Two Views of Pepper-Spray, Abuse of Power, and the Militarization of the Police
The first is from a reader who asks not to be named. She underscores the point Ta-Nehisi Coates makes this morning, with a video of a young black man being pepper-sprayed in Illinois for no apparent reason. (Supposedly he was "resisting arrest" after being detained for ... jaywalking.) Their point is that what has happened before the world's eyes at Davis, Berkeley, and other recent Occupy sites goes on all the time but attracts no general notice because it affects the "wrong" people. In answer to my question, "How Did We Let This Happen?" -- "this" being the conversion of police forces into military units -- today's unnamed reader replies:
You all (and by you all I mean whites, yes I'm black) let this happen because the people being hurt by police brutality were mainly poor, black and brown, and in many cases, immigrants. It has always been this way.
The militarism you are citing really doesn't matter. Cops are more than capable of hurting people when they don't have armored vehicles and high-powered weapons. In your reporting on this the common use of these vehicles is as some form of advertising. Yes the scary almost-tanks get used but really all that equipment does is let grown men play dress up.
A more important and interesting thing to think about would be to ask how on earth can this situation change when,
1) The majority of the population (yes white folks) are not touched by this violence and when they are they will only move in so far as it benefits them.
2) There are entire industries that profit from making and selling these vehicles. We have all seen that defense contractors are a pretty powerful group. Now that those companies have local police departments as part of their market, how are people going to stop this? If it's like pulling teeth to get the federal govt. not to buy the latest warplane or spy system how do you stop the local govt. from doing it? I'm thinking the lobbying dollar stretches farther at the more cash strapped local and state level.
3) People truly don't care about the people who have to deal with the police on a regular basis.
The most frustrating thing for me in the last 24 hours after seeing the footage from UC Davis is knowing that if it was a group of people like me protesting there wouldn't be the same outrage. It's not every day you get told over and over again you don't matter. It's depressing
While your readers seem to be more thoughtful I have absolutely no hope that the spotlight on these recent incidents will result in change. I feel like this mostly because I think it is impossible to have a real conversation with a white people about the police. You all are too naïve and too frightened.
The next is from a veteran police officer, Max Geron of Dallas, who stresses that he is speaking strictly for himself. Just to make sure that message gets across, I'm saying it here in addition to leaving in the first paragraph of his letter. He explains how the recent out-of-control situations look from a police point of view. If you're rushed for time, skip down to the part beginning "From a tactical perspective":
Allow me to preface what I say by stating that my views are not those of the Dallas Police Department or the Caruth Police Institute and should in no way be taken as my speaking on the department's or institute's behalf. These views are my own.
I read your article regarding the brutality at UC Davis. I was shocked and dismayed at the actions taken by Lieutenant Pike and at the same time can see how leadership and policies failed him. I've been in law enforcement for over 20 years and have never been trained to use chemical agents on non-violent or passive resistors.
I have more than a "lay-officer's" knowledge of how to address crowds. In fact I have served as an instructor in Mobile Field Force tactics and have trained other officers/supervisors to be trainers themselves in crowd control techniques. I was a supervisor and team leader on Dallas SWAT and have dispensed chemical agents in various forms as part of my duties as a law enforcement officer. I am also a graduate of the Caruth Police Institute's Lieutenant's Leadership Series and teach a class on values based decision making to police supervisors.
There is a tendency in law enforcement to want to focus on the "Seattle/WTO" outcomes and how to handle them. Training classes are ripe with Youtube videos of violent protestors overrunning police lines, throwing rocks and bottles and wreaking havoc on civilized society. Organization of protestors (i.e. their ability to utilize modern technology to foil police attempts and their increasing organization) is also a topic of instruction. A not insignificant amount of time is also devoted to moving in formation, using (appropriate) force and affecting arrests while maintaining officer safety. These training classes must also address peaceful protestors and specifically how to humanely arrest and transport those that decide to be arrested in this manner. Generally a 3/1 ratio of officers is advisable to handle passive resistors that must be arrested. If however a department trains exclusively in these areas, it fails its officers. As civilian law enforcement we must be ever cognizant of the role we play in society and of the fact that we are not the military and do not live in a police state. A department must devote time to training its officers in maintaining objectivity and humanity and recognizing when fellow officers do not. Departments across the country struggle with the idea of "How do we get officers to make the correct ethical choices in difficult situations?"
From a tactical perspective I have no way of knowing how many officers UC Davis had on hand that day but they appeared outnumbered for the actions they chose to undertake. Hindsight being 20/20 they should have recognized the need for more officers or (more appropriately) recognized the need to take a different approach to dealing with these protestors. They owe a debt of gratitude to those students who, although very angry, remained relatively calm and certainly non-violent. Had the crowd "decided" that the officers were not going to escort the prisoners through them, the officers would have been unable to do so.
Departments and officers must remember the we (the police) only serve at the allowance/discretion of the citizenry who employs us. If we fail to treat everyone as we would have ourselves and families treated then we cease protecting and serving and begin preying and harming. I personally appreciated your logical stipulations and from a law enforcement veteran's perspective I can see no legitimate basis for the actions that those few officers took either.
We fail our officers if we refrain from reminding them that we are dealing with human beings who need be treated as such. And while it is easy to vilify Lt. Pike and say "I would never..." or "He is evil..." he too is human, prone to mistakes and accountable for his actions. I believe a leadership change likely must be made in that department (and likely in the university) in order for them to salvage and rebuild trust in the eyes of the community it serves.
In closing, I believe that police leaders who recognize that their first response to these protestors is not to make them the enemy and further the "us vs. them" mentality but is to remind officers of the difficult line we walk in defending both the right to peacefully protest and the right of people to "go about their normal lives", will have served their communities successfully and in the greatest traditions of police work.
Thanks to both. More to come.