To Reinvent the Cops, Disarm Them

June 15, 2020

The Governor wants us all to reinvent policing in our own communities. Let’s pull that apart. He wants each separate community to have a conversation about policing and reset everything. Sounds good. Community is a lovely warm word. But I think the reality is a lot different than it sounds.

Lots of folk assume what academics say is just theory. But the difference is addition. Academics add up all the examples. They take what Google calls the satellite view. They don’t necessarily interview people like cops and lawyers. They want the big picture – what’s happening. And when you do all the examples and add it up, what you discover are vast numbers of communities engaged in keeping everybody else out – using everything from acreage requirements to zoning. So, Governor, are you telling us all to rebuild segregation by having each of our communities use policing to keep everyone else out? “Looks like he doesn’t belong here; get rid of him.” Some communities will try to protect everyone, but they’ll be surrounded by rules and cops that say keep out.

So I don’t expect anything constructive to come out of the Governor’s mandatory conversations. Breaking us down into our little private sanctuaries, the game is already stacked.

Forgive me for repeated something I’ve said before, but guns should need an excuse and a warrant before they’re pulled out in public, because guns make bullies of us all. My cure for police misbehavior? Firearms aren’t always used, but to change the culture, to motivate people to use their heads, I’d put an unarmed force between the police and the public and call for arms only when necessary. Guns and ammunition can do a lot of harm – even if only by intoxicating the officers with a sense of power.

An unarmed force would need to use their heads, to de-escalate conflict instead of aggravating it with belligerent language and a show of force.

I was asked to speak to a group of high school students alongside a policeman about relations with the cops. He told them to show respect and everything would be OK. What about the adult? The police also have an obligation to show respect for people, old and young, upset or calm. Those guns make bullies of us all – cops included.

I have no objection if the cops think wireless video connections should be provided so the department could rush help if there really is any danger. But a video stream would be more effective than a gun in convincing people to cool it. I’d put officers on the street without their guns.

I helped do a memorial for a friend a few years ago – we were both on the NYCLU Board when Jerry died. Forty years before that he was in charge of a group of attorneys in Mississippi during Freedom Summer 1964. A historian, Thomas M. Hilbink, had done a study of that group of lawyers and, reading his paper while preparing for the memorial, I discovered that Jerry had been in numerous life or death situations. Down there, by the way, the police were closely allied with the Klan. But Jerry came back healthy and strong – one of the best litigators the Civil Liberties Union had. He used his head. He de-escalated. And he protected everyone working with him.

OK, Jerry was extraordinary. So was Mississippi that summer. Jerry was truly brave, not just filled with the bravery of firearms. And he wasn’t so foolish as to pack or pull heat.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on June 16, 2020.


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.


Should We Just “Get Over it”?

May 11, 2017

Trump’s supporters claim liberals should “get over it.” Trump was elected so we should “get over it.” Really? What should we “get over”? We should certainly “get over” losing a popularity contest – a high school election or selection of a beauty queen. But getting over real damage is shallow and heartless. It may be our privilege to “get over” our own losses, but we don’t have the moral privilege of “getting over” impending death, damage and destruction to others that we could have stopped?

Trump’s opposition to environmental rules will poison the air and water. Should we get over it before or after people sicken and die? Before or after children are poisoned, injured or permanently damaged?

Trump’s abandonment of green power and his promotion of fossil fuels and fracking will boil our world, flood our coasts, smash our homes with violent storms, unleash new infections on us, and parch our lands and lips with drought. Should we get over it or try to prevent it? Should we celebrate while we’re spared or should we cry for family, friends, and neighbors?

Vive la France! But Trump’s attack on European unity emboldens the world’s dictators and masks his own desire to join them. Should we celebrate unraveling the European union that put a stop to the most deadly wars in the earth’s history and nearly destroyed our closest allies? Or should we try to keep it strong?

Trump’s attacks on regulation threaten to crush the vulnerable. Should we celebrate their misfortune? Trump removed brokers’ obligations to protect their clients’ interests. Shall we thank him for encouraging fraud? For trumping decency.

Perhaps we can get over our own losses, but should we “get over” the consequences to other hard-working and decent people all over the country? Should we get over the decency in our own hearts? Is it weakness to care about others? Or are we strong enough to care?

Trump keeps talking about making the country great again, while selling it out and most of it’s people for the selfishness of a few. Should we reward him for it?

What should we respect in ourselves and each other? That our so-called “Second Amendment rights” threaten others’ lives whenever anyone loses their tempers, becomes frustrated or jumps to conclusions? Are we on the way to becoming a nation of barroom brawlers congratulating whoever is strong or fast enough to kill everyone else? Is that the great new America?

Trump has called off investigations into police killings. Should we respect people we call “lawmen” who are so scared of a man putting his key in his door that they have to shoot him instantly? Do America’s “bravest” shoot men in the back, on the ground or with their hands up? Or is cowardice the new bravery? Is Trump encouraging chaos so that he can step in with dictatorial powers claiming that it’s necessary for our own safety to shoot men in the back?

There is nothing in the White House to get over. There is everything to stop, control, limit, prevent. The imposter-president is a threat to meet, not a bet to get over.

Trumpistas have saddled us all with a doozy. Let them “get over it.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 9, 2017.


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