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What’s Wrong with Police in America

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Americans got a glimpse of what policing is like in a more humane and civilized society last year when four young Swedish cops, on vacation in New York City and riding on a subway, found themselves faced with a bloody fight in the aisle by two angry black men.

A subway car full of New Yorkers watched in stunned disbelief as the four Scandinavian cops, all in civvies and unarmed, leapt into action. They used non-lethal techniques to pin the two combatants without hurting either one and then began trying to talk them down, calmly, never raising their voices, and avoiding any swearing or verbal abuse. Neither man was hit by any of the officers despite their struggling. As the Swedish cops waited for New York’s Finest to arrive, they gently rubbed and patted the distressed captives and spoke to them reassuringly.

It was not the way that situation would likely have gone down had it been four off-duty New York cops in that car. First of all, they would almost certainly have had guns on them. Second, they would have been shouting and upping the tension level. Third, they might well have applied chokeholds instead of arm restraints, and would have had the men pinned face down, with knees in their backs. Quite possibly punches would have been thrown along with kicks and stomping in a gang-banging frenzy. Given the history of prior such incidents, it’s conceivable that shots might even have been fired, and that passengers could have been hit by stray police bullets (as happened in a Times Square incident not long ago). One or both of the fighters might well have been injured or even killed.

Instead a violent incident was peacefully halted…incredibly with nobody hurt.

That’s how policing is done in much of Europe, where police shootings are almost unheard of. It’s how it should be done here.

But the whole concept of policing in the US is quite different from what prevails in most democratic countries. For one thing, abroad police are not ubiquitous in most places. I was in Finland, Austria and southern Germany last year, as well as in Quebec, and it’s actually hard to find a cop in any of those places when you’re looking for one. I walked for two hours in Montreal and didn’t see a single police officer, on foot or in a patrol car. Not so in New York, Philadelphia, Boston or even my local community of Upper Dublin, PA, where it’s easy to pass two or three cop cars just while driving the three miles between my house and the train station.

America is infested with police, and instead of responding to emergencies, they spend a lot of their time, from what I can observe, just looking for things to bust people for. Laws that can get people arrested have proliferated over the past few decades so fast that today most of us are probably breaking laws every day that we don’t even know are on the books. This country is so over-policed that departments are thinking up ways to keep busy by spying on us, and they’re using tax money and confiscated cash to buy fancy new toys, from “Stingray” mobile phone taps to drones (including armed drones), that will help them do it.

But it’s not just that. Cities and communities are hiring people as police officers who are not fit to be public servants. Many are bullies and have mental problems that lead them to resort to violent confrontation instead of negotiated solutions. They are also people who tend to turn quickly to using a gun or a taser when they feel threatened or even disrespected.

Think about the other major category of uniformed public employee: firefighters. Here we have people who have signed up, and often literally volunteered to do probably the most dangerous job that a person can do: running into burning buildings that could collapse at any moment in order to rescue someone who might be in there, and if so, might still be alive.

I witnessed this kind of action once when I lived in an apartment in New York. We lived on the 11th floor of a large fireproof building of 17 stories. One day, there was an alarm and fire trucks rushed onto the street. Looking out my living window, I saw thick black smoke and flames pouring out of an apartment about five stories below and to the right of mine. Fire fighters were rushing into the front door of the building.

I raced down the stairs to the floor of the fire, and went into the hall, rushing down to the door of the burning apartment, which was metal, but had paint blistering paint on it from the heat of the fire inside. At that moment two firefighters — both large men in full gear with compressed air tanks on their backs and cans of fire retardant in hand came around the corner after having climbed the stairs. They told me to get away, and then walked up to the door. Without even stopping to think — or say a prayer — one guy just kicked hard on the door and busted it wide open. Smoke, flames and heat roared out at them and yet, to my astonishment, they just rushed in together into that inferno.

As it turned out, nobody was in the two-room apartment, and the two men came back out. The fire was extinguished with hoses that sprayed in through the windows from the outside and it was quickly all over.

I’ve thought about that incident over the years, and especially lately as we see case after case of police officers shooting unarmed young men and women (and sometimes young kids), claiming their actions were justified because they “felt threatened.”

Those two firemen certainly had to have “felt threatened” as they contemplated, however briefly, busting down that door with its bubbling paint and then rushed into the darkness and smoke of the apartment in search of someone in need of rescuing. Yet they didn’t hold back and wait for the trucks outside to douse the fire. They went in.

Why are firefighters willing to put their lives at risk to save people (even black ones!), while so many cops, with their body armor and their guns, are so quick to shoot to kill people that they imagine might be intending to harm them? Why do we as a society expect our firefighters to put their lives on the line to save us without a thought for themselves, but just shrug when cops, instead of putting their lives on the line to defuse situations involving drunken or mentally ill, or otherwise disturbed or possibly suicidal people, just take out their guns and blow such people away?

I’m not saying that there may not be cases where a police officer has no alternative but to shoot someone (although shoot-to-kill policies in place at most departments are an outrage that makes such killings much more likely), and I’m not saying that there aren’t cops who have the same courage and compassion as firefighters, but most of the cases we’re seeing lately are showing the opposite. Shooting a fleeing man in the back, as happened in Charleston South Carolina, or choking a man to death for being uncooperative during a bust for selling cigarettes illegally, or driving up to a 12-year-old kid with a toy gun who is sitting calmly on a park bench and shooting him immediately upon exiting the car, or tossing a stun grenade through a window into a house with kids in it and killing a baby are not examples of restraint or even of a willingness to take risk to save others’ lives.

If killer cops like these were firefighters, they’d be fired the first day out on the job because they’d be the cowardly ones refusing to go into burning apartments or houses to rescue people crying for assistance.

It seems clear to me that the problem with police in America is not going to be solved by requiring body-cams or by requiring independent prosecutors to investigate police shootings and seriously prosecuting questionable shootings and abuse. Nor is it going to be solved by hiring more minority and women cops, or by requiring racial sensitivity training. What we need is a wholesale revamping of concept of policing, and a re-evaluation of why we need police in the first place. Whatever we do, it’s clear that we need a whole lot fewer cops, and a whole lot less firepower in the hands of the ones we do have, too.

Two weekends ago I was just driving through the upstate town of Walton in New York, where there was a county fair underway. A guy, clearly a part-time or off-duty cop judging by his unruly facial hair, was directing traffic to the fairground on Main Street. He was dressed in civilian clothes, with a yellow reflecting vest that said “Police”. Although he was simply directing traffic, he had a pistol holstered prominently on his belt.

I found myself wondering, “Why in the hell does this guy need a gun to direct traffic?” And indeed, in Europe or the UK he would not have been wearing one. Because he was packing though, if there were some incident involving a driver doing something wrong, and if that incident involved a black driver, the gun could easily have come into play. That’s just nuts, but it’s the norm in the US. We need to change that.

American police may sometimes display the phrase “Protect and Serve” on the side of their patrol cars, but for the most part, that is not what they do. They are “law enforcement.” The connotation of that term is something completely different from protecting and serving. Someone who protects and serves talks politely, and acts like a servant of the public. Someone who “enforces” is inherently oppositional, which is why we Americans are expected to say “yes sir” and “no sir” to police when they stop us. Argue with a cop in America and you’re looking for trouble…or worse. Run and, especially if you’re not white, you may well be shot or tased. (Hell, I’m a 66-year-old white guy and I was recently threatened with arrest by a thuggish young cop if I continued trying to hitch-hike after he, incorrectly, informed me that it was illegal in Pennsylvania and ordered me to stop.)

What we need is to have the same kind of people who apply to be firefighters applying to be cops — people who are ready to put their own lives on the line to save others’ lives, not to take them.

We need real heroes and real public servants, in other words, and not overlords, bullies and thugs who want to strut their guns, tasers, clubs, fists and cuffs.

If we had cops who were more like firefighters, we wouldn’t be talking about requiring them to wear bodycams.

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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