Guns make bullies of us all

April 8, 2019

We often use the tool at hand for whatever we’re trying to do. Got aspirin or alcohol? Drink it down ‘cause everything feels like a pain. Got a wrench? Everything looks like a pipe. Got a hammer and everything looks like a nail. Pete Seeger sang If I Had a Hammer he’d have used it to hammer out justice. It’s a wonderful song but it seems like the wrong tool.

Some of you may remember the late Congressman Steve Solarz. We went to high school together and I always remember a conversation we had about brotherhood – in student government I headed the brotherhood commission. Steve understood my passion and commented we can’t hammer brotherhood into people. Indeed, we can’t. Instead I had the privilege of inviting Jesse Owens to our school and introducing him to the assembly. Owens, an African-American, had won four medals at the 1936 Olympics in front of the Nazis in Berlin, Germany. We gave him our brotherhood award and then had the privilege of hearing him deliver an impressive and very powerful talk about brotherhood – a great alternative to using a hammer.

In the afternoon before I drafted this commentary, I read about a recent incident of abusive policing in Albany. In the evening, my email was filled with a discussion among law professors about an example in Louisville. Look at Washington and see international sabre-rattling. I looked over some draft commentary and read one about Israel’s reliance on force. And I realized there is a theme. Everybody has the same hammer with a barrel and a trigger. Much too often, from Albany to Louisville to Israel, the Philippines and many other places, the people with the guns don’t bother using their heads or their manners. They don’t have to. Them guns ‘ll make people shut up.

I don’t want to be simplistic about it. Policy changes often lead to overreaction. Focusing on domestic law enforcement, the public somehow has to support the police while also controlling it.

Nevertheless, mappingpoliceviolence.org/ tells us “There are proven solutions. Police Departments that have adopted these use of force policies kill significantly fewer people. But few departments have adopted them.”

Of course, if we could hang them up or put them away except when necessary, we could eliminate a lot of mistaken killing of innocent and unarmed people. There’s lots that police do that don’t call for guns.

Guns also don’t belong in cities. It’s one thing to use a gun for hunting but it’s another for people like George Zimmerman to think they are protecting the community by carrying a gun and killing an unarmed 17-year-old African-American who was heading away from, not toward, Zimmerman.

Guns do not belong in the hands of people who are convicted of domestic violence or any other kind of violence – only the manufacturers could truly like selling guns to people likely to use them on their families. Guns enable people to act out their worst instincts.

I support the Second Amendment right to carry a muzzle-loading-single-shot-18th-century device deep in the woods. That’s the strict construction that conservative judges have been trying to teach us to use. Claims about the breadth of the Second Amendment come from people’s prejudices, not the Constitution. Guns should need an excuse and a warrant before they are pulled out in public because guns make bullies of us all.

— Addendum – four excellent podcasts and web sites:

Shots Fired Part 1: https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/shots-fired-part-1

Shots Fired Part 2: https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/shots-fired-part-2

https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/

http://useofforceproject.org/#project

— This commentary is scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 9, 2019.

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Another Black man shot in the back by police

January 15, 2019

Albany’s DA recently decided against prosecuting anyone in connection with police shooting of a Black man and paralyzing him. He may have had a hunting knife. But police first charged that he was  charging them. So the apparent justification was that the police were scared. Then reports of a video showed that he was running away and was shot in the back.

I have no inside knowledge of this case but, unfortunately, it’s part of a pattern. Police claim that a Black man was charging them when a video shows that the guy was running away with his back turned. Or the police acknowledge that he was running away but claim to be scared because he was carrying something, maybe a knife or the keys to his apartment. One Black man after another has been shot in the back by police who claim to be scared that he would turn around, too scared of Black men to hold their fire when they have no reasonable fear of his behavior.

Actually it’s systematic partly because police are trained that they have no time. So they shoot first and ask questions later. Shooting is a first, not a last, resort. As a result of that training, even some Black officers have bought into it.

Think about it. If you were charged with shooting a man in the back and you told a jury that you were scared because the man was carrying something, you’d be convicted of manslaughter at the least. You and I have no right to shoot on the basis of speculation of what could be. You can’t mow people down because one of them might turn around revealing an unseen weapon, perhaps a gun in his briefcase. That’s not reasonable behavior; it’s not a rule we can live with. A rule of fear would put us all under ground. The law properly requires more before you can kill. But put on a badge and strap on a holster and suddenly there are no rules.

If this were the Philippines or Indonesia we’d call it “impunity.” When big shots over there act with impunity it means they are not accountable for their behavior. It’s here too when police treat Black men as if their lives do not matter.

The public seems to think that brave people must be honest and decent. But what do you do with the bravery of athletes who abuse women? I don’t know the percentages, but what do you do with the regular revelations of police who commit crimes, frame people for crimes they didn’t commit, and abuse women and Blacks? In addition to repeated revelation of Black men shot in the back by police, we’ve had revelations in New York about police ordering women to strip on the highway and revelations about frame-ups on the southern tier. We know that prejudice compounds the message of training that drives police to shoot African-Americans in the back. Should we assume that badges and guns will produce honorable behavior, make police feel empowered to take advantage of others, or both?

I would make it illegal to shoot anyone in the back unless they are in fact armed and dangerous. Or I’d require a warrant before police get to strap on weapons. A free country cannot have armed men acting with impunity, with or without badges. It is totally unacceptable. You can’t correct death.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 15, 2019.


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.

 

 


Silencing: Pensions, Kurds and Black Lives Matter

August 16, 2016

We watched a Black Lives Matter march pass in front of our house recently. It reminded me of something that happened in 1972, when NBC aired a documentary called “Pensions: The Broken Promise.” It described many instances in which loopholes in pension plans left people without the pensions they thought they had. The narrator called the “situation” “deplorable.” The documentary won many awards and played a part in developing public support for pension legislation which now goes under the acronym ERISA.

But a group called Accuracy in Media sued pursuant to the now defunct “fairness doctrine,” claiming that the documentary presented a “distorted picture of the private pension system” because almost nothing was presented on the positive side.[1] They wanted to censor NBC for not airing another program about all the good pensions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of NBC. The instances detailed in the documentary really happened; they were undisputed. The complaint asked NBC to air a documentary on a different issue – the overall soundness of pensions in America. The Court understood that requiring NBC to discuss the overall issue would dilute its attack on the abuses that had been allowed and had left many workers without pensions. It also might mean that broadcasters in the future would pull their punches, and avoid controversial exposes, no matter how valuable. Those consequences would neuter, rather than contribute, to public discussion of controversial issues of public importance.[2]

Let me turn to another place where the same tactic is being used. Turkey has not allowed Kurdish grievances to be raised. The government says that there are no Kurds, or no loyal Kurds; there are only Turks. So they can talk about grievances so long as they have nothing to do with Kurds. Having silenced Kurds, they then continue to fight a shooting war against the Kurds.

There have been calls for the same method of silencing in an American context today. Various groups attack Black Lives Matter because they say, accurately, that all lives matter. But the meaning of their attack is to neuter the Black Lives Matter campaign. Of course all lives matter, but African-Americans have had distinctive problems. To require Black Lives Matter to discuss the whole issue of abusive treatment of everyone would dilute their campaign, their point, and make it harder to focus on the difference in the way people are treated, the reason why Black parents have to have “the conversation” with their children about what to do if the police stop them, a conversation white parents don’t need to have. Objections to the slogan, that Black Lives Matter, is an effort to keep the veil over a serious injustice in our society.

Of course all lives matter. But most of us understand the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as meaning that Black lives matter too. That’s standard English, both because meaning in our language comes from context and because a positive statement does not imply the nonexistence of everything else. There is no negative implication that other lives don’t matter; there is only emphasis – Black lives, the lives of Black people, are important, they matter, they have been ignored, and that has to stop. Yes, Black lives do matter.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 16, 2016.

[1] In Re Complaint by Accuracy In Media, Inc. Concerning Fairness Doctrine Re NBC, 40 F.C.C.2d 958 (F.C.C. 1973).

[2] NBC v. FCC, 516 F.2d 1101 (1974). Note that the 1974 decision has been vacated on other grounds and is no longer available on common online sources but is available in the hard-copy reporters.


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.


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).


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