Adolescent Cop Mentality

The flow of video evidence of police tendencies to use violence as the primary tool of their trade steadily increases. Some write this off as an artifact of technology or as individual incidents not representing the whole of law enforcement. But as I look at all those citizens’ smart-phone videos taken largely because they happened to be there and were shocked by what they saw, I see something else. I see an adolescent sense of insecurity displayed. And I see an adolescent tendency for one’s ego to be easily threatened by anything less than absolute control and in need of being protected by force.

The individual cases of “excessive use of force” vary in context, setting, and issue. But in each one, the officer seems to be triggered by any action or words that can be interpreted as a threat to his absolute authority. “Absolute” is the operative term here; the adolescent mind tends to think in absolutes. Yes, in every such case I have reviewed, the officer is male. I have yet to see an example where a female officer initiated violence upon a citizen. It is hard to not reflect upon how males are socialized in this society (and other societies as well) to express their manhood in violent ways. Even at my age, I remember the institutionalized violence of high school football. The kids are allowed to wear more protective gear now, but the violent expectations are pretty much the same.

Violent Institutions
Rarely recognized or discussed in the media is the self-selection of those with the most violent tendencies entering into police academies. I remember well the guys in high school who simply loved to get into a fight; they enjoyed any opportunity to beat someone up. I will never forget, many years later what a college student who was in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s training academy told me. He said that all the guys who had been the most violent in his high school also applied to the academy. “They loved to beat people up,” he reported. “Now they will have unlimited opportunities.” Anyone who lives in L.A. County is aware of the Sheriffs’ reputation for excessive violence.

L.A. Sheriffs Deputies are routinely assigned to work in the county jail when they first graduate from the academy. There they get to see and interact with both the worst criminals and the most vulnerable of the county’s population. This is where they learn the rules of domination and subordination. Recently, what was widely known but not publicly reported finally hit the media. A virtual conspiracy among the young deputies and their senior leadership at the jail involved routinely using excessive force on both inmates and their visitors and even falsely arresting visitors. Indictments followed, along with numerous stories in the L.A. Times.* Disgraceful as this is, such institutionalized violence is not confined to the rare rogue officer or department; it permeates American law enforcement. Something so deeply entrenched in a culture is not merely a matter of “better training.” Training is only part of the problem.

To even begin to face the problem of police violence and the tendency to single out young men of color for such treatment, we must look beyond individual incidents and training protocols. We have to face the fact that the problem is a deeply rooted cultural fact of American life and history. From the earliest days of the British colonies on this continent, the intolerance for dehumanized “others” has been evident.

Adolescent Exceptionalism
The so called “winning of the West,” idolized in Hollywood’s “Cowboys and Indians” movies, was largely a brutal history of genocidal extermination of the indigenous peoples of the land “discovered” by Europeans and occupied by force. The westward expansion merely continued the conquering of native populations, deemed sub-human and hence with no human rights. The legacy of slavery is in part one of exploitation of dehumanized “others” by elites that monopolize of the means of violence. The Other is a stranger, never quite human. The list of “N-word” equivalents continues right up to the latest “war of choice.”

The “freedom” so cherished by “gun rights” advocates also reflects historical violence against perceived sub-humans. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that the Second Amendment to the Constitution was negotiated so that southerners could legally form militias to hunt down escaped slaves. Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, etc., all point to a perceived inherent right to dominate “others” all over the world, excused by an imagined American “Exceptionalism.”

In a cell-phone video I just saw, some unruly whites complained of (restrained) police efforts to clear a bar where “disturbing the peace” was asserted. Their objections reflected the same cultural arrogance. The idea that “we” (white) Americans have some special status in the world that exempts us from police or other abuse is pervasive. One of the white protestors repeatedly said, “You can’t do this; we’re Americans.” As a nation we have no compunction as a nation in terrorizing villages in Yemen, Afghanistan, or elsewhere with drone strikes, night raids on homes, or bombing just about any target, etc., as long as the people there are not “Americans.”

Typically, the focus of “law enforcement” often is not on enforcing laws or catching criminals, but instead on asserting total control over targeted citizens who have little or no resources to challenge their having been abused. “Resisting an officer” in the conduct of his abuse of a citizen is the highest form of “disrespect” for the status-anxious cop. His sense of security is only fed by absolute obedience to his every unreasonable demand. Only by passive acceptance of unreasonable search, seizure, and/or battery upon the person perceived as unable to invoke costly legal recourse is obedience demonstrated.

That said, it is important to remember that police behavior does not occur in a vacuum, but is institutionally encouraged by the power elite that would prefer to ‘disappear’ the homeless and all other “surplus populations” not needed by the corporate state. More “training” is not the answer, since training is part of the problem along with recruitment for violent tendencies and indifference to necessary attributes of a PEACE Officer — compassion, problem solving, and other ways to avoid violence. Neither maturity nor deep ethics are part of the emerging police state. A new vision for law enforcement is needed now more than ever.
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* See, for example, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-los-angeles-sheriff-indictments-baca-20131209-story.html

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.

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.