Current and Future American Policing


Source: Counterpunch

Introduction

Let’s establish some First Principles. 1) The slogan “Black Lives Matter” arose after repeated, unpunished killings of unarmed Black people by police. If the standards are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” life comes first. Without life, a person cannot achieve liberty or pursue happiness. As a pure expression, “Black Lives Matter” is so basic and its truth so self-evident that it should be uncontestable. That this truism even needs to be stated reflects the low level of political discourse in the US. And that Trump can get away with calling such a slogan  “a symbol of hate” without incurring a fusillade of ridicule further documents this low level

2) The newer slogan “Defund the Police” articulates a double recognition: The Police have a well-earned reputation as abusers of power, and, since we live in a society in which every element depends upon money to function—what Marx called, “the cash nexus,” which Merriam Webster explains as “an agglomerate of impersonal monetary factors specifically considered as the basis for human relations”—the most direct way to reduce that abuse is to curtail its budget. It, too, is a basic slogan, a starting point. But, due to its recent origin in the early days of the current mass movement, it needs refining and more preciseness.

3) Though some may think so, the Police are not the real enemy; they’re merely the most visible and active agents of that enemy. The real enemy is the class system of US capitalism, one of whose main props is racism. As “law-enforcement,” the Police have an important role in reinforcing and maintaining this system.

A little more about “Defund the Police.” I appreciate the sentiment. Some police forces, and many individual cops, are totally out of control; they should be fired immediately. And if “defunding” means removing police from peacekeeping to concentrate on crime, okay; and if it leads to rechanneling some police monies toward social services, I support that. But if “defunding” means eliminating police entirely, I disagree. Our society is less-than-saintly; criminals and violence-prone people exist. The Nation (7/13/2020) recklessly entitles an editorial “Disarm the Police,” forgetting that privately-held guns in the US considerably outnumber its entire population. A country bristling with firearms can neither eliminate police nor their weapons. Instead, we must jettison the current failed System, replacing it with a better alternative. The latter sections of my essay offer specific proposals for how such changes should unfold.

The essay is in three parts. It begins by exploring the social role of today’s Police. Then, in Sections II and III, it offers two proposals to ameliorate, then eliminate current police abuses.  The first proposal is short-term and transitional, preparing for the second, which is long-term and permanent. Since the essay presupposes the continuance of US capitalism, the temporary proposal calls for reforms within that system; the permanent proposal, while still not revolutionary, requires an even more ambitious restructuring: Community Policing.

I. Policing: As Things Stand

Police are local entities, operating under state or local authority. Despite the number and variety of jurisdictions, they all function similarly. Policing has two aspects: challenging crime—prevention, arresting suspects and collecting evidence against them to present to a prosecutor (“crimes” are breaking of laws, which state or local legislators create); and peacekeeping—defusing volatile situations, both private (domestic disputes, mentally disturbed people), and public (riots). Built-in problems are associated with each aspect.

First, crime prevention requires proactivity. Given police prejudices, this usually becomes overly focused on people of color. Then, local DAs depend on police to gather evidence. They usually avoid antagonizing the cops, correctly fearing that they won’t pursue evidence diligently in future cases. When DAs prosecute individual officers, awkward, unconvincing prosecutions often result: An ambivalent DA’s compromised moral conviction leads to no legal conviction. The community complains: “Guilty cops go free.”

Second, police training emphasizes crime-fighting, leaving cops unprepared to cope with peacekeeping. Police tools—guns, batons, etc.—exacerbate, rather than reduce, tensions. Cops commonly lack the one necessary tool—psychological acumen. This is likewise true of peaceful protests, which the police often misconstrue as “riots.” Crime-fighting skills are worse than useless in peacekeeping.

Looked at differently—in terms of hierarchy (which is, in essence, anti-democratic): Police are part of Criminal Justice, which includes the Courts and the Prisons. This overall System is completely hierarchical, with the Courts (in ranked order) and their judges literally on high, and prison guards and lowest-ranking police at the bottom. Within the Police Force itself, hierarchy is ever obvious in the stripes (stars or bars for higher-ups) on their quasi-military uniforms. Lower-ranked cops do the legwork for the brain-using higher-ups. The street-patrollers, ranked lowest, follow commanders’ orders (while providing the fodder [the “perps”] for the whole System). In every context—except for “civilians” (you and me)—they’re the lowest of the low. But with us, they’re the bosses. We’re the only ones they can order around; and they love doing that.

From another perspective, in class societies like ours, where classes have conflicting interests, laws freeze already-existing power relationships. The upper class usually has the power; so maintaining the status quo benefits it. An example: When workers strike—seeking change in working conditions or income—and police disrupt their strike, change has been stifled.

Multiple, contradictory demands place police at odds with themselves and with society. They are isolated, or self-isolated, from the rest of us, cultivating mutually disdainful relations with civilians. Ethics in Law Enforcement (Steve McCartney and Rick Parent, Section 8.2) sums it up: “More or less, everyone else is alienated from the police and the police are alienated from everyone else. This is not at all meant as a defense of the police or any of their conduct. But it is an attempt at an explanation of their view of the world that arises from their present locus in society.”

This alienation is intensified when other flashpoints, like race, are involved. Police readily accept prevailing stereotypes: “minorities,” women, children, oldsters, mentally disturbed, the homeless, the disabled—all socially identified as inferiors—are regularly so treated by the cops.

The Police Subculture

Thus arises the police subculture, with its Thin Blue Line mentality: “Everybody’s out to get us; we gotta stick together. We protect those in trouble today, they reciprocate tomorrow.” This paranoid mental-set is chewed and swallowed at the Police Academy and digested as the tenderfoot interacts with experienced (i.e. indoctrinated) officers.

Recently the New York Times had an article illustrating this (online: 6/6/2020). Its headline: Buffalo Police Officers Suspended After Shoving 75-Year-Old Protester.” Photo caption: “A video showed the protester motionless on the ground and bleeding.” Subhead: Fifty-seven officers resigned from the department’s Emergency Response Team in solidarity with the two who were suspended.” From a relevant paragraph: “On Friday, John T. Evans, the president of the Buffalo police union, said all 57 officers on the Emergency Response Team, a special squad formed to respond to riots, had resigned from the team in support of the suspended officers. . .” The Thin Blue Line in operation!

The police mentality in action: The Times article states that the demonstration was peaceful and the protestor had approached the police to speak with them. The quoted paragraph says the suspended officers were in “a special squad formed to respond to riots.” Thus a peaceful demonstration is transformed, in the police mind, into a riot. And not just the suspended officers’ minds; also those of their superiors, who dispatched them to deal with the supposed “riot.” The Times assumes this is the normal way police see things, and so do we. But, in reality, such gross distortion is anything but “normal.”

II. Short-Term Solution: Changing Hiring and Training, Legal Changes

This transitional proposal aims to eliminate or sharply reduce police-initiated violence, and especially lethality.

1) Psychological Interview/Testing

Every hiring process should include psychological testing and an interview between the applicant and a psychologist. Combining these would help the psychologist uncover the underlying reasons why the applicant wants to join the Force; specifically, to learn whether (s)he has tendencies toward poor impulse control, violence or sadism. If such is discerned, the applicant should be ipso facto disqualified and placed on a nationwide list, so (s)he won’t be hired  elsewhere.

This testing/interview should also locate applicants who could become Peacemakers, to be trained as specialists in defusing tensions where violence might occur—hostage situations, domestic disputes, mentally disturbed people, etc.

These tests/interviews should also be administered to veterans, weeding out the violence-prone. They should be repeated every three years to evaluate an officer’s emotional stability and/or whether (s)he is experiencing burnout or paranoia. In appropriate circumstances, family/couples therapy could be required. If necessary, there should be a mandatory referral for help or, in extreme cases, forced retirement.

2) Reallocation of Responsibilities

A subdivision should be created where Peacemakers are on call. In addition, depending upon the degree of trust, they could also help in conflicts between police and populace.

Local DAs must not prosecute police. The State Attorney General’s office should have a unit for this responsibility. Those in the unit should have subpoena power and staff for evidence- and witness-gathering.

3a) Changing Laws: Police Lethality and Brutality

Lethality and brutality are not qualitatively different; they’re on a continuum. Someone who is “merely” brutal could, in other circumstances, be lethal.

White racism is widespread and tenacious. In improving policing, the goals should be locating the most aggressive, racist police and firing them, re-educating those susceptible to it, and weakening the police subculture, to which racism clings, permeating it.

The following police-initiated crimes are outside the scope of contract negotiations. Each offense must be investigated and prosecuted, if appropriate. Questioning the suspected officer(s) should be immediate.

Lethal force. Every weapon discharge is ipso facto suspicious. When a fatality occurs, “I feared for my life” is not an automatically-acceptable explanation; all such rationales must be examined critically and contextually, especially to ascertain the availability of a non-lethal alternative. A long time may elapse before police overcome the reputation for trigger-happiness, but the change must start immediately. Nothing will improve the relationship between police and populace than changes here.

Chokeholds. When an arrestee says, “I can’t breathe,” his/her physical position and the officer’s grip must be changed immediately.

Attacking an arrestee or pre-arrestee. Bruises are prima facie evidence of guilt. A charge of “resisting arrest” does not excuse police brutality.

Rendering body-cameras inoperative, attempted confiscation of a bystander’s cell phone, ordering bystanders to stop recording, or ordering them to move, so their phones cannot record are all illegal.

Self-concealing an officer’s identity. Name-tags and badge numbers must always be visible.

When an officer uses a prohibited practice, other officers present who do not verbally and physically intervene become accomplices/accessories.

Participating in a cover-up (including concealing, or creating false, evidence, or falsifying a report).

Commanders issuing orders that lead to civilian casualties.

Offenses by, and complaints against, police must be on record and publicly available. Repeated complaints should raise alarm-bells.

Supplies from military sources are ipso facto inappropriate for policing and must be withdrawn. “Safe” devices that cause serious injuries—tasers, rubber bullets, pepper spray, flash-bangs, etc. —must also be withdrawn.

Are current laws sufficient? If warranted, changes should be legislated quickly and thoroughly, but carefully. Legislators must take seriously the tendency of police toward abuse of authority. Police Manuals must state which aspects of the Blue Code of Silence are illegal. No police law-breaking is acceptable.

3b) Changing Other Laws

This country often legislates morality. Anti-drug laws, like “Prohibition,” are examples. They and other “victimless crime” laws should be repealed. In addition, breaking “nuisance” laws—loitering, broken taillights, etc.—should not appear on someone’s record. No laws should have mandatory minimum sentences, tying judges’ hands.

4) Changing Police Training

Police training must be thoroughly revamped to emphasize non-lethal outcomes. Police Manuals must be rewritten to conform to all new police practices and laws.

III. Long-Term Solution: Community Policing

1) Principles 

Community Policing involves two non-traditional approaches. 1) The former City Police Force is now decentralized. (“City” means any urban area, no matter its size.) Every neighborhood has its own force. 2) The police live in the communities in which they work. (“Community” and “neighborhood” are interchangeable and mean a contiguous area, all parts being within walking distance.) Thus, the Police’s “locus in society” is permanently and fundamentally changed.

Here are some advantages: The force is decentralized, not monolithic, allowing police—on- and off-duty—to interact with their neighborhood. (Each community is self-defined; boundary disputes should be mediated. Every City block must be in a neighborhood.) The police are no longer indifferent strangers, who, after their shift, travel home to their families. Instead, they—and their families—are already home: they’re community members. As they develop neighborhood identification, they’ll partake of its culture. Their interrelationship is holistic, multi-dimensional. (Many measures from Section II should be incorporated into Community Policing.)

After a positive Citywide vote, Community Policing will be instituted throughout the City. All neighborhoods will have a Community Police Board. Board members are elected by community residents and local business-owners. The Board would consist of six community residents serving part-time, drawing part-time salaries. Initially they serve staggered, shortened terms; thereafter they serve staggered three-year terms. An early responsibility is to approve a uniform whose color and design reflects neighborhood pride.

Each Board will advertise for, interview and hire the Neighborhood Police Chief and the Psychologist. The Psychologist is a non-voting member of the Board ex oficio. Together they select the secondary leaders of the Force, noting the Chief’s recommendations. The entire Force will be chosen during the Transition Year, by interview and psychological test, by a committee of the Board. Members of the City’s former police force can apply to join the neighborhood forces, but their number would be limited to one-third of the neighborhood force. As original senior officers retire, their replacements should be chosen, whenever possible, from the then-current members of the Force.

2) Residence Requirement

Board members (except the Psychologist, who should have a neighborhood office), and Police must live in the neighborhood. Those who do not, will have a year to move; failure to move results in termination. In neighborhoods where the rent and/or purchase price is above the range of the police salary, City-subsidization will supply the difference. To the extent possible, the Force’s ethnic makeup would be similar to the neighborhood’s.

Monochromatic neighborhoods (“Monochromatic” means more than two-thirds homogeneous.) —such as all-white, all-Latino, all-Orthodox-Jewish, all-Black etc.—will not have a monochromatic police force. In these communities, the Force will provide diversity. If problems develop, they should be handled by a Mediation Group set up by the Board.

While some police might initially dislike living among civilians, I believe that, after living in the community for a while, they will be happy with their living situation, feeling less and less alienated as they share positive interactions. Perhaps even their racial prejudices might diminish when there’s no benefit in seeing others as inferiors or enemies. If friction develops, the Mediation Group would handle such problems, short-circuiting them.

3) The Transition Year

The Transition Year begins on the first of the month following the Citywide vote to approve Community Policing. Everyone must begin that year with a spirit of good-natured caution. Mistakes are inevitable; correcting them must be handled good-heartedly. To implement the change, the City must:

+  legislate the forthcoming budgetary and personnel changes,

+  rent or buy office space to house the new community entities, construct necessary buildings,

+  select the personnel to fill the new job titles,

+  prepare the populace by publicizing the forthcoming changes and their benefits,

+  prepare the current Police Force to understand and get ready for the approaching changes.

4) Riots

Earlier I condemned misreading demonstrations as riots; but actual riots do occur. Here is an approach for them: Like a multiple-alarm fire, where firefighters from many areas go to a single location, a call should go to nearby police districts to help control the riot. Other neighborhood Chiefs send over whomever they can. The local Chief temporarily commands all responding officers. Peacemakers should play an important role. The Chief would also receive advice and support from the Mayor’s office.

5) The Relationship Between the Community Police and the City

The City will pay the salaries of the Neighborhood Board members and the Police. Until the changeover is complete, the City would operate its police force in those neighborhoods still in transition. If the City has a Police Training Program, during the Transition Year it should revise its curriculum and staff to conform to the new reality. Trainees would be required to attend and graduate from this revamped program. After they pass the local Board’s screening process, they apply for guaranteed admission into the City’s Program. If the City has no Program, it should create one immediately.

The City will provide uniforms and equipment; each uniform will highlight its neighborhood. The City would provide the communities, as much as possible, with local courts and personnel to operate them. Similarly, a mini-jail will be built in each neighborhood, making it easy for those incarcerated to receive visits. Two neighborhoods could share facilities, if the facilities are near a common border.

Conclusion

The short- and long-term proposals are not cure-alls. When they’re adopted, the root cause, US capitalism, will still be with us. Moreover many serious problems that directly impinge on policing and are hallmarks of US capitalism will remain. They include under-resourced and over-tested public schools, inadequate mental health services, youth services and jobless-worker retraining, huge economic inequalities, systemic racism, sexism and heterosexism, and a superabundance of guns in private hands.

But the policing changes I suggest will engender a vast improvement in policing and in the morale of those being policed, as well as the police themselves. And it’s possible that these improvements might go hand-in-hand with parallel positive changes in some of the above-mentioned problem areas.

Gene Glickman is a retired college professor of music. He now conducts a progressive chorus, called “Harmonic Insurgence,” and makes choral arrangements for it and other choruses. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and can be reached at eugene.glickman@ncc.edu.  

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