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To Protect and Serve

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According to a police spokesperson in Schenectady, New York, one of the three cities in the capital’s tri-city region, they “were justified in using Tasers, pepper spray and batons to subdue a city man, whom they arrested for walking in the street” (“VIDEO: ‘Brutality’ Alleged in Schenectady Police Arrest,” Time Warner Cable News, July 1, 2016).

Wilson Taylor was arrested after he refused to stop walking in the middle of a street, then allegedly attacked a police officer, Sergeant Adam Nowicki, who had asked Taylor to move from the street. Additional officers responded to subdue Taylor. Two of the officers were hurt in the ensuing melee and required hospitalization.

The video of the incident is quite graphic. Watching it was reminiscent of watching the police beating of Rodney King. But what demands special attention is the statement by the person who filmed the incident on his cell phone. The cell phone video of the beating of Eric Garner in Staten Island comes to mind, as Ramsey Orta, who took that video, suffered intense police harassment and imprisonment after recording the incident. Here are the words of the unnamed person who made the Schenectady video: “[Taylor] never touched the cop or did anything to the cop. All those cops had to hit him that many times? When I left, they were still hitting him. I think the police should be investigated.” The person who made the video declined to give his name to the media for obvious reasons.

Taylor pleaded not guilty when brought to court and was sent to a county jail on $15,000 cash bail. His attorney said that the 28-year-old man suffers from “diagnosed schizophrenia.”

These graphic and disturbing videos taken across the nation are almost becoming routine. A black man interacts in some way with the police, a vicious fight ensues, and serious injury, death, or imprisonment result. It is the new Jim Crow. Many of these incidents, never filmed, or of lesser intensity, never make it to the pages of the print media or to television screens. But another incident involving the police and another mentally-ill man made local and national news in April 2015.

On April 2, 2015, Donald Ivy, 39, of Albany, New York left his apartment in the Arbor Hill section of the city to use an ATM at a local convenience store just after midnight. According to police accounts, the police had been in Ivy’s neighborhood on a routine gun-violence patrol and stopped and questioned him because one officer felt Ivy appeared suspicious since his hands were pulled up into his coat sleeves. First one,  then several other police officers questioned Ivy. The night, as was the past winter, was very cold, which would have explained why Ivy held his hands in the sleeves of his coat. The police questioned Ivy, who lied about a past incident on his record about a domestic assault, a chase followed, then a beating with police using batons and tasers. The four Albany officers involved were all exonerated in Ivy’s death, which was judged to have been caused by a heart attack.

What stands out in the case of Donald Ivy’s death is that he had been a productive member of the community, a star athlete at a local high school, and a highly-regarded worker in social service agencies in the area. He was also a college graduate with a teenage son (“After Albany police cleared in Donald Ivy’s death, his grief-stricken sister speaks out,” The Times Union, October 29, 2015). But Ivy had fallen on bad times and developed schizophrenia. His reported reason for going out late at night to get cash and buy the things he needed was to avoid people. The mental illness that had taken away part of his his life, was unknown during his interactions with the police on the unusually cold night in early spring. The need for community policing was never more apparent than in the case of Donald Ivy, but he, and the significant details of his life, were not known to these police officers.

Why do these interactions with police sometimes end in beatings and death? Why are so many of the men involved in these incidents young, or relatively young, black men? Why in so many of these interactions are the men unarmed? Why do police sometimes view these young men as a danger that they feel must be confronted in the most violent and sometimes lethal manner?

Policing in the United States changed dramatically after the decades of the 1960s and early 1970s.  Police repression of minority communities had been routine, while middle class and affluent neighborhoods never knew police as a threatening and alien force. But police had long been involved in the suppression of the movement for civil rights and integration in the U.S. The most notorious involvement came in Neshoba County, Mississippi in June 1964, when three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were tortured and murdered with the direct involvement of the police after the three men drove to a black church to investigate a possible case of arson.

With the deindustrialization of the economy in the U.S. in the decade of the 1970s, police and prisons became in some cases bizarre and gruesome kinds of social and economic and political control devices in dealing with a segment of the population that had been relegated to the periphery of society. Drugs and drug wars came to be the rallying cry of this official offensive across the nation and prison populations exploded exponentially. Many people literally rotted in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. The elite had the police to do their bidding and alleged wrongdoers regularly made it onto the evening and print news.

Even the appearance of police changed dramatically. From the early SWAT teams to the police response to the demonstrations in response to the death of Michael Brown in Missouri, police officers, often with military-like appearance and battlefield military equipment, sometimes viewed young black men as threats by the mere fact of being young and black.

It was only incremental steps from the establishment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, partly as a coordinating device in reaction to the mass protests of the 1960s and early 1970s, to the militarized police of today. A parallel movement to arm as many people in the U.S. as possible moves almost seamlessly along with the growth of police violence, a movement that most police spokespersons abhor because those guns are a direct threat to police. But the macho image of many police departments is at odds with a peaceful civil society.

Since 2001, the national security state seems to have not only tolerated, but expanded police powers at all levels of government. Stop and frisk morphed in cities like New York (until the practice became legally insupportable), and these policies seemed to enjoy the support of large segments of the population. Indeed, the Occupy Wall Street Movement was brutally suppressed in cities around the U.S., with images of peaceful protesters, some involved in acts of civil disobedience, being forcefully and violently suppressed.

Many may enter policing for altruistic reasons, and may act on those motivations in public service, but the motto to protect and serve seems like an idyllic relic of the past.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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