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.