Friday, April 4, 2014

Police Brutality: Is This The Price of Empire?

by Nomad

Recent cases of police overreaction have led to public outrage. But the question is: Is this the inevitable consequence of imperial war? If so, it shouldn't surprise anybody. One politician from an earlier age warned us that this would happen.

A few recent news stories about the  police caught my attention. Here's one from the Chicago area:
A suburban police officer has been charged with reckless conduct, in the death of a 95-year-old World War II veteran who was shocked with a stun gun and shot with beanbag rounds at a Park Forest nursing home last year.
Park Forest Police Officer Craig Taylor was charged with one count of reckless conduct in the death of John Wrana. at the Victory Centre nursing home on July 26, 2013.
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office said Wrana died from internal bleeding from blunt force trauma caused by the bean bag rounds. Cook County prosecutors said Wrana was struck five times with beanbag rounds fired from a shotgun.
According to one source, police misconduct has cost the City of Chicago over $500 million in legal settlement, fees and other costs. People are quite rightly starting to ask questions about the training and oversight of the force. 
In 2013 alone, the city shelled out $84.6 million — the largest annual payout in the decade analyzed by the Better Government Association (BGA), and more than triple the $27.3 million the city had initially projected to spend last year.
That's a lot of taxpayers' money being needlessly shelled out. Moreover, events like this seem to be happening more and more. Or maybe they are just getting reported more.  

Another notable example comes from Virginia, where a young university student was arrested (in a particularly dramatic fashion).  
Elizabeth Daly and two sorority sisters were leaving a Charlottesville grocery store last year after buying cookie dough and canned water, when plainclothes state alcohol agents followed them to their car.
In an effort to catch underage buyers of alcohol, Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control officers were staking out store parking lot. They mistook the women's LaCroix sparkling water for a case of beer, and, according to Daly, surrounded her car and began pounding on the windows. She claims that one agent jumped on the hood and another pulled a gun.
Panicked, she dialed 911, handed the phone to another student in the passenger seat and pulled away. After the dispatcher confirmed the people were indeed state agents, Daly pulled her car over and ABC officers took her into custody, booked her into jail, charged her with assaulting officers she had grazed with her car and left her behind bars overnight.
She is now suing the state for $40 million. 
While everybody can be wrong, what's remarkable is how fast the situation got out of control. In the heat of the moment, nobody seem to consider what the proportional response should be. The use of deadly (or potentially deadly) force was the first choice in both situations. 

In yet another case, Albuquerque Police Department faced a storm of criticism and angry protesters following the release of video footage of the shooting death of a homeless man. Officers shot and killed James Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man with a history of mental illness. The man was alleged to be illegally camping in the Sandia Foothills area. Hardly a threat to the public.
In the video, Boyd is seen agreeing to leave the campsite and turning away from the officers when he is shot. The Albuquerque police confirmed that officers fired six rounds of live ammunition while he was lying on the ground. Then, they let a police dog loose.
He died in hospital the following day. The event marked the department’s 24th fatal shooting out of 37 total shootings since 2010.

A Paradox of Violent Crime and Police Brutality

Violent crime rates are dropping, in fact, - the number of violent crimes and property crimes fell 5.4 percent in the first six months of 2013. This is a part of a long term trend since the mid 1990s. Meanwhile, the number of cases of police brutality seem to be rising. (That could be disputed since accurate figures are not kept.)

This infographic (click to enlarge) gives us a very good perspective on the problem.  It might tell us about the scale of the problem but it doesn't explain why.

Why is this happening? Why should a 95-year old man, a university student, and homeless man all be seen as such a threat by the authorities? These groups would normally be consider the groups most in need of police protection, not subject to police abuse.
The whole purpose of law enforcement is not to terrorize the community but to maintain order according to the law. So how could this present situation occur?

In a search for an answer, we have to look back to the warnings made by a nearly forgotten politician over a hundred years ago.

Bryan's Analogy

In August 1900 William Jennings Bryan gave a remarkable speech in which he made this analogy:
The young man upon reaching his majority can do what he pleases. He can disregard the teachings of his parents; he can trample upon all that he has been taught to consider sacred; he can disobey the laws of the state, the laws of society and the laws of God. He can stamp failure upon his life and make his very existence a curse to his fellow men and he can bring his father and mother in sorrow to the grave; but he cannot annul the sentence, “The wages of sin is death.”
A country that bases its foreign policy on domination and imperial exploitation, Bryan believed, would pay a similar price. 
And so with this nation. It is of age and it can do what it pleases; it can spurn the traditions of the past; it can repudiate the principles upon which the nation rests; it can employ force instead of reason; it can substitute might for right; it can conquer weaker people; it can exploit their lands, appropriate their property and kill their people; but it cannot repeal the moral law or escape the punishment decreed for the violation of human rights.
That punishment hasn't come from international courts but in the higher court of Karma. But it wasn't divine magic; there was a logic behind the Karma.
If we have an imperial policy we must have a great standing army as its natural and necessary complement. ...A large standing army is not only a pecuniary burden to the people, and, if accompanied by compulsory service, a constant source of irritation, but it is ever a menace to a republican form of government.
The army is the personification of force, and militarism will inevitably change the ideals of the people and turn the thoughts of our young men from the arts of peace to the science of war. The government which relies for its defense upon its citizens is more likely to be just than one which has at call a large body of professional soldiers.
If a nation that denies other people the right to self-government, in short order, it will deny its own people the same liberties. 
*   *   *
In real terms, Bryan's warning about the price of Empire has been playing out inside the nation. The trail of oppression- from battlefield to homeland- is clearly defined. As an article in The Atlantic points out:
In an effort to remedy their relative inadequacy in dealing with terrorism on U.S. soil, police forces throughout the country have purchased military equipment, adopted military training, and sought to inculcate a "soldier's mentality" among their ranks. Though the reasons for this increasing militarization of American police forces seem obvious, the dangerous side effects are somewhat less apparent.
Undoubtedly, American police departments have substantially increased their use of military-grade equipment and weaponry to perform their counter-terrorism duties, adopting everything from body armor to, in some cases, attack helicopters.
At no time did anybody question why police departments around the country would require such equipment and advanced weaponry. The war was not against "them" anymore, it seems, it was against the people as a whole. The same people ironically whose taxes paid for the weapons used against them if they dared to protest government policy.

Drones over US skies

The fact that the police are now using the same techniques that the military uses against the enemy was spectacularly highlighted when the use of drones was approved for domestic law enforcement. Just for surveillance? Maybe not.  Last year a New York Times article noted:
As Congress considers a new immigration law that would expand the fleet of unmanned drones along the border, the agency in charge of border protection is increasingly offering the military-grade drones it already owns to domestic law enforcement agencies and has considered equipping them with “nonlethal weapons,” according to documents recently made public.
The article also points out that the use of drones is growing exponentially. In 2010, the "drones were used by other agencies 30 times; in 2012, that jumped to 250 times." When drones were used on the battlefield, innocent victims became an acceptable part of modern warfare.
The question is whether innocent victims in the Heartland- meaning, your relatives and your neighbors- will be equally acceptable.

When Non-Lethal Isn't

Of course, "non-lethal" is a very slippery term. Designed to "control crowds, clear streets, subdue and restrain individuals and secure borders, the technology is advancing far beyond the government's ability to regulate. We have already seen how, in the wrong hands, non-lethal weapons can be misused. For instance, a young graffiti artist died from a heart attack after being shot by Miami Beach police with a non-lethal taser.

In another case, non-lethal pepper spray resulted in the death of 62 year old Nicholas Christie. Apparently suffering from a mental breakdown, Christie was arrested twice for disorderly conduct and trespassing. In the course of his 43 hour incarceration, Christie was spray over ten times. 
According to jail staff, the man's medical records were not available at the time of his arrest. In fact, according to other reports, Christie gave his medical history and a list of medications to the staff days earlier. 
The officers involved in the incident say that Christie was “combative, despite the fact he was restrained in a chair so he allegedly wouldn’t spit at his jailers.” However, other inmates on the cell block tell a different story. They say that there was excessive use of pepper spray, his whole head was turning purple, he was gasping for air and was telling the officers that he couldn’t breathe and that he had a heart condition. (source: Injury Board)
Whichever version of events one chooses to believe, it is impossible to claim that "non-lethal weapons" are not potentially deadly when misused. 

Even ignoring the case in which non-lethal weapons have resulted in deaths, we have seen how these police tools have been used to deny citizens their liberty. I'm thinking of the UCLA protests and the Occupy movement in New York City where freedom of peaceful assembly and free speech were effectively criminalized. 

The war on terrorism- used to enlarge the American Empire- has suddenly transformed into a war on all dissent. The same tools used to oppress over nations are now being used to oppress any opposition, even from 95-year-old seniors and frightened teenage girls in a store parking lot. 
None of this would have surprise Bryan who in the same speech also observed:
If there is poison in the blood of the hand it will ultimately reach the heart.
UPDATE: Here's an example of how belligerent drunks are handled in Norway. Amazingly not one shot is fired.