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.

Ending Police Brutality: It’s Not That Simple

The smart phone videos of cops harassing or beating unarmed Black males have exploded on social media. Newspaper articles discuss the various difficulties involved in prosecuting police for excessive force, murder, etc. Video pundits left and right proclaim or admit that something is just not right. They acknowledge that Black parents have to train their boys to be cautious when confronted by a policeman or they will face extreme danger.

Law enforcement officials scramble to demonstrate their commitment to improving “training” and “cultural awareness.” Law professors ponder the possibilities of revamping the procedures for assembling grand juries when an officer has killed another unarmed Black child or young Black man. Politicians pontificate on how to restore the Black man’s “trust” in police and the justice system – as usual, they get the cart before the horse.

Well, none of them seem to get it. Police abuse and killings of Black men have a long history, although it is largely buried in social amnesia. The nature of the problem is quite unlike the conventional characterizations heard in the mass media. We are living in the era of denial of racism – you know, “post-racial America.” The growing protests over police brutality put the lie to that illusion. But the persistent denial makes it very hard to discuss the culturally ingrained and conceptually re-coded racism that is all around us if we just open our eyes.

Racism is still rampant in America. It is re-coded and resurrected in numerous ways. The re-coding allows many to behave in racist ways while conceptually denying any “racism” is involved because they no longer use those old racist words. The language is much more subtle. But the violence is not. People of good will and intention are being fooled by all this, and they mistake the combination of racism and just plain viciousness for a failure of training or of criminal justice process. Certainly training and process are defective. But that is only a result of the deeper problem of racism and dehumanization in American society.

We must remember that racism is a particularity of dehumanization. The young men and women of the U.S. (and every) military routinely characterize “the enemy” as sub-human. In basic training they are drilled with the admonition to kill a dehumanized other. Civilian populations of the invaded countries are difficult to distinguish from “insurgents.” This facilitates the killing, torture, and hated of whoever is found in a house in a night raid based on very flimsy “intell.” The parallel with home invasions by militarized “swat teams” in Camden, Compton, or Cleveland is distinctly disturbing. Many returning veterans who have experienced horrors of combat where civilians and resistance fighters are indistinguishable, find little opportunity for employment other than as police.

But racist police violence in the U.S. did not start with returning veterans disturbed by the extreme violence and dehumanization they experienced in combat. It began right here at home. It is endemic, not just to the police, but to the culture. The culture of racism and the culture of violence are distinct social formations, but they are also very closely linked and often combined. Relations of power and vulnerability lead to dehumanization, which leads to hatred, which leads to violence. The language of police I heard on some of those viral videos on Facebook and YouTube is exactly the language of the high school bullies we have all heard. As one student put it to me a few years ago – he was a cadet in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Academy – “a lot of the cadets are the guys who liked to beat people up in high school.”

Improved training will not do it; tweaking the relations between police and prosecutors will not do it; revising procedural manuals will not do it. Body cameras may stifle it but will not resolve the problem. Only changing the entire police culture from the top down and hiring as officers only recruits who can understand what “peace officer” means, can turn the tide. That is a daunting task. Whether the cities or the nation are up to it is doubtful. That it is necessary is entirely certain.

Something else is also certain. Until such a massive rebuilding of law enforcement with a new cultural core and massive replacement of officers who cannot meet a humanitarian standard, police abuse of citizens will continue. It must be done from Los Angeles to New York City, from Ferguson to Albuquerque, and across the entire nation. There is no other way.

How to Corrupt Law Enforcement

In American political culture the idea of “corruption” is both simple and suppressed. We think of the occasional individual politician or official taking a bribe to direct funds to a particular bidder or contractor. Yet we have lost sight of the essence of corruption – exploitation – and the fact that it can take many forms but always has the same basic character. Individual instances are usually part of a larger pattern.

What is Corruption?
There are, of course, various kinds of corruption found in diverse institutional settings. The scope and scale of corruption may range from personal to systemic. An individual bureaucrat may take a bribe, or a CEO may take executive actions that serve his personal interests more than those of the company that pays him for making good decisions. He may trade securities on the basis of his inside information. If so, he has corrupted the responsibilities of his position by his unethical actions.

But systemic corruption occurs when a pattern of practices involves a number of members of an organization. In a major example, J.P. Morgan Chase and other large Wall Street banks fraudulently engaged in misrepresentation of risk, falsifying ‘due diligence’ and knowingly selling ‘toxic’ securities to clients.[1]  Senators and representatives who take political donations from lobbyists and sponsor bills the lobbyist wrote, clearly corrupt the political process. But it is accepted as ‘business as usual’ in the Congress. We live in a corrupt political culture that is taken for granted by the politicians and by the corporate media that ‘reports’ on them. The corporate state is a corruption of democracy and has replaced all but its form.

In the case of law enforcement, you might remember hearing of a bygone era when an ethical challenge faced by the “cop on the beat” was simpler than we hear of today. While making his rounds an officer is offered a free cup of coffee or a meal at the local diner. The shopkeeper considers it good business to be ‘close’ with local police. This probably still happens somewhere. But that the practice is now recognized as currying favoritism. The “peace officer” was supposed to be a neutral figure, even-handedly enforcing the law. In our complex of corrupt institutional relations and practices today, law enforcement has become one of the institutional players. In the systematic corrupt pattern of practices within the nation’s political and legal institutions, law enforcement institutions have been severely corrupted.

Self Dealing
The “War on Drugs” is now pretty famous for having failed to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. Masses of vulnerable young men and women of color who use drugs at the same rate as everyone else are systematically incarcerated. The purpose of reducing drug use in society was turned into a practice of mass incarceration of selected target populations (blacks and browns). At the same time, the more powerful population segment (whites) is largely ignored. This is itself the corruption of a mission. But the practice of targeting the vulnerable for personal, departmental, or professional gain is yet a further level of corruption. Regardless of how ill-conceived, futile, and counterproductive the War on Drugs was and is, its conversion into a mechanism for profiteering by police departments and their corporate suppliers rates the highest condemnation.

This, of course, is closely related to the widespread militarization of civilian police. The more ‘drug arrests’ the more credits, loans, and funding for all sorts of power-imagineering paraphernalia. And once they get hold of a hammer, everything looks like a nail. ‘Use it or lose it’ has been the policy of Department of Defense when it distributes military equipment to local police. So, why not send out a SWAT team to serve a simple warrant? What is the bottom line? Well, it is the blatant shift of purpose from (legitimately) “protecting and serving” the public to (illegitimate but accepted) institutional self-aggrandizement. Power seeking and profiteering are practiced at the expense of the public interest in real public safety.

Theft as “Civil Asset Forfeiture”
By now most of us have heard of the police confiscating large sums of money, luxury cars, even mansions, from drug dealers when they are arrested. Laws were passed to support aggressive police actions against drug dealers. The loot came to be shared with local police departments that cooperated in or conducted successful raids. While such extra-judicial practices are constitutionally questionable in themselves, the practice has taken on another level of corruption. With no judicial or other check on the confiscation of the property of citizens where arrests have occurred but not necessarily indictments or convictions, the near complete corruption of the ideals of law enforcement was assured.

The practice of confiscating property from “suspects” has spread to a variety of situations where it would be hard to justify. Yet, unconstrained police now actively look for “goodies” that can be used by the department or liquidated for cash.[2]  A “reason” for an arrest can usually be constructed. This, of course, is the ultimate corruption of law enforcement, since it is essentially the use of power to engage in legalized theft. This sort of behavior is hardly different than the shakedowns of organized crime or street gangs. “Reform” is a far too weak a word to use when trying to describe what is needed to bring back law enforcement institutions into a civil society where their job is simply to “keep the peace” and protect the public. The current conflict of institutional interests and the public interest is intolerable.

The growing privatization of the public sector has squeezed state and local government operations including law enforcement. That pressure encourages police to exploit opportunities presented by ill-conceived laws allowing unconstitutional searches and seizures. In a corrupt environment, the weak are corrupted. The weakness of police culture is palpable. Only mobilized public demand can change that.
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1. Matt Taibbi, “Meet the woman J P Morgan Chase paid one of the largest fines in American history to keep from talking.” Rolling Stone, November 6, 2014.
2. Shalla Dewan, “Police Use Department Wish List When Deciding Which Assets to Seize.” New York Times. November 10, 2014.

After Indictment: Justice is not Enough

News coverage in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri have died down now. But in the aftermath, little else has been said in the national media about the underlying problem of police in America. Ferguson’s city council responded to protests with some mild reforms such as limiting the proportion of city revenue supplied by traffic fines.

It appears that the grand jury may be out for some time. Demands for social justice focus mainly on whether the officer who killed Mr. Brown will be charged and prosecuted for murder or some lesser variant thereof, or not at all. But Ferguson, if it is anything, is a small scale case in point of what is wrong with law enforcement in the U.S.A.

A common theme reflected in all the societal crises is the American penchant for violent “solutions” to almost anything viewed as problematic for “American Exceptionalism.” As the system approaches collapse, elite reactions invariably incorporate some form of force. Sure, law enforcement has a long history of defending property and power against freedom and opportunity, even when police were closer to the citizenry. But today, the militarization of police coincides with the unprecedented concentration of power in the 1% of the 1%.

The role of “law enforcement” is increasingly suspect. In an earlier post, “Incarceration Nation,” [1] I referred to “The New Jim Crow” system that plagues young men of color today. Michelle Alexander, in her book by that title [2], powerfully demonstrated how the drug-war supported police operations in poor neighborhoods produces a new stigmatized American caste of color. The central player driving the incarceration of most young men of color is law enforcement. The agencies that profit from arrests, detentions, and imprisonment of vulnerable populations, perpetrate the social crime of institutionalized racist forced social isolation.

But the problem of law enforcement runs much deeper than institutionalized racist practices – as if that were not enough. Since Ferguson, countless incidents of routine police brutality, even against whites, have surfaced in both social media and local newscasts. True to their reputation harking back to Rodney King’s beating 20 years ago, officers of the Foothill Division of the LAPD recently were caught on video exercising their aggression. They slammed a small nurse down on the pavement after stopping her for using her cell phone while driving. Gratuitous violence at best.

Even while under Justice Department investigation for questionable patterns of use-of-force practices, such dysfunctional departments continue to be issued military weapons and battle equipment. Police departments are hiring veterans of combat with “insurgent” enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan who look like the general population. These veterans’ unacknowledged post traumatic stress disorder is often left untreated. But it is exactly the condition that we should not want in a “peace officer” in a domestic city.

None of the leading indicators of the relationship between police and citizens is comforting. None of the administrative “leadership” of the departments whose brutal practices have come to light, gives one a feeling of civic security from police abuse. Many officers are self-selected by their penchant for violence; their employers condone and encourage their aggressiveness and tolerate their violence. Swat teams are often the first response to the most innocuous situations. Crisis intervention officers are underutilized. The Los Angeles Police Department alone has settled countless lawsuits for millions of dollars. The incidents of police violence and deadly shootings in Albuquerque have not subsided since the department came under Justice Department scrutiny. The list is too long – it encompasses the whole nation.

None of this will change significantly without a total ‘makeover’ of the culture of law enforcement in the U.S.A., and of our expectations too. The escalation of violence to assert total control is the norm. Any hint of ‘disrespect’ or ‘failure to obey’ is met with aggression and/or violence. An LAPD cop who was also a member of the Crips gang once told me that the police are really just another gang; if you don’t look at them that way you cannot understand them. Civil society cannot be sustained if “peace” is enforced instead of enacted.

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything, [3] analyzes the economic, social, and political crises that have resulted in global warming. The climate crisis both reflects deep societal failures and presents a comprehensive opportunity to solve the societal crisis and climate crisis simultaneously. As the old fossil-fueled industrial order struggles to survive, “law enforcement” has become little more than the enforcer for the oligarchy, which increasingly fears the citizenry. After all, only the people can stop them now.  The Peoples Climate March drew 400,000.

Global warming is the direct planetary consequence of the most fundamental failures of industrial capital’s domination of society in the last two centuries. The trajectory of the industrial era has many elements, including state monopoly of force. Paradoxically, it also offers a vital opportunity/necessity to solve the core problem. That is because the transformative actions necessary to mitigate climate disruption are exactly those required to address the destructive trends that have destabilized both society and the biosphere. Increasingly, the expanded political and economic powers of the surging oligarchy are  defended by force. This just demonstrates the inherent weakness of the failing system. Only the people’s rising recognition of imminent ecological and societal collapse and willingness to act to transform society and its relation to the environment will enable humanity to ‘reset’ the world.
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1 https://thehopefulrealist.com/?s=incarceration+nation&submit=Search
2 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
3 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

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.