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).

Killing Garner

December 9, 2014

Are we safer with or without the police around? When juries, grand juries and prosecutors regularly decide that plain, on camera, evidence doesn’t show murder, what protects people?

It’s too dangerous to put your key in your front door like Amadou Diallo a few years ago. It took 41 bullets to meet that threat and shoot him in the back. It’s too dangerous to hold your hands up like Michael Brown in Ferguson – hands up can be interpreted as threatening. It’s too darn dangerous to complain “I can’t breathe” like Eric Garner – we know from sexual politics that people understand “I can’t” to mean “I can!” On camera they could see just how dangerous a man can be when he can’t breathe. And any Black kid with a toy gun is toast.

The police talk about bad officers. Most are not looking for a chance to show just how tough they can be toward inoffensive or defenseless people. But don’t let the so-called good cops off easily when there are no repercussions, when the “good cops” stand with the “bad cops” because it’s a dangerous job, so that there are no enforceable rules of behavior toward civilians and anything the police do goes but nothing civilians do – especially if they’re African-American. The culture of silence gives us no reason for confidence. No firings, no powers for civilian review boards, plus judges and prosecutors who stand by the cops regardless, like the judge who told me he believed my client but found him guilty because “I couldn’t do that to the police.” Are those who stand-up-for-the-cops-no-matter-what any better than the Romans who liked to watch Christians thrown to lions?

Black families have “the conversation” with their kids about how to deal with the police. Actually I’m also better off when I don’t argue with the police, don’t claim to know my rights. Most of my clients were Black. I gave them the same advice plus keep quiet and politely ask for an attorney.

Apologists for the police have used the conversation to say it was Eric Garner’s and Michael Brown’s fault that they were killed. They should have done what they were told. Then they wouldn’t be dead. But so what? I teach my law students that they should not expect their clients to know what to do and what they need to tell their lawyers. The lawyers are the professionals. The lawyers are trained. The lawyers must expect themselves to shape the encounter usefully and help the clients do what needs to be done.

It is a lot too simple and too self-satisfying to blame the victim. The Americans ISIS beheaded shouldn’t have been there if they knew what was good for them but that gave ISIS no excuse to behead them. Some women might not have been raped if they made themselves look ugly but that’s no excuse to rape them. I took part in a rape case where a young man was charged with raping an older, shriveled charwoman – not looking pretty doesn’t necessarily protect women. But no matter, none of them, pretty or ugly, young or old, should have been raped. It doesn’t help to blame the victim. Blaming Brown and Garner and Diallo and the 12 year old kid doesn’t make a lot of sense to me – none of them did anything that justified execution. Do we have to take the guns out of their hands to convince the police to use their heads?

—  This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 9, 2014.


On Eric Garnder’s death, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/nyregion/officer-told-grand-jury-he-meant-no-harm-to-eric-garner.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&pgtype=article

The New Jim Crow

July 16, 2013

While coming to record last week’s commentary, I was listening to Michelle Alexander on Alternative Radio. If you haven’t heard her or read her book, The New Jim Crow, I strongly recommend it. Some of us knew the basic facts but she fills in the details and makes the argument brilliantly.

I want to elaborate something implicit in her talk but not fully expressed – what she described is why civil liberties matter, one of the major reasons the ACLU was formed, and why Alexander was an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. Read the rest of this entry »


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