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Rethinking Public Safety: Trust vs. Force

“Guns aren’t just a danger in and of themselves,” writes Noah Berlatsky at Quartz. “They enable a policing philosophy built on violence and forced compliance, rather than one founded on respect, trust and consent. That philosophy affects every police interaction, even those that don’t involve actual shooting.”

Examples of this, of course, are everywhere. A recent one is the arrest of Tye Anders in Midland, Texas on May 16.

Anders, 21 and . . . what a surprise! . . . black, may have run a stop sign, though even that is contested. Police flagged him down. Fearing an encounter in complete isolation, he pulled over in front of his grandmother’s house, a short distance away. As he exited his car, the police drew their guns and Anders threw himself on the ground, raising his arms in the air to show he didn’t have a weapon. His grandmother, age 90, came outside, stood in front of her grandson — in essence, protecting him with her life — and eventually fell or was pushed on top of him as the officers approached and handcuffed Anders.

The young man was arrested and later released on bond. He has a civil rights attorney, Justin Moore, who maintains there was no traffic violation, no legal reason for the stop, simply “racial profiling.”

Perhaps the worst thing about this incident, not to mention all the others that preceded it — many of them, of course, ending in someone’s death — is how situation-normal they are, at least in neighborhoods that are neither upper-class nor white.

Oh, America! This is an occupied country with the biggest prison system in the world. We “keep order,” in the non-privileged areas, with armed authority backed up by a history of racism. We need to start over: set down the guns and strip this system down to the bone, with the intention of rebuilding our social infrastructure on a foundation of trust, cooperation and a belief in the sanctity of life. This is the unwritten message behind every viral video of a police shooting.

“About 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police, according to a new analysis of deaths involving law enforcement officers, That makes them 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during an encounter with cops,” the Los Angeles Times reported last year.

“. . . Scientists, meanwhile, are increasingly studying police violence as a public health problem whose long-term harms radiate far beyond the original victim.”

One of these days, that will simply be obvious — but first we have to reinvent the wheel, or so it seems. That is to say, we must disarm our concept of social order. This means a different sort of training for police officers — less target practice, more psychological awareness. Many police themselves recognize this, e.g.:

“American police leaders can learn from their unarmed colleagues,” writes Brandon del Pozo, chief of police in Burlington, Vt.. in the New York Times. 

Police academies should ingrain a wide range of skills, drills and responses in trainees before they ever handle a firearm. Training should start by sending officers into scenarios where they have to solve problems without recourse to lethal force.

Unarmed officers will cultivate an instinct to de-escalate: They will keep a safe distance, they will try to assess the true level of threat rather than see a weapon as a cue to rapidly escalate, and they will communicate in ways that reach people.

But the issue goes far beyond simply a different kind of police training. How does the concept of policing itself — which emerged in the era of slavery in the form of slave patrols and expanded over the decades as we waged a Jim Crow-driven “war on crime” — separate itself from this past? How in God’s name will American police ever gain respect, trust and consent in non-white and low-income communities? This will never happen . . . until they are created by those communities, not sent into them from above as an occupying army.

This is not an ideological opinion. It’s simply a fact. Philip McHarris, for instance, who is black and grew up in a low-income corner of New York, writes in The Appeal of his encounter, at age 15, with a gang of boys as he and some friends walked home from a party one night. One of the gang guys pointed a gun at them. They ran and managed to escape unharmed, but the point he makes is that he never considered calling the police. That would have accomplished nothing except aggravating the danger.

His essay addresses the idea of “community policing” — something seen by many as a workable alternative to the current system, in which police work to build trust and partnerships in the neighborhoods they patrol. He begs to differ.

“Time,” he writes, “has shown that community policing is merely an expensive attempt at public relations, after a long history of racialized police violence and injustice, and does little to reduce crime or police violence.”

Indeed, some $14 billion have gone into local police departments since 1994 as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed into law by Bill Clinton, which has expanded the reach of police enormously but has done nothing to help the actual communities, McHarris writes. They have simply been left to flounder in their poverty. The billions invested in police departments would have been far better spent creating jobs and improving housing and education, not to mention changing laws “that criminalize people for being poor and disadvantaged.”

He adds: “The real work lies in developing alternatives to punishment and policing, not nicer cops.”

Policing has institutionalized itself out of the social structure, at least in low-income communities, and established an objective role for itself to play in an obsolete social hierarchy, based on force, threat and indifference. This is a danger both to community residents and individual police officers. No one is safe in a war zone.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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