Righting the relationship between police and public


On NPR’s Weekend Edition on Sunday, December 7, 2014, host Rachel Martin interviewed three veteran police officers (two white, one black) from Columbus, Ohio, a city in which the department had been accused in the past of police officers routinely conducting illegal searches and using excessive force. She also spoke with Malik Aziz who is chairman of the National Black Police Association.

All her conversations were about whether racism was a factor in the way that police dealt with the public and how things might be reformed. All her guests advanced the ‘few bad apples’ defense, that what we were witnessing were the isolated actions of a few individuals and not representative of a systemic problem, and that part of the blame had to lie with the victims for causing the deaths by their own behavior. To her credit, Martin pushed back against this attempt to blame the victims.

MARTIN: It’s clear listening to protesters and policeman that they believe that there is a flawed relationship. But does one side bear more responsibility than the other? I mean, it is the police who carry guns. It is the police who are charged to protect and serve.

AZIZ: I would say it’s still 50-50. I say that any situation can be quelled by the person who’s being approached if you would do just eight things. And that is keep your hands where the police can see them and don’t run and God forbid, don’t touch any police officer, him or his weapon. Do not resist, do not complain too strongly. Ask for a lawyer, record the officer’s name and badge number or his card number and try to find any witnesses. If you follow those things, your interaction with the police, your time to battle any wrongdoing that you think may have occurred will come after that interaction.

MARTIN: So in light of that, how much responsibility did Eric Garner bear in that particular situation that led to his death?

AZIZ: I can tell you if you find yourself surrounded by four or five police, you are not going to have a good day. So at any point in time, Mr. Garner could have said hey, I don’t want any trouble with you guys and he could’ve turned around, put his hands behind his back. No, what happened to Mr. Garner should not have happened. I’ll be clear when I say that. But I can tell you that if he would’ve just did that thing right there, than we could’ve talked to him and we could address those officers and their policing style and what they were doing on the street that day.

MARTIN: You’re saying that in a situation, the onus is on the public, the onus is on the individual to do as they’re told and to make sure that their behavior isn’t provoking police, that it’s somehow their fault.

AZIZ: Well, I don’t think that provokes police or not. I think what I’m saying in certain cases, when you realize that you’re having a negative experience and you can control the outcome of that experience, then you should do so. If you understand the dos and the don’ts, how is the police officer in control?

MARTIN: But you’re saying that for now then, African-American families have to live with a double-standard.

AZIZ: Well, African-Americans who are very smart and love their children and want to proceed, then they must realize that there’s a small percentage of officers out there who have gotten by psychological testing and background checks and who may not be operating in the same manner, so treat everybody with respect and survive that encounter. Yes, I’m saying that. And I’m hoping for a better day where we’re going to stand in unity and somebody is going to look back on these days and say oh man, we came a long way.

Again we see the assumption that people should grovel before the police and not say or do anything that might annoy them. This is the kind of behavior that characterizes authoritarian states, where the public is supposed to meekly cower before the agents of state power. This view was expressed even more starkly by a former member of the Los Angeles Police Department that has one of the worst reputations in the nation for outright racism.

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?

That says it all. We ordinary people, but especially people of color and the poor, should fear the police and modify our behavior and treat the police as our overlords and act as if they are trigger-happy, unstable people who are justified in shooting us for making the slightest wrong step. But why should we be the only ones who learn to practice caution in this relationship? The police are public servants whose mission is to protect and serve us, not an invading force. People who support authoritarianism say that we should ‘respect the law’ but what they really mean is that we should fear the law. People would respect the law a lot more if its representatives did not behave like an invading army quelling a rebellious foreign country.

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, we have heard repeated calls for greater training of police. But what kind of training? I don’t know what training police cadets currently receive (maybe some readers know) but it should have a component where police officers have to listen to all manner of abuse short of being physically threatened, and learn how to take it calmly. They should learn to distinguish between the venting of anger at them and real threats. They have to do so because lack of deference to authority, offensive speech, and obnoxious behavior that is not criminal are constitutionally protected acts that have to be endured and not be the basis for violent police retaliation.

Acts of lèse-majesté should not be crimes.

Comments

  1. doublereed says

    “Respect the law”? The law needs to respect the people. How about you earn our respect before you demand it?

    This is fundamentally a trust relationship, and he wants “blind trust” instead of “earned trust” which is how we get corrupt, systemic problems.

    I don’t think we need more training. I have no idea what training would realistically do. I think we need more oversight and more transparency. And we should also fix our drug and search laws to stop encouraging this behavior. We need to demand more from police officers.

  2. says

    Everyone she spoke to said more or less the same thing? That’s frustrating.

    In my view, there’s absolutely nothing that the public can do to right this relationship. It’s all on the police. I’m sorry if police feel that’s somehow unfair, but I just can’t see any alternative. We’re talking about a power relationship, and there is little the powerless party can do to change a power relationship. The only way to repair this relationship is for the police to relinquish power (by which I mean making themselves more accountable to the public through transparency and oversight).

    The only thing the powerless can do is try to put pressure on the government institutions that do have the power to reform the police, and one way to do that is by taking to the streets. .

  3. says

    One cop doing something outrageously stupid is a bad apple. The entire department, and local government, circling the wagons to protect said cop from any form of accountability, and deflecting blame to everyone else but themselves, is (to put it mildly) representative of a systemic problem. Seriously, this is so fucking obvious I feel stupid pointing it out. Want me to remind you what color the sky is while I’m at it?

    And advising civilians “do not complain too strongly,” like it’s just as bad as assaulting an officer, is even more representative of a systemic problem.

  4. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    do not complain too strongly

    Fuck you pig.
    Fuck the police.

    Again we see the assumption that people should grovel before the police and not say or do anything that might annoy them. This is the kind of behavior that characterizes authoritarian states, where the public is supposed to meekly cower before the agents of state power.

    Yep, and it is sickening.

    PS: Note to self: Add a police brutality amendment to my short-list of US constitutional amendments. Something that completely removes the court-created “qualified immunity” of individual cops when they misbehave so that they can be held personally responsible for their actions (civilly and criminally). IMHO, if you want to make cop unions responsive, ensure that individual members of the cops union are going to jail when they misbehave.

  5. says

    And we should also fix our drug and search laws to stop encouraging this behavior.

    And the asset forfeiture game as well. Talk about encouraging behaviors…

    And advising civilians “do not complain too strongly,” like it’s just as bad as assaulting an officer

    I think Contempt of Cop is one of those crimes punishable by summary execution, beatings, and imprisonment, depending on the officer’s mood at the moment.

    Anyone here ever read online forums where cops talk? Go on and check some out, if you want your head to explode.

  6. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    All the training in the world is not going to help when cops can behave any way they like and get away with it. If you need to take a class to learn killing another human being in cold blood is morally wrong, you shouldn’t be allowed to run around with a gun and a club and the freedom to use them as you like.

    I suspect this kind of heavy-handed brutality is a feature, not a bug. If the cops left us alone we would start to ignore their presence. Getting in our faces from time to time and reminding us that yeah, we can fuck you up at will, seems a necessary practice to maintain their intimidating effect.

    End the drug war, give people a guaranteed income as Martin Luther King proposed and abolish the cops and the military to pay for it. Watch crime drop through the floor. There are alternative models of policing out there that don’t involve having heavily-armed thugs who are only interested in procuring bodies for the prison slave industry and cracking heads for kicks. Accountability of police must be directly through the people using the democratic process, not the corrupt prosecutorial system that works hand-in-glove with the cops in the injustice business.

    This looks like a better model of policing than anything we have in this country.

    http://www.leftturn.org/popular-justice-guerreros-community-police

  7. alex symczak says

    I don’t know. On one hand, I don’t like the idea of just bowing down to the cops. We need to recognize our rights and have the cops respect them. On the other, I don’t think just making a fuss and yelling and screaming and insulting the police is really that productive. It would seem as though it would be better for all involved if you just went along with them and then went through the proper legal channels to register complaints and seek relief if you believe your rights have been violated. However, I realize that even this is not great because there are many problems with our legal system right now.

  8. Anton Mates says

    If you understand the dos and the don’ts, how is the police officer in control?

    “Your money or your life! See, I’m giving you a choice. Be grateful!”

    I don’t know what training police cadets currently receive (maybe some readers know) but it should have a component where police officers have to listen to all manner of abuse short of being physically threatened, and learn how to take it calmly.

    And, you know, this sort of training doesn’t seem incredibly hard for most people to internalize. Doctors, nurses and hospital assistants, EMTs, social workers, therapists, club bouncers, high school teachers, freelance sex workers–all these folks regularly encounter angry unstable people who scream at them and swear at them and sometimes even physically attack them. And, somehow, they usually manage to deal with the situation without killing anybody. There’s no law of human psychology that says you must escalate in the face of aggression.

    My best friend’s a nursing assistant. She’s had patients–much larger than her–wake up in a paranoid fury, rip their IVs out and attack her while screaming obscenities. She’s had to basically sit on them and shout vaguely reassuring things until security could show up and they could get a sedative in. What she did not do in this situation is retaliate with lethal violence. Because, well, why would she? She doesn’t like having unhinged people try to kill her, but her job is to try to fix the shitty things people do to each other, not add to them. It’s a dangerous job and she could use higher pay and more protections, but as long as she’s doing it she’s going to try to do it right. And the hospital expects her to do it right–if she panics and hits the patient over the head with something heavy, she’s not going to remain employed for very long. That’s simply not acceptable behavior for that profession.

    The police could easily be held to the same standard. They’re just…not.

  9. Dunc says

    It would seem as though it would be better for all involved if you just went along with them and then went through the proper legal channels to register complaints and seek relief if you believe your rights have been violated. However, I realize that even this is not great because there are many problems with our legal system right now.

    I see you have a talent for understatement. The problem with trying to go through “proper legal channels to register complaints and seek relief” is that the “proper legal channels”, in practice, amount to “fuck you”, and your effective legal rights are “you have the right to go fuck yourself”. The police have almost total immunity from prosecution (and usually even from disciplinary action) for all crimes, up to and including murder. They can do whatever the hell they like, and there is absolutely no legal means by which they can be held to account.

  10. says

    All the training in the world is not going to help when cops can behave any way they like and get away with it.

    Actually, decades of experience shows that retraining, and modifications in police training, do indeed work. So do renewed efforts to re-engage cops with their communities.

    End the drug war, give people a guaranteed income as Martin Luther King proposed and abolish the cops and the military to pay for it. Watch crime drop through the floor.

    Dude, can’t you even try to sound serious?

  11. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    abolish the cops and the military to pay for it. Watch crime drop through the floor.

    Lolno.

    On the other, I don’t think just making a fuss and yelling and screaming and insulting the police is really that productive.

    So what? Free speech. I don’t have the right to beat or kill a pig if he yelled at me, and by a similar token he doesn’t have the right to beat or kill me if I yelled at him.

  12. smrnda says

    People who work fast food take a lot more abuse than cops, and don’t get to kill people who insult them. Being insulted is part of most jobs, and unlike most workers, cops get way more money and power. the problem is that the job of police officer attracts authoritarian thugs out to get ‘street justice’ and to ‘stomp some ass’ and ‘get back’ at people who ‘give them a look.’ (All phrases I read often enough from police.)

    Cops are public servants with an unusually sensitive and dangerous role. When it comes to how public/police relations are, and whether they are doing their jobs right, their opinions do not count.

    And yes, with civil asset forfeiture and the war on drugs, the police are just an organized crime syndicate that occasionally might arrest an actual trouble maker. But that’s the defense criminal organizations always make.

  13. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    “Actually, decades of experience shows that retraining, and modifications in police training, do indeed work. So do renewed efforts to re-engage cops with their communities.”

    Yes, Mr Giuliani, police reform has clearly been a smashing success (no pun intended). During those same “decades of experience” tens of millions of Americans have been arrested, fined, sentenced to prison or otherwise had their lives destroyed over nonviolent drug offenses. Many innocent of any charge. Over 50 percent of black males and 39 percent of white males have been arrested by the time they reach age 25. The CIA is known to have spread crack into black neighborhoods and the ATF was caught smuggling rifles to Mexican drug cartels. This is your “success.”

    It’s going to take more than “re-engaging the community” or other vague, crackpot meliorist nostrums to clean up that mess.

    “Dude, can’t you even try to sound serious?”

    Dude, I am serious; sadly, I fear you are too.

  14. alex symczak says

    @12: I’m sorry you only care about fulfilling this primal need to yell at and insult people. Sure, you have every right to do it if it makes you feel better. I care about actually coming up with ideas to fix this problem and also stop people from getting injured or killed.

    @10: Perhaps it is an understatement;. I know things are really bad. That just makes a solution all the more difficult. I really hope there is a peaceful way to go about fixing things. I’d love to see people walking away from encounters like these alive, and I’d love to see suits against the officers pile up from living plaintiffs. Maybe write to your representatives, state or federal. Maybe the mayor, maybe the police department. Maybe you can organize a protest march. I just hate to see people caught up in this and getting hurt or going crazy and looting and burning.

  15. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    @alex symczak
    I believe I offered some: charge pigs when they murder people.

    Here’s another solution to the problem which you can do right now. It’s like rape culture. It’s a culture where the police are given undue privilege. You’re contributing to the problem right now. Rather than negatively portray my position as unreasonable, you could side with me against the pigs and agree that we have to cuss them out as much as we want, and they have to deal with it. That right there could help change culture which would help fix the problem.

  16. alex symczak says

    @16: Hmmmm, I think I see where you’re coming from. You’re right that they should just deal with it, but my fear is that tactics like that could just provoke more violence, and I don’t want to see more people end up hurt or dead. I guess I’m operating off the depressing assumption that in the short term I can’t expect the police to act more reasonably, and we would have to avoid too much direct confrontation just to protect ourselves while we pursue other options.

  17. says

    It’s going to take more than “re-engaging the community” or other vague, crackpot meliorist nostrums to clean up that mess.

    As I’ve already said, re-engagement has already given us far better results than the vague and unhinged rhetoric of people like you. Relations between community and cops are eroded by a succession of relatively small incidents — and they’re rebuilt the same way.

    It’s like rape culture. It’s a culture where the police are given undue privilege. You’re contributing to the problem right now.

    Alex is “contributing to the problem” by saying he wants to come up with ideas to fix the problem? EL, your rhetoric is inexcusably incoherent, dishonest, and useless at best. Hyperemotional self-righteousness is not a substitute for responsible thought. It speaks volumes about you, that the people who have actually lost loved ones to police abuse sound more informed and levelheaded than you.

    …you could side with me against the pigs and agree that we have to cuss them out as much as we want…

    We “have” to cuss them out as much as we “want?” Do you have any idea how fucking stupid and childish you sound?

    Also, EL, remember when you were going on and on about how the militia is the people and the Second Amendment was supposed to protect us from tyranny? Care to tell us how the free flow of guns is helping anyone here?

  18. says

    So what? Free speech.

    Someone merely said that a particular action might not be helpful, and you really think that’s a valid response? Go fuck yourself. That’s free speech too.

  19. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    EL, your rhetoric is inexcusably incoherent, dishonest, and useless at best. Hyperemotional self-righteousness is not a substitute for responsible thought. It speaks volumes about you, that the people who have actually lost loved ones to police abuse sound more informed and levelheaded than you.

    You use words, “incoherent”, “dishonest”, “useless”, but I do not think you know what they mean. The word you are looking for is “extreme”.

    Also, if you think I’m too extreme in being completely outraged at the current state of affairs, then I suggest that you have not been paying attention.

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