Shots Fired – The Tragedy of Police Shootings

August 15, 2017

Last night I heard an episode of Radio Lab, which they call “Shots Fired,” that is far and away the best presentation I have heard about the persistent tragedy of police shootings.

They were very blunt about the part that racial prejudice plays in leading cops to make all the wrong assumptions with tragic results, as well as the disasters brought about by those cops who use positions in the police force to act out their aggressions, who are, in a word, bullies. It was also realistic in analyzing steps that a few departments have taken to break or attenuate the chains of events that lead to tragedy.

I’ve known, written and spoken about police shootings for decades and am well acquainted with the outlines of what has been going on. This program was a very well-rounded, well-done piece. It had me in tears for a full hour, but it was by no means all “touchy-feelie;” the program explored stories, facts, statistics, a support group, conversation with police administrators and some real understanding and sleuthing by some very dedicated, thorough and persistent reporters.

This is a podcast everyone should see and hear, including the police – the reporting is done in a way which can even reach police administrators who are looking for why these events happen and how they can deal with it.

Radiolab did us a service; now we need to get the story out.

For the podcast, click here.

You will see mention of a very different follow up which was not aired and is for podcast only. It examines the miscommunications which led to the killing of a white woman. The point they try to make in this second podcast is that there are multiple opportunities for miscommunications which can and did have tragic results. In this case the woman, thinking the police were intruders, came out holding a shotgun, the last trigger to the barrage of shots which killed her.

 

 

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The Code of Silence and the Stereotype of Bravery

March 8, 2016

It’s hard to explain to most people how serious the problems with the police are. Ideology makes people choose sides and blink reality. Urging change is treated by police as pure hostility. There are many good policemen doing everything they can to protect all of us. Equally clearly there are policemen who are there for the power trip from the uniform or from their weapons.

But their solidarity and their code of silence make it a much more serious problem, making all criticism out of bounds and protecting policemen who commit serious crimes or abuses.

Sometimes victim’s families win civil suits but the city pays, which means you and me pay, while the officers will be indemnified. That’s not nearly good enough.

Some police were so brave that they were terrified by a man reaching for his front door key and pulverized him with 41 shots. So brave that a Black man in a winter coat, walking like he had a bad knee, a limp or a package – suggests a gun to them and the encounter ends with his death. Or they decide to take what they think the law is into their own hands in a deliberately rough a ride before considering a trip to the hospital, recently ending one victim’s life in Baltimore. I don’t buy stereotypes, including stereotypes of the police. My blood curdles when officers who should be brave and careful shoot unarmed and law-abiding Black men in the back saying they were scared.

Of course it’s now legal to carry guns. But not for African-American men. It’s not even legal for African-American men to look like they might be carrying a gun because it scares our policemen and someone often dies. Of course the rest of us are not supposed to react that way – we’d be charged with murder.

We call the police the finest – but many can’t deal with any but instantaneous obedience and agreement. Objections are often met with charges of resisting arrest or interfering with a police officer. My advice to anyone stopped by the police is to sound apologetic and compliant but say absolutely nothing except your desire to talk to an attorney – politely. It’s my advice to stay alive. But too many don’t get the message. They’re Americans who “know their rights” and they’re angry when they’re stopped for no good reason. They don’t respect people who fly off the handle at the first sign of disagreement, using their weapons to get “respect” for the cops.

Boy I’d love to have unqualified confidence in cops and troopers, to respect their bravery, good sense and commitment to police themselves. But fairness, accuracy and justice are far from consistent results of policing. Cops have told me they’d never rat on a brother and would deny what they knew to be true. I’ve had policemen tell me they change the facts to make people guilty of crimes – like convicting Black or young men in the wrong attire of carrying concealed weapons – including hunting rifles in plain view. Judges have told me they believe the police about half the time – they just don’t know which half.

There have been many exposes of police corruption. But when someone tries to stop it, they are ostracized, forced out or worse. Police unions protect police records so that no one, including the press, can get the facts.

That’s the force we have – one that condones bad behavior over codes of decent conduct. That’s not what our Founders dreamed of or what we deserve. It’s not about rogue officers. It’s about the misplaced loyalty that protects bad behavior. I’d lock their guns in the armory until they learned to police themselves and protect us all.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 8, 2016.


Terrorism, the NRA “Solution,” and Safety at Home

December 8, 2015

For some people, the best solution to every problem is to shoot at it, and presidents aren’t leaders unless they’re yelling “charge” into battle. I want to bite off a domestic piece of that nonsense. In the wake of every terrorist tragedy, senators, sheriffs, NRA officers and supporters propose more guns, carry your guns, be ready to defend yourself, ourselves, wherever and whenever occasion arises.[1]

We have some 15,000 murders a year in the U.S., 40,000 suicides, mostly by firearms, and under 30 deaths a year from terrorism. CNN checked Obama’s comparison of deaths by firearms and by terrorism in the U.S. From 2001 to 2013, they found that people killed by terrorists in the U.S. were less than 1/1000th the number killed by firearms.[2] Firearms deaths dwarfed terrorism deaths even in 2001. Whether it’s a good tradeoff depends on what gets worse.

Note though, if we’re all armed, we’ll need to do things differently. Once we assume everyone is armed, when someone demands something, whatever it is – turn off the radio, get out of my way – are we toast if we don’t comply? Do guns become the tool of bullies? Isn’t that some of what police shootings of unarmed people reveal? Police say they were scared because someone with his back turned may have had something in his hands. Do we all get to be that scared, pulling the trigger at anyone whose safety we can’t determine? We’ll have to be suspicious. Who’s hot tempered? Who’s too scared to trust? Who’s a criminal, terrorist, gang member or bully?

America was built on trust and teamwork. Break that down and sap our strength. We might stop some terrorists but America’s strength will dissipate in squabbles and fear – like those that poison and stultify much of the Third World.

Arming ourselves will partially thwart some similarly-armed terrorists but guns can  be replaced by explosives which do their damage before anyone knows what’s happening.

A couple of decades ago a disappointed former student attacked our library – but thank heavens he attacked a glass door with an axe rather than attacking people with a gun. No school can avoid flunking some students out and no employer can avoid firing some employees. One such employee got a gun and murdered one of my clients some years ago. But the police are taught that it’s too late to react once someone starts to pull a gun. My client, armed or not, never had a chance. So now what?

There are alternatives. I’m a civil libertarian but I have no problem with cameras. Security staffs at many places have monitors showing them many parts of the building. I’m a lot happier with observe-and-respond than having a bunch of trigger-happy gun toters wandering around wondering if I or anyone else should be shot. Similarly, with the repeated police shootings of unarmed men, I’d be a lot more comfortable if they left their guns at the station for access only as needed. I’d also be much more comfortable with police departments and the FBI if they stopped bribing unreliable informants to trap people in stings, send innocent people to prison, and corrupt the Bureau in the process. Have a tool, use a tool. These are dangerous tools for routine use.

America would be much safer if we found ways to build on our principles, instead of abandoning them in the chimerical belief that we could protect ourselves better with guns.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 8, 2015.

[1] See http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/12/03/ulster-county-sheriff-carry-guns/; http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/marco-rubio-slams-bill-guns-terrorists-felons-article-1.2455280; http://www.darkcanyon.net/Terrorism%20A%20Good%20Defense%20Is%20A%20Good%20Carry.htm.

[2] See https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/violent-crime/murder; http://www.save.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.viewPage&page_id=705D5DF4-055B-F1EC-3F66462866FCB4E6; http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/02/us/oregon-shooting-terrorism-gun-violence/ .


This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft

September 15, 2015

This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft.

The Republican candidates have been telling us who they want to keep out, and whom they don’t like or wouldn’t lift a finger for – Mexicans, Iran, Muslims, the poor, women, peaceniks. And they make it pretty obvious whom they do like – whites, “real men,” cops, soldiers, guns, the U.S., especially the U.S. before any of us were born, and Christians. It’s all stereotypes, of course. No group of people is all good or all bad – not even conservatives, a big stretch for me. There are always gradations – people need to be judged on their behavior. But that’s too much work. Simplification is so much easier.

Let’s talk about something else they don’t like – democracy. All their blather about the free market and government is little more than an attack on democracy. In fact polls reveal that, on average, conservatives are typically less supportive of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights – except the freedom to carry guns so that, if what they define as the need arrives, you can blow whomever away. Heaven forbid we should have to live together. I glory in walking out of Penn Station in New York – it seems like the whole world is right there and managing to get along; how wonderful in this increasingly contentious world.

Oh on the subject of New York City, that’s a stereotype right there – for much of America New York City is Sodom and Gomorrah. Never mind that the City is actually composed of Americans from all over the country – their own relatives, friends and classmates – as well as a major first stop for immigrants, the same immigrant streams that composed the rest of the country. No, New York is heathen. I remember stopping downstairs for a haircut in a building where I had a temporary apartment in Ohio. The barber was a woman and as we chatted she told me that she was surprised that New Yorkers actually tried to help each other in the days after 9/11. Really – did she think we were coyotes?

It makes me nostalgic too – for the draft! There was actually a time when Americans from all over had to meet, interact, make friends, and did. They introduced each other to their eventual brides, formed business partnerships, learned to appreciate the best in each other’s backgrounds. The draft was truly the incubus of democracy. Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[i] Got that right.

Actually the military has been working on that problem since the country was formed. Contrary to what many people think, Americans at the founding spoke many languages and have continued to speak many languages. The military struggled with whipping those disparate forces into a unified fighting team. They tried separate local units and units recruited by leaders like Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” but they tossed all that aside and put people into those military tents without regard to their origins.

The racial divide forced the military to think again about the problem. It turned out that mixed race units in World War II came back positive about the possibilities of integration. But Vietnam was hard, a stalemate in the swamps in the middle of turmoil back home. But the military responded by making it a part of every officer’s responsibility not only to achieve racial peace and cooperation, but to make sure that soldiers of all races developed appropriately, got training and took on responsibilities leading to promotions.

As a youth I feared the draft; I knew my own physical weaknesses. For me the Peace Corps was a good choice, one that helped me develop as a human being. And there were problems with the way the draft was handled. But I miss it nonetheless. Truly national service is a very good idea for a democratic country.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 15, 2015.

[i] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America From the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (New York: Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).


Do the police really have no time to do anything but shoot?

August 4, 2015

Perhaps you read the NY Times story over the weekend about the self-described expert in police killings, William Lewinski, who justifies every police killing on the ground that the policeman had no time to protect himself, no time to do anything but shoot. Victim’s back turned, no time. Hand in pocket, no time. Victim doing what the officer told him to do, no time. All the evidence contradicts the statement of the officer, no time.

On Lewinski’s logic, we should all not only carry weapons, we should shoot everyone on sight, because we have no time to react, so we should all practice  preemptive killing – dead men can’t shoot us. What we should really do is move to Iraq or Syria because that’s a matter of course there. Shoot, shoot, shoot.

And understanding that the police are taught by nut-jobs like Lewinski to shoot pro-actively, what we should really do is go out like armed vigilantes and attack the police systematically, kill ‘em all so they can no longer attack us. And in case you hadn’t noticed there have been groups that have targeted the police and for just that reason.

Lewinski’s approach is good only for the undertakers. I don’t know what the undertakers give him but they should chip in a lot because they will certainly benefit from a shoot on sight society.

Of course if you or I actually took that advice, we’d be charged with murder. But the rules don’t apply to the police. We can’t shoot unarmed people but police can – and get away with it. We can’t shoot people in the back but police can – and get away with it. We can’t tell a bunch of lies about what happened that are contradicted by the provable facts and get away with it but police can – and get away with it. Thanks to Lewinski.

Think what Lewinski and others of his ilk would have to tell the police if, like most of us, they weren’t armed. They’d have to tell the police to use their heads, not their guns. They’d have to tell the police to cool tempers instead of raising them. They’d have to tell the police that the best response to a disagreement isn’t a hole in the head. They’d have to tell the police that a traffic stop isn’t ground for ending someone’s life.

What a different world it would be if we learned to live together, if we learned that there is a difference between civilization and a jungle, if we learned that the default rule is respect for human beings, respect for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as the Declaration of Independence tried to tell the world. What a different world it would be if police in America acted like our servants, not our rulers, that they don’t have a God-given right to issue commands but that like most of us, the magic word is “please.”

It’s time to imitate the British and take the guns out of the hands of the cops and leave to special rules those more unusual occasions when guns should be issued for specific jobs and reasons. The ordinary rule must be to use our heads instead of blowing away everyone in sight, leaving only death and destruction in the wake of the police.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 4, 2015.


NYPD – What Now?

January 29, 2015

Two weeks ago I described my concerns about the New York City Police Department. It’s actually a much bigger problem – police all over the country have been using their power and their guns instead of their heads. Many people in our communities have been paying the price for years. Big problem, all over the place, persistent, rooted in the system, so are we stuck with it?

So let me offer some suggestions.

First, police brass can act. They can look at the records to see which policemen frequently charge people with the kind of minor crimes police use to cover up their own abusive behavior – charges like resisting arrest.[1] The brass could demand that police make good relations with people on the street a priority. Unfortunately, however, that won’t work without buy-in by a large portion of the department. Otherwise it will disappear – resisted, pushed out, forgotten.

By comparison, Vietnam taught the generals the importance of race relations – you can’t have a multi-racial military with an internal race war. Soldiers who’d be happier if the next guy in the foxhole took it for Old Glory are not “with the program.” That’s an internal problem rather than community relations but it’s instructive. The military didn’t get all ideological about how to do it and they didn’t run up the old race pride. They just asked what works.

So they made race relations a part of the responsibility of every officer. You want a promotion? You’re going to have to see to it that all the soldiers in your unit work together, that all the talent gets recognized, and promoted, regardless of color. And they got buy-in because people throughout the military understood the need.

Often when I run into people in the service I ask them about it. Blacks tell me life is much more civilized in military than in civilian life. They know that their accomplishments will be respected, that it’s worth their effort and cooperation.

For the police, responsibility would have to include relations with the communities served, and all the people in them. Imagine police having to think about community relations when they decide to stop and frisk someone because he’s Black or isn’t dressed nice, or before they pull a gun on or kill someone who is unarmed.

Unfortunately, I’m not confident we could get buy-in for such a good top to bottom renovation of the Force. Let me offer a wake-up call. New York City created community school boards, decentralizing the school system, a few years back. They put the communities in charge of the schools. That had problems but it had one big advantage – it broke up pre-existing power centers. It meant that people had to pay attention to the community. Imagine if the police had to make nice to the communities they serve. That’s an interesting suggestion, isn’t it? And the responses would highlight the problems. First the prejudices would show – “they,” meaning minority communities of course, can’t handle that. Some officers would have to bury those attitudes. That alone might do a lot of good. And police would respond that their perks are at stake. Well that is the problem – one of their perks has been the ability to abuse people without consequences.

Whatever you do in your community, apologies don’t solve the problem – get police attention with a significant proposal that puts the community in charge and let the police try to fight that with guns ablaze!

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 27, 2015.

[1] See “NYPD Disciplinary Problems Linked To A ‘Failure Of Accountability’” with Robert Lewis and guests Darvel Elliot, Samuel Walker, Candace McCoy, Richard Emery and William Bratton, on Morning Edition, January 16, 2015, 10:00 AM EST (National Public Radio).


Police Accountability

January 6, 2015

I’ve been reading a case decided in the European Court of Human Rights. It involved opposing libel suits arising out of claims of police brutality in Bergen, Norway.[1] The opinion of four judges, whose names I will not try to pronounce, struck me. The judges pointed out that the purpose of the libel suits brought by the police officers “was to suppress the debate on this issue….” But they pointed out that the government has “a monopoly over force” and that monopoly “also entails the danger of force being abused to the detriment of the very values it is meant to uphold.” Therefore “abuse of force by officials is not just one of many issues of broad general interest.” Instead, “it is … a matter of primary concern in any society.” Keeping authorities in check is particularly important for a democracy. And the ability to hold the states’ use of force in check requires protecting those who raise the alarm.

The European Commission for Democracy Through Law observed that “In numerous states … [there is a] general ban on the creation of para‑military formations.”[2] That’s because they are armed and dangerous.

So the judges in the Bergen case emphasized the “vital need for every society to exercise strict supervision over all use of force in the name of society.” Critics of official abuse need to be protected. The 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment specifically protects the right to complain.

But not about the New York City police.

It’s time we learn that there are wonderful police, and there are terrible police. But the culture of silence by which they protect each other against any and all criticism makes the wonderful police into allies of the terrible police. They’re unaccountable to each other and they’re unaccountable to the rest of us.

You and I can’t go walk down the street saying that guy down there could be armed, so if he puts his hands in his pocket I’m going to kill him. That’s not self-defense; that’s murder. But the police, who have sworn to defend us, insist they have that right to kill on the mere possibility that someone could be armed with evil intent. They insist they do not even have to account for it or defend themselves – it is disloyalty even to criticize or call for an investigation as Mayor de Blasio has done.

What the police are doing is showing that they are a special interest, not public servants. Everyone else is accountable, from the President down to the janitor, everyone is subject to investigation and criticism, everyone’s methods are open for revision. Heads of government departments and heads of corporations are accountability to us, to the public. But not the guys that claim the right to kill us. That has a clear meaning for me – I don’t trust them. They have a code of silence and self-protection and they just dare us even to question them. That means they should not be trusted. Just one more special interest trying to bilk the public. New York City’s Police have LOST my respect.

Soldiers in the military, regardless of politics, do not turn their backs on the Commander-in-Chief. That’s unacceptable. But it’s typical of the NYPD – they’re spoiled, dangerous and out of control.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 6, 2015.

[1] Opinion of Judges Kūris, Türmen, Strážnická and Greve, dissenting in Nilsen and Johnsen v. Norway, [1999] ECHR 23118/93[GC] (25 NOVEMBER 1999).

[2] Explanatory Report, incorporated as part III of Guidelines On Prohibition And Dissolution Of Political Parties, note 361 above, at ¶11, available at http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2000/CDL-INF(2000)001-e.pdf.


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