Monday, December 8, 2014

How We Came to Accept Police Brutality as the Norm 1/2

by Nomad

With all the protests around the country against abusive law enforcement, it is a good time to ask how we as a country got into this situation. Is it simply a matter of racism permeating police departments or does it go deeper?
With all of the safeguards hard-wired into the Constitution, how could we have allowed it to happen?

A Simple Question of Trust
Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.    Frederick Douglas
There's been a lot of superficial analysis about the reasons for the nationwide protests in the wake of the Brown and Garner cases. The fact that US law enforcement can literally get away with murdering unarmed citizens in front of witnesses has shocked the nation. 
(In fact this phenomenon has been going on for decades and if anything, the patience of the black community is the truly surprising aspect.) 

Racism in the country's police departments has been blamed. A broken-down justice system has also been pointed to. In fact, it's all of those things but there's a deeper problem as well:  A lack of trust in the law enforcement agencies by the black and minority communities. 
This lack of trust has been further reinforced by a lack of credibility of the oversight process after possible violations have occurred.
It's not something that should be under-estimated. Trust is the glue that holds the entire justice system together. Without trust, the entire structure of law and order collapses pretty quickly. Now America has begun to question whether we might not have bestowed too much trust in law enforcement.  

Every time a case of police brutality goes unpunished, it becomes a double failure for the entire justice system. Firstly, from the offense itself and secondly, by the damage it does to public trust.

Law enforcement, says Ms. Deborah England, a California civil rights lawyer, is given a great deal of latitude in performing their duties.
Because they are expected to protect the public and confront potentially violent individuals, they can legally use physical, and even deadly, force under certain circumstances. However, an officer who uses force when it is not called for, or who uses more force than is necessary to perform his or her job, may cross the line into police brutality.
Although the phrase "police brutality" is not a legal one, it is generally defined as "the use of excessive and/or unnecessary force by police when dealing with civilians. “Excessive use of force” means a force well beyond what would be necessary in order to handle a situation. 

Clearly the problem lies in the interpretation of these words. When does force become "excessive" and when does it become "unnecessary"? Due to the nature of the job, deciding what degree of force is necessary and at what point that force becomes excessive, is largely up to the police to decide at the moment. 

Guidelines and training programs can be helpful but in the end, each decision an officer makes becomes a test of the public trust. (The same is true for the decisions of grand juries after the fact.)

Broken Windows
Back in the 1980s, the public was ready for a tougher more robust policy on crime. The “broken windows” theory, credited to the late James Wilson and George Kelling, became popular among conservatives searching for policy.

There was never question that both of these experts had the credentials. Professor Prof. Kelling is an American criminologist, Professor at Rutgers University, a Research Fellow at Harvard University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. UCLA Prof. James Wilson, who died in 2012,  was academic, political scientist, and an authority on public administration

Their theory suggested that crime will become a fact of life in communities where there is no visible police presence. When a visible law enforcement makes direct contact with the local community, it creates an atmosphere of safety for the residents. Preventing small crimes such as vandalism, vagrancy laws, and public drinking an atmosphere of law and order can thrive.  

With less fear, residents feel more comfortable reporting more serious crimes. In some ways, it can be seen as a trust-building exercise with the local community. However, the original Atlantic article make no claims that his new approach by itself can reduce crime. 
The professors noted that a neighborhood can feel "safer" even "when the crime rate has not gone down—in fact, may have gone up."

Another aspect of the theory called for taking an active role in cleaning the streets of "undesirable types." This was called "proactive policing" and it was credited with the reduction of crime in New York and other cities. (Later research cast some considerable doubt on those claims.)

Even though, Wilson and Kelling explained, one broken window or one homeless person on the street might not do great harm to the community, the problem comes up with the entire neighbor is cheapened by the presence of not one but dozens of homes with broken windows and vagrants living on the street. The police have the duty to use the anti-vagrancy laws not to punish the homeless, they explained, but to keep undesirables from damaging the image of the neighborhood. 

The Problem with the Approach
The 1982 Atlantic article which first outlined the "broken windows theory" which launched the pro-active policing idea also had this very important caveat.
The concern about equity is more serious. We might agree that certain behavior makes one person more undesirable than another but how do we ensure that age or skin color or national origin or harmless mannerisms will not also become the basis for distinguishing the undesirable from the desirable? How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?
This is precisely the problem today.Their answer is pretty eye-opening.
We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question. We are not confident that there is a satisfactory answer except to hope that by their selection, training, and supervision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority. That limit, roughly, is this—the police exist to help regulate behavior, not to maintain the racial or ethnic purity of a neighborhood.
In short, the use of pro-active policing always had a possibility for abuse. It was based on a "hope" that racial discrimination wouldn't influence decision-making. It was hoped that training and supervision could weed out the problem officers. Police could be magically "inculcated" against their latent bigotry. So, this problem was understood by its main proponents even before it became public policy. 

Regardless of this warning, Reagan- and many other conservatives that followed him- urged this policy as the main tool in his anti-crime crusade. That Reagan should have disregarded the warning of the possibility of race inequality shouldn't have surprised anybody.

When it came to race relations and Reagan, there had always been some serious doubts.

When Reagan Got Tough
Even before Reagan became president, before he became governor of California, he owed much of his political success by playing on white middle class resentments.

According to an article in LIFE Magazine from October 1966 when Reagan was running for governor, there were questions during the campaign about Reagan's extreme positions and in particular his connections with the racist John Birch Society.
The extremism issue indeed could hurt Reagan, but working in his favor is the other surreptitious issue of the campaign: "white backlash." It flared to the surface last week after the worst race riot in San Francisco history, touched off when a policeman shot a Negro youth he suspected of care theft.
Reagan's position on the infamous Watts riots was that Governor Pat Brown simply had not acted tough enough against the protesters. It was exactly what white conservative Americans wanted to hear.

The newly elected governor in January 1967, Ronald Reagan, announced his intention to give  much more latitude to law enforcement.
Without respect for law enforcement, laws cannot be carried out. We must have respect, not only for the law, but also for the many who dedicate their lives to the protection of society through enforcement of the law.
The means of oversight was not mentioned at all. Law enforcement was simply trusted to do the right thing. That California police officers might have prejudicial attitudes against minorities was simply not considered. 

When Reagan running for president, he basically followed the same strategy. The get-tough policy found a lot support from conservatives and the white majority who saw rising crimes rates a result of a certain softness on offenders. And they blamed it squarely on minorities, particularly the black community.

As Paul Krugman has pointed out, there was always a hint of racism in both campaign of 1980 and the presidency itself. Krugman cites numerous examples: Reagan's cheering of states' rights in 1980s in a Mississippi town where civil rights workers had been murdered, declaring that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been “humiliating to the South."

While Reagan never explicitly stated that the welfare queen driving her Cadillac and "strapping young buck” who using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks at the grocery store were black, white conservatives could understand exactly who Reagan was referring to.

Reagan's anti-crime crusade was something white conservatives could support without being accused of outright racism. As Reagan explained, it was liberal permissive policies that were to blame for the soaring crime rates. Reagan's attorney general, William French Smith, noted that President Reagan aspired to nothing less than readjusting the "balance between the forces of law and the forces of lawlessness."

A few months after the Atlantic article, in a September 1982 radio address to the nation on crime, Reagan noted that Americans were "losing faith in our courts and our entire legal system."
The system, he said, was not tough enough on criminals. Reagan pointed out that 8 out of 10 Americans believed that the criminal justice system does not deter crime.

He advocated a direct and robust approach. He spoke of his determination "to get these hardened criminals off the street and into jail." For the majority of Americans, both black and white, it must have sounded like music to their ears. Finally somebody was doing something about the problem of crime. 

Reagan outlined several areas that he believed needed strengthening, such as mandatory minimum sentencing, stronger criminal forfeiture laws and common-sense revisions of the insanity defense. 

The Painful Harvest of Bad Policy
Today, these get-tough-on-crime tools have, according to critics, been abused and have become a source of distrust in the justice process. It's not merely an issue of race or injustices down to a particular minority.
Mandatory minimum sentencing for example, especially when it came to relatively minor drug offenses, is cited as one of the major factors in overcrowded prisons. 

According to A Pew Poll 63 percent of people say that states moving away from the idea of mandatory prison sentences for non-violent offenses is a good thing. By comparison, just 32 percent were opposed to the idea. In 2001, it was quite a different story with public opinion much more divided on the issue. (Other polls found that an astounding 77 percent of Americans favor eliminating mandatory minimum prisons sentences for non-violent offenders.)

Other Reagan solutions mentioned back in 1982 are also being questioned. Revisions in the the insanity defense has led to other serious injustices that few advocates on a tough anti-crime policy want to admit. There are now 10 times more mentally ill Americans in prisons and jails than in state psychiatric hospitals. These are patients, not criminals, and those who are imprisoned often leave incarceration sicker than when they entered.

Compare that to he mid-1970s, when studies in some states suggested that about 5% of jail inmates were seriously mentally ill. Reagan simply appears to deny the fact that there are people with genuine psychological illnesses.

Furthermore, there is a still darker side. The mentally-ill and mentally-handicapped citizens are often particularly vulnerable to being wrongfully convicted, according to the ACLU. 
Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center, put it this way: 
“The lack of treatment for seriously ill inmates is inhumane and should not be allowed in a civilized society.”
Altogether, the Reagan approach to crime, for whatever benefits it might have had in the short term, became in the long term the very definition of working at cross-purposes and of bad policy.
*   *   *
The War on Crime, like the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, has come at a great cost to the rights of all citizens. Whether those costs were too great depended mostly on the color of your skin.
That injustice was never evenly distributed among the population as a whole. The majority of white Americans saw no harm in increased security even at the cost of another citizen's rights.
Nevertheless, with Reagan's 1982 speech the dubious age of pro-active policing had begun.

In Part Two we will examine what pro-active policing is and why it has led to the protests and rage we see in the streets these last few weeks.


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