have been resolved the old fashioned way: a serious sit-down parent-teacher conference in the principal’s office resulting in well-earned apologies from both sides. That would be the civil solution, and would serve to strengthen community ties. But today’s overburdened regulatory environment of education and law-enforcement limits the principal’s and even district superintendent’s authority to solve problems. This further damages the community’s ability to function effectively and thereby weakens its institutions.

When police rush to criminally charge a teacher and principal in a dispute over classroom authority, the school becomes the dangerous equivalent of a police state. Santa Fe Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd did the right thing in confronting the police chief over this. This police intrusion into the internal affairs of a civil institution reflects an intolerable totalitarian mentality. Police and prosecutor both have a whole lot to reconsider if they are to salvage any credibility for their departments. However, we must remember that this is not some rare parochial incident. Instead, the behavior of police and prosecutor is notably symptomatic of a much larger and deeper problem.

Incarceration Nation

The U.S. imprisons a greater portion of its citizens than any other nation in the world. We also incarcerate a larger absolute number of prisoners than any other nation, even China! What does this tell us about our culture and about how “social control” is exercised in America? One thing is certain: more and more ‘infractions’ of proliferating laws, rules, and regulations are treated by jailing the transgressor.

One huge factor, of course, is the infamous “War Against Drugs,” which has been raging on since Richard Nixon was President. A whole industry has proliferated around the ostensible suppression of the illegal drug trade, with huge profits for private corporations involved (and for the drug cartels) and equally large incentives for police around the nation to arrest and charge minor drug offenders, mostly boys and men of color – who use drugs in no greater percentage than white boys safe from police in their college dorm rooms – but with no appreciable effect on the flow of drugs into our cities and towns.

Another factor is the growing militarization of police. Both military culture and military equipment and tactics have invaded our local police departments in small towns as well as in the biggest cities, along with a “war-fighter” mentality. With them flow federal funding from the ‘Drug War’ thus enabling police to support ‘tactical units’ such as SWAT teams as the premier enforcement technique, and the lessening of crisis intervention techniques in police work. High arrest rates are rewarded by donations of “surplus” military hardware. Of course, “stop and frisk” policies and the massively discriminatory pursuit of minority “offenders” in the segregated neighborhoods of poor black and brown populations, all point to the national trend toward suppressing and socially isolating the most vulnerable populations in the nation by incarceration and by excluding them from the economy by virtue of the felony records these policies generate, as well as by the inferior public education they are allowed.

This perverse institutionalized oppression is well documented in Michelle Alexander’s definitive book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color blindness. But the general trend is toward the criminalization of everyday life in an even broader way. White folks are no longer safe either. Children are now arrested for minor altercations in school. Any deviation from some institutional standard is subject to possible criminal prosecution. [see Chase Madar, “The Over Policing Of America: How Your Daily Actions Are Being Incrementally Criminalized” at http://thefreethoughtproject.com/policing-america-daily-actions-incrementally-criminalized/#H6Kh0RZkkOGUZxXT.99 for more examples.]

But the cops are victims too. American culture suffers from a fundamental flaw sociologists call “blaming the victim,” which stems from our excessive individualism and conflation of structural causes with personal consequences. It is encouraged by the corporate media, which diverts attention from corporate and institutional sources of social problems to consequent social pathology. So, authorities fail to properly vet and train police, then we blame the unprepared cops for the excessive use of force that results from inadequate selection, bad leadership and the same insufficient support we give teachers. In a recent three-part series of posts, I discuss these and related problems of police, especially in relation to the case of frequent police shootings in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Incredible Darkness of Being … a Cop.” Read them at: https://thehopefulrealist.com/?s=cop&submit=Search .

Poorly educated and scarcely trained, today’s ‘warrior cops’ know little of the once-valued culture of the “peace officer.” Instead, police are self-selected for violent tendencies, improperly screened, inadequately trained, under-paid, and put out on the street to “enforce” laws they know little about, especially the constitution.

But the most disturbing of all is the gradual transformation of the nation itself into a ‘cultural prison’ of the whole, a society where creativity and compassion, opportunity and achievement, education and self-realization, are all sacrificed to economic domination and social control by the corporate state. Hard to get a grip on, this enveloping phenomenon is both subtle and widespread; its elements can, however, be seen in the pervasive reliance on force in every institutional context from employment to law, from educational testing to wage theft, and to the decline of a culture of civility and disappearance of compassion in every sphere of life.

This is no way to enter the era of the great transformation from the end of the fossil-fuel driven growth economy to a stable ecological economy, which will take the highest level of social cooperation and institutional commitment ever demanded of humanity.

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 Death of Andy Lopez and so Much More

When I arrived in Santa Rosa, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, I wasn’t thinking about the news reports I’d read about the police killing of the thirteen year old with the toy replica of an assault rifle in that town of 160,000 a few weeks before. It had been an uneventful trip and now we were driving around the area on a balmy December day.

We stopped at the Bohemian Market in Occidental, a small nearby town in Sonoma County. There I spotted a Sonoma County Gazette, “written by readers.”  Wherever I visit, I grab a copy of the local free paper to check out the culture and economy. Lots of ads for local stores, civic announcements, festivals of all sorts, and the occasional news story in such papers give a pretty good sense of life in the area.

In the December issue of the Sonoma County Gazette, I found no less than three articles and several letters to the editor, expressing views on the police shooting of Andy Lopez — some in response to a set of articles on the event in the November issue. Some actions had already been taken in response to citizens’ concern with probable over-reaction on the officer’s part on seeing a thirteen year old with a toy gun.  One proposal was for a stonger policy on police use of deadly force.

One writer argued that the City of Santa Rosa had a use of deadly force policy that unreasonably favored the officer.  When I read the part of the policy that was quoted, it reminded me of the “stand your ground” laws recently promoted by the infamous Koch brothers and their political action  arm, ALEC, and enacted into law in about 26 states.  As is well known now, these laws have the effect of excusing the use of the deadly force of a firearm when a person ‘feels potentially threatened’ by another in a public setting.

Neither citizen nor police officer should be allowed to kill anyone on the chance that they may be “dangerous.”  A steady stream of news stories about unarmed citizens shot by uniformed officers suggests a serious defect in the credibility of law enforcement in the nation as genuine keepers of the peace.  Among the articles and letters in the Gazette, blame was found in every party, from toy manufacturer to parent, child, officers, and department policies.  Yet something remained missing.

Guns are dangerous.  Guns in the hands of some persons are far more dangerous than guns in the hands of others.  The American culture of violence further muddies the waters when guns are involved in an issue.  We confuse “training” with wisdom.  When police academy cadets are self-selected by their propensity for violence, training will not fix the problem.  Most law enforcement institutions today still do not seriously screen applicants for appropriate psychological character.  One of my university students several years ago reported that most of the cadets he knew from high school were the guys who liked to beat people up.  These are the folks who are now Los Angeles Count Sheriffs — that’s the outfit the FBI investigated over this past year documenting massive violence against inmates and visitors to the LA County Jail, before indictments were handed down by federal prosecutors; some of those charged were high ranking, suggesting the very endemic culture of violence for which the LA County Sheriffs are so famous in minority and youth communities.

Stronger use of deadly force policies, more rigorous training, civilian review boards, and full transparency in police shooting investigations are all important.  But they are not enough if you want a compassionate thoroughly disciplined police force dedicated to the safety of all people.  Unfortunately, one commentator in the Gazette is right: combat veterans are trained to kill and to dehumanize those they see as the enemy — that is their experience, their outlook, and what they do.  Their high suicide rate  results from the irreconcilability between their life actions and the human values they once held.  They should have no place in any civilian police force.  A serious psychological screening would eliminate almost all of those who have killed professionally.

I learned to shoot guns as a boy — younger than Andy Lopez when he  was  killed — but that was decades ago when the NRA was all about safety and therefore self-discipline, not about promoting the economic interests of weapons manufacturers by pushing the sale of every kind of gun to everyone.  Twenty years later I learned, through the practice of Aikido, that centered calm compassion and clarity of purpose can diffuse many situations that might otherwise explode in violence.  That is not typical of police culture.  One important way for American culture to get over its obsession with violence and with guns is to establish genuinely compassionate and highly disciplined civilian police forces.  Unfortunately, the militarization of police in America — largely through the economy of the drug war — is taking us in exactly the opposite direction.