Saturday, September 24, 2016

261.3 - Extended Footnote: Why do we keep seeing stories like that of Terrence Crutcher?

Extended Footnote: Why do we keep seeing stories like that of Terrence Crutcher?

When we face the issue of police violence, when we face the issue of police killing unarmed people, we instinctively look for reasons. There has to be a reason why.

So you want some reasons why we keep covering the same ground about police, why the stories keep arising? I'll give you some and here I'm not even going to be talking about the racism that runs through so many of these accounts, where being black is to be menacing, where just by being black you "look like a bad dude." Instead, here I'm going to be talking about what could well be described as institutional reasons.

Here's one such reason: After Terrence Crutcher was shot, someone on the police radio can be heard saying, "Shots fired. We have one suspect down."

Suspect? What was he suspected of? For what crime was he being investigated? The answer, of course, is that he wasn't suspected of anything - except, of course, being "a bad dude."

Yet simply by having an encounter with police, he becomes a "suspect." Because we are all "suspects" in the eyes of police, for who there are cops and there are "suspects." And "suspects," of course, are by definition dangerous to some degree or another.

I have said it before: We are teaching cops to be afraid. We are teaching, and I mean actively teaching, cops to be in constant fear of instant death, to be prepared to shoot first and ask questions later, to feel it's not only their right but their duty to avoid to the extent possible any degree of risk even when that means just shifting the risk onto non-cops.

There is, for example, something taught in police academies called the "21 foot rule," which holds that someone with a bladed weapon who is less than 21 feet away can rush a cop and injure or kill them before the cop could get their gun out and fire. Not only has this rule been questioned, it has been twisted and distorted to mean that if you are carrying a blade within 21 feet of a cop, they are justified in shooting you on the grounds that they felt they were at immediate risk of death; no actual aggressive move on your part is required.

That has got to change. It has to or the body count will only continue to rise. So far in 2016, 40 cops nationwide have died in the line of duty by being shot. At the same time, 706 people have been shot and killed by cops, 41 of them unarmed. Cops have killed more unarmed people than the total number of cops killed by others.

That training to be afraid, to think of everyone as a potentially dangerous "suspect," is one reason why we keep seeing these sorts of stories. Here's another. In covering the Crutcher family's contention that the window to Terrance Crutcher's SUV was closed, the Washington Post reported that, quoting,
If confirmed by police, the admission would eliminate one of the chief justifications for police using deadly force against Crutcher.*
Actually, it would eliminate the only justification, but "if confirmed by police?" What does that mean? That when it involves police we have to wait for the judgment of the accused? That when it comes to people shot in the street by someone in a uniform we have to have the accused decide what is and isn't true, what is and isn't fact?

That attitude among the media that "it's not true unless an official says it is," which positively encourages evasion, subject-changing, and outright lying by police when faced with uncomfortable truths, is another reason why Terrence Crutcher is just one of many.

But there's an even bigger one. And the most important one.

I've said several times in discussing cop violence that most cops are good cops, most cops are trying to do the best, the most professional, job they can for their communities. And I will add that in my own personal encounters with cops, apart from the one some years ago where a cop hassled, rousted, and unlawfully searched me and two friends before telling us to get out of town - all because we were "hippies" -  have for the most part been professional and courteous.

But for that very reason, that most cops are good cops, trying to do the best, most professional, job they can, it is vital that those good cops stop shielding the bad ones and beyond that it is vital that city administrations stop agreeing to police union contracts with ethically outrageous provisions that actively shield police from the immediate questions and investigations that any of the rest of us would face when a crime is suspected and provide for an internal appeals process that almost guarantees that any discipline a cop faces will be reduced or tossed out entirely.

Because why should we expect any change in cop behavior when there are no consequences for doing the wrong thing? When your contract protects you, your union shields you, and your colleagues, the ones who know what you did, stand silent?

One of the things that some police departments look to in looking for red flags of misconduct is how many "resisting arrest" charges get added to other charges on which someone is arrested, especially if those other charges are later dropped or dismissed, because "resisting arrest" is frequently used as a cover for police brutality. "I wasn't using excessive force, he was resisting me."

The New York police is among the departments that tracks resisting arrest data this way. About two years ago, one researcher crunched NYPD arrest stats since 2012 and found that just 5 percent of cops accounted for 40 percent of all resisting arrest charges. In fact, a majority of New York officers filed no resisting arrest charges at all in that time, which means that this sort of red flag was concentrated among a very small cohort of cops.

That is, it is very likely that examples of excessive force, that is, of police brutality, are likewise concentrated around that 5 percent - and it is vital that the 95 percent stop protecting that 5 percent.

Frank Serpico
Those cops who want to do the right thing, who want to have good relations with the community, those cops who are not going to reach for the club or the mace or the taser or the gun at the first provocation, those cops who do not want to divide the world into cops and suspects, they have got to stop shielding those who do. They have got to step up and speak up.

Is that professionally risky? It most certainly is. Is it even personally risky? Frank Serpico, who said that after he became a whistle-blower his calls for back-up would be answered slowly if at all, would surely say yes.

Then again, we are always being told how dangerous police work is - so maybe they should just think of this as another part of the job, another part of their commitment to "protect and serve."

The issue, the problem, the disease, of police brutality and excessive violence extends beyond the minority community - although they clearly bear the greatest brunt of it, with black Americans being 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a cop than white Americans and unarmed black Americans five times more likely. But it does extend beyond and the single most important reason this scourge continues to fester is the reluctance of the vast majority of good cops to stand up to, to speak out against, the bad ones. Until that changes, I fear little else will.

*The statement is no longer found in updated versions of the story on the Post website.

Sources cited in links:

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