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Sunday, August 17, 2014

From "Bobbies" to Militants; "Peelers" to Warriors

We’ve certainly come a long way in terms of police work.  Question is: as a democratic nation, can we say we have advanced or regressed?  I venture to say the answer may be somewhat disturbing.  We may have left behind many of the very principles that should guide community policing in a democracy.
What we all just witnessed for several nights in Ferguson, Missouri, may aptly illustrate the nadir of militarization and the apex of principled policing. In the midst of all the controversy that now surrounds the demonstrations themselves and the tactics of the local police, it is well to  remember what occurred to set off the demonstrations (as told by Charles Chamberlain of Democracy for America using sources such as the NY Daily News, MSNBC, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and “BuzzFeed”).

On the night of August 9, 2014, a Ferguson, Missouri police officer fatally shot an unarmed, 18-year-old Black man, Michael Brown, as he walked to his grandmother’s residence with a friend, Dorian Johnson, who experienced the entire incident from just a few feet away.  Johnson spoke out immediately and detailed the entire police attack.  He described the police officer’s malice from start to finish, citing the officer’s first words to the teens: “get the f__k on the sidewalk.”  After the first shots were fired by the officer, the teens ran in fear.  Then as Michael stood in the street with hands in the air, the officer fired the fatal bullets into his body.  Michael’s last words were: “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting.”  Here’s how a Daily Kos writer described what happened next:
Officer who kills the teenager requests assistance but does not inform his commanders of what happened. Instead, they learn it on the news like everyone else.
  • The scene is left in the hands of the officer’s own colleagues who allow the officer to leave the scene of the crime. His vehicle is also allowed to leave the scene – presumably breaking the integrity of the chain of evidence.
  •  Victim is left lying in the road for four hours – inflaming the community and presumably destroying evidence.
  • Witnesses say that the killing officer never bothered to check for a pulse once his victim went down. None of the other officers arriving on the scene checked for a pulse. Bystanders in the medical field were not allowed to attempt CPR.
  • Rumor has it that the cellphones of possible witnesses were confiscated.
  • The response to a community protesting police brutality is the imposition of ‘martial law’ complete with authoritarianism, tear gas, rubber bullets, flash grenades and sound grenades.

Since the killing, the local police kept the officer’s name a secret until Friday, August 16th when it was announced at a press conference.  There have been no arrests or unpaid suspensions, and no charges have been filed.  The police have even refused to interview the primary eye witness to the killing, and have not shared the incident reports that must be completed by the police involved.  Instead, an effort has been mounted to protect the officer involved, not only by keeping his identity secret, but by a concerted effort to concoct a narrative of the incident which will make it harder for some people to empathize with Michael Brown.  In a video that was released, Brown is shown allegedly robbing a store of some cigars and shown intimidating a much smaller clerk when the clerk attempted to stop him at the front door.  Like countless incidents in other places, the blaming of the victim follows closely on a scenario in which dehumanizing racial stereotypes become unwarranted profiling that then leads to death or injury.  What is being played-out does not bode well for a just outcome for Michael’s family or for the Black community of Ferguson  It is instead quite representative of systemic police abuse and harassment of young Black men that occurs in too many communities throughout this country.  At that press conference on Friday, the Chief of Police praised his officers for showing incredible restraint.  After days of shocking behavior that caught the attention of the world, police finally released the name of the shooter - while concurrently launching a smear campaign against his victim. The Chief makes a statement PRAISING the Shooter Cop while concurrently smearing the dead teenaged victim.   Chief of Police specifically says that he is not interested in talking to the community he has been victimizing.  Chief of Police made it clear that the officer who shot Brown did NOT know Brown was a suspect in that cigar theft.  Following the conference, this was modified to say that the officer may have seen the cigars in his hand and surmised that he was a suspect.  And so it goes… 
In light of the actual incident, let’s “take stock” of what we have seen that passed for police “protection” and as “riot control:”

  • Local police dressed in camouflage and battle gear (pictures side by side of a local police officer and a combat veteran from Afghanistan illustrated the heavy gear that the local police favored)
  • Battle equipment that wasn’t relevant or appropriate for the situation, like huge tank type vehicles, semi-automatic guns and guns that could shoot someone at 80 yards away. 
  • The helmets and gas masks and riot gear like the gas canisters and rubber bullets.
  • Reporters were kept from covering the event with some illegally arrested just for doing their jobs
  • Peaceful protestors were arrested; others were harmed; others harassed
  • Even a St. Louis alderman was unlawfully arrested
  • Police were caught on international TV screaming “Bring it! Bring it you f__king animals!”
  • Protestors were told to leave in violation of their rights
  • Negotiation had no place; only orders, riot control tactics and militant actions such as the release of tear gas on the entire crowd
 All together, the garb, gear, equipment, actions and attitudes make one wonder: with whom are the local police at WAR?

Whatever happened to the idea that local police were established to protect and defend the rights and lives of all citizens, not with heavy hand but with restraint and good will?  Then on Thursday, Governor Nixon of Missouri named the State Police as the lead agency to replace the local and county police at the protest site.  The man placed in charge, a Captain Ron Johnson, emerged as the epitome of another style of law enforcement.  It also helped that he had grown up in Ferguson and that he happened to be an African-American.  He hugged and greeted people in the crowd.  He told the marchers who he was, why he was there, and what he expected from them.  He marched with them and he wore a uniform that did not overwhelm anyone.  He talked with marchers; he brought an under-stated but real authority and dignity to the situation and the march for two nights has been peaceful.  Hopefully, his approach and demeanor have not been undercut by the curfew ordered by his boss, Governor Nixon.
The emergence of Captain Johnson, with solid values taught by family and community, propels us back in history to the establishment of the first professional police force in England.  The story, in brief (from is that Sir Robert Peel was a social reformist, born in Bury Lancashire in 1788, who served as Prime Minister, Home Secretary, and in other offices during his lifetime. During his time as Prime Minister, Peel passed modern legislation addressing working class issues. He introduced The Mine Act of 1842, prohibiting women and children from working underground in mines and The Factory Act of 1844 limiting the number of hours worked by women and children employed in factories.

Serving as Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel introduced a number of important reforms to British criminal law. His changes to the penal code system resulted in fewer crimes carrying a death penalty sentence and education for inmates.  Remembered today as “The Founder of Modern Policing,” Peel created the “Metropolitan Police” based on nine principles that he developed for law enforcement (some say others had a large hand in this).  These nine basic principles are often referred to as “The Peelian Principles.” Upon close examination of each of the Peelian principles, not only are direct connections to policing in today's world apparent, but often the nine principles are cited as the basic foundation for current law enforcement organizations and community policing throughout the world.  There are some law enforcement agencies that currently quote the Peelian Principles on their community websites as their own principles.  Following the disastrous imposition of a curfew by Governor Nixon, a few comments are inserted by me.

Principle 1 - “The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.”  To protect and serve is the modern equivalent.  The question then becomes: who is being protected in Ferguson – certainly not the law-abiding protestors.  The second question to arise is whose interest is being served?  Too often in these instances, it is the vested interests of officials, businesses, and police authorities that are served first and foremost.  That is exactly what happened when a curfew was imposed.  The interests and the good will of the protestors was cast aside or ignored.     

Principle 2 - “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”  There was a moment in this crisis when that might have happened, following upon the good actions of some protestors who stood against looters, and when certain men in black tried to assist with bringing some order to the protest. Had the officials involved seized upon that moment and involved a representative group in deep discussions of what steps were needed to bring peace and justice to the forefront, I wager that the outcome would now be different.
Principle 3 - “Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.”  You can’t secure cooperation and voluntary observance by issuing ultimatums and curfews and orders.  It takes negotiation, respect for both sides, and involvement of the very people who are protesting or who have grievances.  The failure of most community policing is the reluctance to trust the people of a community, no matter what its make-up, to come up with viable solutions and workable outcomes.  If officials had more input to legislation from the people affected by that legislation, there would be more effective legislation and more voluntary compliance with the law.

Principle 4 - “The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.”  Nothing could be clearer or more profound than this recognition that violence begets violence and resistance.  Physical force is less a deterrent than it is a provocation.  The harassment of young black men in our communities results in resentment, silence, no help, and outbreaks of vitriol and revenge (looting is one form) when the occasion presents itself. The stupid curfew in Ferguson is one form of violence, added on to tear gas and rubber bullets and guns.
Principle 5 - “Police seek and preserve public favor not by catering to the public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.”  Isn’t it strange that we need to be reminded that good deeds are superior to rhetoric and empty words?  But it isn’t just the need for good deeds, it’s the need for impartial law enforcement and service to all persons regardless of their status or standing, their race or religion or ethnicity or whatever.  That equality before the law is so central to our nation’s health that it is frightening how willing we are in many quarters to deny its truth.  Every time this principle is in jeopardy, I like to ask myself: what if roles were reversed; what would be the probable outcome?  Apply it here: what if a black officer shot and killed an 18 year-old white kid who had just shop-lifted some cigars from a store, but who stood in a street without a weapon, with hands in the air begging that officer not to shoot but that officer shot him and the local police prevented by-standers from going to the young man’s aid?  I think I know the answer and it doesn’t involve any niceties.  In fact, the outcomes might be so severe I hesitate to even mention some of them.

Principle 6 - “Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.”  Once again, we have some profoundly reasonable guidance.  Persuasion, advice and warning may be reasonable steps for securing observance of the law, but there is a more modern method missing here, and that is the idea that the police and community members should be finding ways to work together in respect and with dignity that allows a community to offer its people, its ideas, it opinions, its good will before incidents happen which set off a round of confrontation and violence.  Have we got the will to train our police forces in community development and enhancement, instead of in military tactics?  I think not at this moment.  We are off on a course of militarization that conforms too closely to a right-wing view that certain groups of people are not deserving of rights and protection.  That view makes enemies of too many vagaries and pushes our police to prepare for war-like responses to their demands for respect, justice and equal opportunity.  The use of violent means of control and security as a first resort is an admission of failure to seek peace and justice by more acceptable and positive means.
Principle 7 - “Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”  This is the most oft-quoted Peelian principle, and no wonder.  It reminds the police of their roots and of the loyalty that must be given back to people of good will.  It also reminds the people that separating the police into a category of non-humans or robotic terminators is not our prerogative.  The statement gives dignity to the idea that community policing is a responsibility that falls to all of us.  Too bad we can’t all grow that principle into an operating principle that builds our communities and police forces into arenas of peace and justice rather than allowing them to deteriorate into camps of ill-will.  We are all responsible for Ferguson and incidents like it.  Let us resolve to change the prevailing militarism into a common endeavor of principled protection and service.

Principle 8 - “Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.”  Simply put:  police cannot be judge and jury.  Guilt must be proven in a court of law.  Until that happens police must direct their actions strictly toward their functions.  But let us not forget that harsh judgments about others, including the police, do not ultimately rest with protestors either.  Protestors should also stick strictly to their issues, making them abundantly clear, while steering clear of personalized attacks upon officials and others.  Sure the police chief of Ferguson and the Missouri Governor have made stupid mistakes and comments, but using that harsh judgment against them does not resolve the issue of the unwarranted killing of an innocent black teenager.  In some sense, Dr. King’ words come to mind: keep your eye on the prize! 
Principle 9 - “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.”  Oh my goodness, the wisdom of the past is sometimes devastating!  Is it possible that too many police forces are confusing the two?  It seems that police action is sometimes what they think matters, but the person on the street is more apt to praise and appreciate the absence of criminal acts that might affect him or her.  And here’s my thought: police cannot be efficient without the approval and cooperation of the public.  Come out of the patrol cars, get rid of the heavy equipment, put aside the heavy riot gear, send semi-automatic guns back to the military, and institute training that changes attitudes toward community policing.  It is time to get back to being of the people, not against the people. 

Though they are not officially declared a code of ethics, these Principles are based on needed ethical behavior on the part of law enforcement and the public. Accountability is a key element for their success. Modern technology and the media have increased the need for law enforcement and the community to adhere to them.  I am sure that it would take a Herculean effort to convince minority communities (especially Black communities) that law enforcement in general is striving to adhere to these principles.  Unlike the posting of the Hippocratic Oath in many doctor’s offices, the Peelian Principles seem to be absent from most police stations, whether as postings, placards, notes or in training, in attitudes or in actual practice.
Instead of touting the values and methods of a Ron Johnson, there is a compelling argument that we have gone toward militarization of police forces; that they are no longer “peace keepers”, but warriors against forces that represent destruction and evil to them.  Among these, of course, are drug lords, junkies, welfare cheats, racial and religious minorities, home-grown and foreign terrorists, and the ever-present thieves and murderers.  The attitude toward this amorphous group of non-law-abiding creeps is that one must be at WAR against them because they threaten the very existence of our society. In contrast, Ron Johnson sees his community as hard-working families attempting to build a good life for themselves and others.  Perception makes a great deal of difference in how one behaves. 

From a review of a relevant book on we draw some conclusions:
“Today’s armored-up policemen are a far cry from the constables of early America.  The past decade also has seen an alarming degree of mission creep for U.S. SWAT teams.  For sheer absurdity, it is hard to beat the 2006 story about the Tibetan monks who had overstayed their visas while visiting America on a peace mission. In Iowa, the hapless holy men were apprehended by a SWAT team in full gear!

“The last days of colonialism taught America’s revolutionaries that soldiers in the streets bring conflict and tyranny. As a result, our country has generally worked to keep the military out of law enforcement. But according to investigative reporter Radley Balko, over the last several decades, America’s cops have increasingly come to resemble ground troops. The consequences have been dire: the home is no longer a place of sanctuary, the Fourth Amendment has been gutted, and police today have been conditioned to see the citizens they serve as an other—an enemy.”

In “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” Balko shows how politicians’ ill-considered policies and relentless declarations of war against vague enemies like crime, drugs, and terror have blurred the distinction between cop and soldier. His fascinating, frightening narrative shows how over a generation, a creeping battlefield mentality has isolated and alienated American police officers and put them on a collision course with the values of a free society.”
Ferguson, MO has illustrated the sad truth ready to burst forth in many communities of this country.  It is a wake-up call that is being attended to around the world.  Being awake is a first step but not the answer.  The clarion call to all of us is to reject the politicians and their supporters who promote superiority of militarism and the isolation of certain ethnic, racial and religious groups by means that are all too familiar: inadequate schools, lack of good job opportunities, the elimination of programs and services that provide opportunity to advance.  We must reject the fascist idea that there are some people who are unworthy of being treated with dignity, respect and grace. We cannot as a democratic society abide those who want to restrict and restrain and prevent the exercise of the right to vote, or the right to protest or the right to adequate health care.  We must not allow those who denigrate government itself to have control of government for they will not use it well, certainly not to benefit all the People without regard to status. 

Ferguson is not an isolated incident; it is the result of decades of abandonment of important and crucial principles of a progressive democracy.  We must face this reality and reject the forces of Right-wing demagogues whose Cause is not simply to win seats but to control police forces, government and the lives of our citizens in order to mold the rest of the institutions of this Republic into their image of Power and Control.  It is time to defend and rejuvenate our values and principles as reflected in Peel’s principles by voting these militant radicals from office.