Friday, June 12

Rethinking policing

In the wake of the heinous murder of George Floyd, the world--and I do mean the whole world--has suddenly become aware that #BlackLivesMatter to the point that they have gathered for peaceful marches and protests. That's not fair because there are white people who know and have known that people of color matter. Even so, it has taken far too long for the world to become more than just aware.

Along with the peaceful marches and protests there has been violence. Provocateurs who have incited violence and looting, and then those who have taken advantage of a situation and have chosen to break windows and trash stores without regard to the individuals whose livelihoods have been equally trashed.

With the calls for defunding the police, some more radical and extreme than others, I realized how little understanding I have of the police and its history. I'm trying to balance all of what I see, and trying to remember that it's more advantageous to show the moments that are most fraught with emotion--so the police officers kneeling in solidarity as well as the cops lounging around an office allegedly while looting was occurring or the cops who pushed a 75-year-old man and then walked away even as he was bleeding from his ear. Then there are the mostly white cops who are angry because they are being lumped in with the bad cops--and I'm thinking that's what it feels like to be a person of color in the United States. But I'm also realizing that it's far too easy to slap a broad brush of accusation across all police departments and officers when that is not fair and not reasonable.

So, I decided to do some research because that's what I do. This is some of what I learned.

It wasn't until after the American Revolution that the then nascent United States had any sort of formal police department.
In 1838, the city of Boston established the first American police force, followed by New York City in 1845, Albany, NY and Chicago in 1851, New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1853, Philadelphia in 1855, and Newark, NJ and Baltimore in 1857 (Harring 1983, Lundman 1980; Lynch 1984). By the 1880s all major U.S. cities had municipal police forces in place.

According to The History of Policing in the US (Potter, n.d.), the trajectory of the police departments in the South were a sort of evolution from the Slave patrols, the first of which was created in 1704. I don't think "slave patrol" needs much explanation.

Dr. Potter asserts that modern police departments were in response to disruption and disorder, and what constituted disruption and disorder was defined by the mercantile class. You can well imagine where this is going and already it does not bode well for individuals of certain colors and those of particular ethnic backgrounds.
Three compelling issues faced early American police departments: (1) should police be uniformed; (2) should they carry firearms; and (3) how much force could they use to carry out their duties. 
What is clear from Dr. Potter's research is that police departments were an extension of the politicians and bureaucrats who seemed to use the police for their own agendas and didn't seem to much care if the police had their own agendas as long as there were no conflicts.

What is also evident from Dr. Potter's work is that as long as police departments were in any way connected to or somehow extended from any political office, reform was going to be difficult if not impossible. Never mind how poorly that speaks to the integrity of any politician (and that phrase "integrity of any politician" seems like an absurd joke in 2020).

In the 1950s there was a move towards police professionalism, which seems like a good idea until it wasn't. What was deemed professionalism seemed to lead to a more military model of policing, which created greater tension and rancor. In the 1960s more police departments were looking toward unionization to protect the officers from whatever was going on to try to "reform" police departments which also seemed to yield a greater number of inexplicable and contradictory regulations. At the same time, developments in forensic science were encouraging people to think of the police as "scientific crime fighters," especially those who were part of detective squads.

The 1960s and 1970s showed us the complexity of policing during the Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations. The militarization of the police and likely how they were trained to think about and combat--and I use that word deliberately--protestors and demonstrators could only lead to police action that meant civilians--also known as citizens--were going to get hurt.

I should like to note that the Korean War was actually designated a police action by President Truman, a conflict that is technically not yet over. And when we see notable police action today, police officers are wearing riot gear which includes an impressive array of protective wear and weapons.

I appreciate the men and women who want to protect and serve also wanting to protect themselves, but I can see how such gear would lead me to be frightened of their actions should they misinterpret my actions or should they themselves find it difficult to restrain their own fears and emotions when tensions and tempers run high.

There aren't a lot of experts in the history of policing though there are plenty who have written about how to improve or reform police departments.

So then I wondered about the history of the role of the police because police or some sort of constabulary preceded the discovery and the establishment of the Colonies, what we now know as the United States. According to Jeremiah Mosteller (and yes, I know he was writing for the Charles Koch Institute and I'm well aware of the conspiracy theories and controversies surrounding the Koch brothers even as people don't take the time to learn more about them), about a third of Americans 
now view their local police as serving an enforcer role instead of a protector role. Public confidence and trust in law enforcement has also decreased since the early 2000s. Public perceptions of police will only continue to erode as departments increasingly assume roles more akin to an occupying military force or tax collectors rather than supporters of peace and safety in the community.

Huh.

Mosteller goes on to write: 
The purpose of law enforcement in a free society is to promote public safety and uphold the rule of law so that individual liberty may flourish. Trust and accountability between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect is essential to advancing these goals. The government holds the power to exercise force in achieving its ends, but must do so in a way that protects the rights of community members and upholds the rule of law. Proper policing practices require that law enforcement build positive relationships with their community, respect civil liberties, and avoid tactics that encourage the use of excessive force against citizens. 
 
I found this image online as part of a 2011 piece on the evolution of police riot gear. And, oddly, I think this goes back to the first three questions asked about police departments: 1) should they wear uniforms?; 2) should they carry weapons?; and 3) how much force should they use?
But I also think this has a lot to do with what we believe should be the proper role of the police, and that's where this work gets very hard. 

People will view the roles and responsibilities of the police very differently depending on their neighborhoods and their experience with the police. Some will believe that neighborhoods that have more crime will need more armed police and I can appreciate a police officer wanting to wear a bullet-proof vest and carry a weapon in situations that may warrant it.

I don't know enough about all of the reasons the police are called though we know that one of the reasons so many cities and towns have a 311 number is because not everything is a 911 emergency, even if it may feel like it.

Too many have become accustomed to calling the police in any situation that people don't think about the appropriateness of a police call. To a minor accident? No, but what's minor? Is my definition of "minor" the same as the other person? I don't mean to mock, not at all, but it's almost as though we need to follow Mom's rules that if there no blood or broken bones, the accident is not a police matter.

How does that play with domestic violence calls? I don't know. I've no doubt there are degrees but I can also imagine that if someone I know is getting beaten or threatened, my instinct would be to call the police.

What about police resource officers? I was working in a high school in a fairly small community and the police resource officer seemed to be a nice guy. He made a point of not fraternizing with the staff, which made sense. There were no metal detectors at the doors and his role seemed to be more about a position that was filled than actual need. One day there were four police cars in the front of the school. My heart rate went up. When I asked if there was any reason for concern, the usual officer said there was none, that he was just giving other officers a tour of the building, which would have been believable if it weren't for the fact all of those officers were present all day. So clearly there was something that was concerning people. In fact, I heard the officer say, "If anything is going to happen, it will be this afternoon." So the additional officers were a deterrent and, apparently, an effective one.

What I don't know, of course, is who made the call to have more officers present. Was that the principal who was aware of some potential threat or was that the school resource officer?

I've worked at other schools that have had metal detectors at the door and people to sign in visitors and make sure they wear their badges, and even places where my bags have been sort of searched (if sticking a baton in a bag constitutes a "search"). The officers were clearly there as a deterrent, until they weren't but when I asked around, there hadn't been an incident of any note on campus in months if not years.

Will armed school resource officers prevent school shootings? I don't think so. Not if history is any guide. Will they reduce the likelihood of the shooter gaining entry or being able to inflict more harm on innocents? That is a question I don't think anyone can answer with any confidence although I know there are plenty who believe that armed officers and/or armed teachers will make a positive difference.

My question is almost always this: As I am not a trained professional, how would I respond in a moment of high alert with adrenaline pumping at an unimaginable rate and my fear/protection reactions off the charts? And I have no idea what I would do or what I could do. In my actual dreams, I cannot land a punch when threatened so that doesn't bode well for what I might do in real life.

Another question is this: How are police officers trained--and I mean really trained and then really retrained and recertified--to react in threat situations? Why is it that some can restrain themselves for that extra split second and others begin firing the moment they think they see a weapon? And why do they keep firing when it's clear the individual is down? That's got to be adrenaline as well as fear, and how are officers trained to learn to master that? Or are they? And if they're not, why not?

I don't think there are any easy answers, unions notwithstanding. But I do believe we need to rethink policing in the United States. We also have to realize that one size does not fit all when it comes to policing either. That what might be necessary in larger cities probably isn't as necessary in the suburbs or exurbs and probably isn't as necessary in rural communities.

Regardless I think that one thing is clear: the militarization of the police hasn't been a solution that works, so we must reconsider what policing needs to be and should be in the United States, and that should lead to changes in the way we fund our police departments.

Monday, June 1

The Summer of COVID and George Floyd

This is the year the world convulsed. Today, June 1, I read about experts being concerned about the spread of COVID-19 because of the George Floyd protests. I doubt the protesters--the legitimate protesters who have something invaluable to say about systemic racism in this country--care quite as much about COVID-19 as they do about being heard.

I cannot imagine the pent up frustration and rage felt by black and brown people. I cannot imagine the fear experienced by some members of law enforcement when confronted by angry protesters when emotions ran even higher. I applaud those who marched peacefully and respectfully. I'm in awe of the members of law enforcement who knelt in solidarity and of those who kept their wits about them and did not further inflame anyone who was trying to incite any sort of violence.

I do not have any answers though I know I can do more in my own small way to help make a difference for our shared futures. 
http://sojo.net
These issues confronting people of color are not new. This is not a broken system. Please note: If this is a systemic problem, it is because the system was built to that there are the marginalized who are viewed as other, as less, because they are not White. Further note: This is a systemic problem. Sure, laws have been passed to try to manage the flaws, but many have served only exacerbate.

It really should not be that hard to see human beings as human beings, and yet somehow we manage to make it incredibly complex because we insist on labeling people by color, by gender, by sexuality, by religion. Yes, I understand the need to differentiate and I know we are long way from being able to identify people without using labels. But I cannot make any assumptions about anyone because of the way the way their clothes, the length or color(s) or style of their hair, or anything else.

I need to be more careful about examining by reactions to anyone. As a woman, am I being smart about a situation or am I being fearful for dubious reasons? As a human being, am I making assumptions about someone's behavior because of projected cultural interpretations?

If you are interested in knowing more so you can do something, anything to help bring out systemic change, you might start here: "For Our White Friends Desiring to be Allies" (2017). You don't have to agree with everything is this article, but you have to be willing to open your mind and read it, and then think about why you don't agree with any parts of this piece. If all of it is too overwhelming, pick one thing that you know you need to address and start there.

I can't speak from the perspective of a person of color, but my heart tells me that a place to start is to stop suggesting that being colorblind is a good thing. I understand where that comes from as I know I've had that position in the past. But I also learned from some very dear African-American colleagues and friends that being colorblind is, in my words, stupid. They are people of color. Gorgeous and complex hues of black and brown. I dishonor them if I refuse to see the color of their skin because that is part of who they are.

I think about some of the Muslim women with whom I've been able to work and some of what I've learned from them about the worlds in which they live and worship.

If you want to try to take a step further, investigate what it means to be an ally or an accomplice. I think "accomplice" may make you feel uncomfortable because that word now means to be involved in a crime, but it used to have a stronger meaning of being associated with. So you don't have to be an accomplice, but at least think about being an ally.

I know I'm not alone in talking about what White people can and should be doing, or sharing posts about what our brothers and sisters of color have been talking about for decades. And more of us need to be talking and, more importantly, doing. I'm not talking about marching with protesters. I am talking about working within your spheres of influence to help insist on change, to help on dismantling a system that overlooks and undervalues children and adults of color, and to ally with those people to rebuild and reinvent what could and should be.

Don't be distracted by the looters and the ones inciting violence. Those aren't just black and brown faces involved in that fracas. There were and are plenty of White faces, too.

Don't be distracted by the "what about. . .?" arguments because those are just too numerous to count and are generally used as a reason not to do anything. 

Yes, these days are unprecedented and we are at risk of being exhausted by the convulsive nature of these times. Now is the time, however, to rise about our collective anxiety and often incoherent thinking to do whatever we can, however small a step or action.

Any step forward, no matter how small, is still a step forward. We just need to be brave enough to take that first step.
  • Educate yourself. Understand what it means to be an anti-racist and why white fragility is a thing.
  • Acknowledge that if you are White, you are privileged. Period. The end. Full stop. No matter what I've experienced as a woman, I've experienced those challenges as a White woman. My struggles are my struggles, but not at all like those struggles of my Black friends and colleagues.
  • Figure out at least one thing you can do to make a difference and realize that you may lose some friends over your actions, so that will mean deciding what is more important to you. Maybe you will decide it's time to show up for racial justice or maybe you'll find something you can do in your church or your community.
I am not alone in sharing a number of resources so we can all learn more. From John Spencer, A.J. Juliani, and Jennifer Gonzalez by way of Dr. Pamula Hart, Erica Buddington, Ken Shelton, and others. Hear their voices. Pay attention to their words.
Like many others, I am still on this journey. I have not done enough in the past and need to do more or at least other. If I am not part of the solution, then I am part of the problem.