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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.