Tag Archives: police

This Is Chilling

As if the Trump Administration and its enablers in McConnell’s Court haven’t done enough to erode public confidence in America’s governing institutions, recent disclosures about the number of police officers involved in White Supremicist organizations should make the hair on the back of our collective necks stand up.

First, I ran into an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer reporting that the City of Philadelphia had pulled 72 officers off the street:

At the very beginning of June, a group called The Plain View Project—established in 2017 as a research group looking for racist, Islamophobic, and other hateful rhetoric posted and shared by law enforcement on social media—released some very harrowing results. The database they had compiled, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, included around 3,100 posts by some 330 active Philadelphia police officers. Of the 330, at least 16 were ranked officers. One of the issues with police officers’ private social media posts is that virtually all law enforcement agencies have some form of a social media policy that includes a restriction from posting things that could undermine public confidence in the law enforcement agent. The Plain View Project that collected this batch of law enforcement revelations, was led by Harvard Law graduate Emily Baker-White who told the Inquirer that she began this work because she had realized no one was aggregating police officer social media posts.

The results, published in Buzzfeed News, with the help of nonprofit newsroom Injustice Watch, was undeniable. While The Plain View Project was Philadelphia based, the disturbing posts from law enforcement were found from Dallas to Chicago to Florida, while the investigation was continuing,

The department took 72 officers off street duty during the investigation. At the time of the media report, none of the officers being investigated had yet been “disciplined,” but the Chief was quoted as predicting that such discipline would be forthcoming, and that “several” officers would likely be fired.

MeanwhileDispatches from the Culture Wars reports

Hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers from across the United States are members of Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook, a Reveal investigation has found.

These cops have worked at every level of American law enforcement, from tiny, rural sheriff’s departments to the largest agencies in the country, such as the Los Angeles and New York police departments. They work in jails and schools and airports, on boats and trains and in patrol cars. And, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting discovered, they also read and contribute to groups such as “White Lives Matter” and “DEATH TO ISLAM UNDERCOVER.”

These organizations are deeply racist; they trade in anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant slogans, and a number are openly Islamophobic.  Worse still, the investigation found at least 150 officers involved with violent anti-government groups.

Thanks to the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, we’ve seen unsettling documentation of police behaviors consistent with the findings of this investigation. A lot of nice white middle-class Americans have been shocked by evidence that some police behavior changes rather dramatically in neighborhoods that are racially or ethnically different from their own.

We have a lot of housecleaning to do if we are going to mount an effort to live up to our ideals and the Constitution.

I just hope the rot hasn’t spread too far, and that it isn’t too late.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Yesterday’s post about the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Baltimore police department contained several suggestions about implementing change. A recent series of articles in the Washington Post pointed to a reform I omitted.

The Justice Department’s investigation of Baltimore police this month rebuked the agency for an entrenched culture of discriminatory policing. Deep within their findings, Justice investigators singled out a core failure: Baltimore’s system for identifying troubled officers was broken and existed in name only.

In Baltimore, Justice found that critical disciplinary records were excluded from its early intervention system, that police supervisors often intervened only after an officer’s behavior became egregious and that when they did, the steps they took were inadequate.

According to the Post, many police departments have inadequate “early warning” systems, and many have none at all. As a result, “bad apples” are protected, rather than identified, until they do something so egregious that it cannot be covered up.

An early-warning system, of course, is only as good as the data it includes. Some systems, according to the Post, exclude the sort of information one would expect–complaints filed, incidents of excessive force–instead recording things like grooming violations (growing a beard in violation of the rules) or absences. And as one officer noted, recording even relevant data doesn’t do any good if no one is reviewing it and acting on it.

The real problem is a very human one: the deeply-embedded tribalism that causes us to see the world as “us versus them.” The culture of a police department is very similar to that of a military group. Such “bonding” can be an important asset when danger approaches, but it can lead to a counterproductive protectiveness when one of “ours” is accused of improper behavior. When the accusation comes from someone who doesn’t look like “us”–someone who is culturally or socio-economically or racially different–that tribal instinct can overcome good judgment.

As strong as that impulse is, it behooves us to recognize that there are a lot of good guys in blue who play by the rules and require others to do the same.

Back in my City Hall days, I remember a conversation with the then-Chief of Police, about a lawsuit that had just been filed against a member of his force. Far from being defensive, he immediately agreed to investigate the allegations, saying “When we give someone a lethal weapon and the authority to use it, we have an obligation to make sure he is well-trained, emotionally healthy, and wearing a badge for the right reasons.”

Says it all.

Breach of (Social) Contract

Thanks to ubiquitous smart-phone cameras, social media and Black Lives Matter, the general public can no longer ignore accusations that officers in a number of police departments routinely use excessive force and engage in unconstitutional behaviors.  Investigations by the U.S. Justice Department—most recently in Baltimore— confirm persistent, systemic practices that violate the rights of the citizens we expect police to serve and protect.

For a year following the death of Freddy Gray, the Justice Department monitored the Baltimore police department. The results of that investigation were unambiguous: unconstitutional practices included disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans, and excessive use of force against juveniles and people with mental health disabilities. The report attributed these practices to “systemic deficiencies” in training, policies, and accountability structures that “fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively.”

A DOJ investigation of police in Ferguson, Missouri, reached a similar conclusion, finding a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against African-Americans that targeted them disproportionately for traffic stops, use of force, and jail sentences.

Baltimore and Ferguson are hardly unique.

As a practical matter, widespread distrust makes policing infinitely more difficult. Good policing depends upon access to reliable information and co-operation with community leaders; avenues of communication dry up when police are seen as enemies rather than protectors.

Far more troubling than the practical consequences of unprofessional behavior, however, is the damage done to America’s social fabric by what can only be seen as a breach of our most fundamental social contract.

The Enlightenment philosophers who influenced America’s founders proposed a trade of sorts; we call that trade the “social contract.” Citizens would give government the exclusive right to exercise coercive force; in return, government would use that force to protect individual rights—to provide for a society of “ordered liberty,” within which the strong could not prey with impunity on the weak.

We Americans argue constantly about the proper role of government, but there is no serious debate about the state’s obligation to provide for the public safety, or about the right of all citizens to expect equal justice before the law.

When government fails to keep its part of that essential bargain, when it breaches the social contract, it damages the bonds of citizenship and undermines the rule of law.

An old lawyer once told me that there is only one legal question: what should we do? How can our dysfunctional police departments go about changing entrenched, perverse cultures? A few suggestions, drawn from the research literature:

  • Training is key—and currently very uneven. A number of police departments across the country have instituted effective training programs that help individual officers understand implicit bias, calibrate their responses to the magnitude of the threats encountered, and learn techniques that calm, rather than exacerbate, confrontations. Those programs need to be replicated everywhere, but especially in troubled departments.
  • Policies governing police activities need to be clear, effectively communicated to the rank and file, and fairly and strictly enforced. Those policies should also be vetted by lawyers familiar with the Constitution and especially the jurisprudence of the First and Fourth Amendments.
  • Collection of accurate, relevant data is critical. Data is the means by which we measure progress, the standard against which we determine the appropriateness of behavior. It allows self-evaluation, and its public availability also allows other stakeholders to hold police accountable. That data should allow the department to identify problematic officers and intervene before they cross a serious line.
  • Every police department should have a transparent complaint process accessible to citizens, and complaints against police officers should not be evaluated solely by their peers. (In Baltimore, this was evidently a source of considerable—and understandable—distrust.) Complaints should be reviewed by disinterested parties, and policies prohibiting retaliation for filing a complaint should be strictly enforced.

In the long term, departments should focus more attention on the way they recruit and select new police officers. The recruiting process should include psychological examinations to weed out men and women who are likely to abuse authority, or who are otherwise unsuited to the stresses of the profession. And it should go without saying—so I’ll say it—departments should aim for recruits who are representative of the populations they will serve. That sounds easier than it is, but the results are worth the effort.

If Americans still believe in e pluribus unum—if we still want to unite, rather than divide, our many communities—fixing our policing problem is an essential first step.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perils of Policing

Thanks to the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, Americans these days get treated to a lot of stories about police misconduct–so much so that we sometimes forget that–troubling as they are– misbehaving officers represent a small percentage of the men in blue.

We’ve all recently seen the graphic and unsettling evidence of cops mistreating black teenagers at a pool party. But Juanita Jean–proprietor of the World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc.–has provided us a glimpse of the other side of the equation, namely, what happens when a perfectly reasonable police officer confronts a self-important “Sovereign Citizen” spouting bizarre legal theories about why the state of Texas lacks the authority to ticket him.

The video shows the May 2 arrest of 49-year-old Scott Richardson after being pulled over for allegedly driving 50 mph in a 40 mph zone. Recorded by Richardson on his cell phone, it shows him arguing with the Addison officer for over four minutes before the policeman gets out his baton and breaks the driver’s side window and pulls the man from the car. …

During the course of the interchange, the officer requests the man show him his driver’s license and proof of insurance a total of 15 times before he gets out his baton, makes the same request a final time, and begins breaking the window.

I think my favorite part of the exchange was Richardson demanding of the officer “As a man, what right do you have to stop another man?” (I guess it would be okay to stop a woman??)

You really need to click through and see the entire confrontation.

A day in the life…..

 

Good Cop/Bad Cop

The long-simmering tensions between police and the communities they serve have erupted in a series of protests and confrontations, triggered by events in Ferguson and New York. I’ve posted about this before, and I don’t intend to belabor the very different points of view expressed by the protestors and those sympathetic to them, on the one hand, and (some) citizens and police, on the other.

I will say that the officers who turned their backs on Mayor DeBlasio during the funeral of the two policemen shot by a mentally-deranged man in New York dishonored themselves and their colleagues, and disrespected the officers whose memorials should have been the focus of the day.

Fortunately, those childish displays are not typical of the men in blue, nor are the disheartening reports of police officers who belong to the KKK, who use disproportionate force, and who otherwise display “conduct unbecoming.” Many more officers are like Steve Anderson, Chief of Police in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Chief recently responded–point by point– to an email from a citizen critical of official restraint during peaceful demonstrations in Nashville. His response went viral. You really need to click the link and read the entire exchange, but here is a representative sample:

• “I just want myself and my family to feel that our city is safe, and right now we don’t feel that way.”

I have to admit, I am somewhat puzzled by this announcement. None of the demonstrators in this city have in any way exhibited any propensity for violence or indicated, even verbally, that they would harm anyone. I can understand how you may feel that your ideologies have been questioned but I am not aware of any occurrence that would give reason for someone to feel physically threatened.

• “I have a son who I have raised to respect police officers and other authority figures, but if he comes to me today and asks “Why are the police allowing this?” I wouldn’t have a good answer.”

It is somewhat perplexing when children are injected into the conversation as an attempt to bolster a position or as an attempt to thwart the position of another. While this is not the type of conversation I ordinarily engage in, here are some thoughts you may find useful as you talk with your son.

First, it is laudable that you are teaching your son respect for the police and other authority figures. However, a better lesson might be that it is the government the police serve that should be respected. The police are merely a representative of a government formed by the people for the people—for all people. Being respectful of the government would mean being respectful of all persons, no matter what their views.

Police officers like Chief Anderson–and there are many like him, fortunately– understand their constitutional and public safety duties, even if some of the citizens they serve do not.