The Local Level: Policing in America
Let’s clear up one issue quickly. If mental illness (you know, the old “single shooter” trope) were the sole cause of these actions, people from all over the political spectrum would be committing them. Instead, it is the radical right that consistently enacts them. And we should also acknowledge that people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent acts.
Crazies got to be crazy. But as merely unofficial enforcers of the new madness, some of these loonies risked occasionally getting caught and punished. Their sense of permissiveness was not (yet) entirely sanctioned by law – as, we should note, it had been for generations during slavery and Jim Crow. The real work of enacting what I have described as ritual sacrifice fell, as usual, to local police departments, which, we recall, began as Southern slave patrols.
Indeed, the sacrifice of American Dionysus saw a new upsurge, ranging from the sadly ridiculous, such as Police at the National Mall handcuffing three Black teens for selling water on a hot day, or a Jacksonville, Florida cop ticketing a Black man for crossing a street without identification, to the fully tragic, such as Arkansas’ announcement that it would execute seven people in eleven days.
The fully tragic. The number of fatal shootings by police officers in the first half of 2017 is nearly identical to the number of shootings recorded during the same time period in 2016 and 2015. That number? 492 people. Police killings are set to reach approximately 1,000 for the third year in a row. The authors of the report write: “These numbers show us that officer-involved shootings are constant over time” (not realizing that in saying this they are indicting Barack Obama as much as Trump).
Another researcher, however, argues that police killings of unarmed people of color increased in Trump’s first six months and names many of the victims: Desmond Phillips, Nana Adomako, Chad Robertson, Raynard Burton, Alteria Woods, etc.
The police had always had basic immunity in the inner city. Ebony Slaughter-Johnson explains:
The outcomes of these stories might offer the impression that paid administrative leave is the dominant form of punishment for fatally shooting unarmed people…the prosecution of law enforcement officers is exceedingly rare, due to the fact that they are empowered by law to exercise a wide degree of latitude in using force. Those who are prosecuted need only utter five words that amount to a get-out-of-jail card: “I feared for my life.”
In his new book Mumia Abu-Jamal questions what types of violence are considered hate crimes. He notes the obvious fact that police violence against Black and Brown people is never placed in that category, even as multiple states (over a dozen since the election) have passed “Blue Lives Matter” laws that define the assault or killing of police as hate crimes. Meanwhile, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the state’s hate crime law does not cover anti-gay assaults or any crime committed on the basis of sexual orientation.
In the streets, of course, there has been massive popular reaction to the crimes of the Trump administration, almost all of it limited to trashing of businesses by so-called “anarchists” (many of whom are undoubtedly police provocateurs). According to DHS, however, anger over Trump’s election is a driving force in “domestic terrorist violence.”
Republican lawmakers in at least 18 states introduced or voted on legislation to curb mass protests. Oklahoma passed a new law imposing a minimum $10,000 fine on protesters who might “inhibit” the operations of oil pipelines. It also implicates any organization “found to be a conspirator” with the trespasser, threatening collaborator groups with a fine “ten times” that imposed on the intruder — as much as $1 million.
In this context we should also note that 19 states have enacted laws that penalize the free-speech of those who would support the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel, and that some 43 Senators (including 14 Democrats) led by Chuck Schumer have co-sponsored a bill that would make it a felony for any American to support this international boycott.
But back to the streets. Jeff Session’s clear lack of interest in investigating alleged crimes and shootings by local police let many municipalities, especially Chicago, off the hook. Emboldened, the Baton Rouge police chief refused his own mayor’s request to fire the officer who had killed Alton Sterling, despite an impending lawsuit by Sterling’s family. Indeed, in countless situations such lawsuits were proving to be the only recourse for aggrieved families, and as we all know, few police shooters are ever found guilty.
Most citizens would probably be surprised to learn that armed white males are the category of people that cops kill most often. However, black men (6 percent of the population) make up about a quarter of police shooting victims. They are three times more likely to be fatally shot by officers than white people.
And what about Black women? Glen Ford writes:
…although Black women and girls make up only 13 percent of the U.S. female population, they account for 33 percent of all women killed by police. In raw numbers, white women outnumber Black women by five to one, but police kill nearly as many Black females as they do white females…U.S. police kill more Black women (my italics) every year than the total of all civilians killed annually by their counterparts in western Europe’s largest countries: the UK, France, and Germany.
While the FBI technically tracks fatal police shootings, its database relies on voluntary reports from police departments and only covers cases of officers shooting alleged felons. Last October, James Comey called the FBI’s system of tracking fatal police shootings “embarrassing and ridiculous”. Rachel Glickhouse writes:
There are a few questions for which answers continue to elude us: How many hate crimes happen each year, and why is the record keeping so inadequate? The FBI, which is required to track hate crimes, counts between 5,000 and 6,000 of them annually. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the total is closer to 250,000. One explanation for the gap is that many victims — more than half, according to a recent estimate — don’t report what happened to them to police. Even if they do, law enforcement agencies aren’t all required to report to the FBI, meaning their reports might never make it into the national tally. The federal government is hardly a model of best practices; many federal agencies don’t report their data, either — even though they’re legally required to do so.
In October 2016, the Department of Justice said it planned to collect more comprehensive data about police shootings. But Sessions, as noted, has called consent decrees a hindrance to law enforcement efforts, and he is most unlikely to follow through on the earlier promise.
Not only has the number of people fatally shot by police remained about the same as in previous years, so has the number of officers indicted for fatal shootings. From 2005 to 2015, just 54 officers were charged, though their brethren killed many thousands during that period, and most were acquitted of all charges. They are agents of a culture of cruelty. Chuck Mertz writes:
As civic culture collapses under the weight of a ruthless mix of casino capitalism and a flight from moral responsibility, crimes against humanity now become normalized in a rush of legislation that produces massive amounts of human suffering and misery while widening the scope of those considered disposable. What is new about the culture of cruelty is that its blend of hate, suffering and spectacle has become normalized. Matters of life and death are now being determined by a neo-fascist government that relies increasingly on punishing apparatuses such as the criminal justice system and budgetary policies that bear down ruthlessly on the poor, undocumented immigrants, Muslims and Black youth.
Former Black police officer Redditt Hudson writes:
On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.
Our concern here is with that second fifteen percent of cops. Who are they, and why are they hired? How does the vetting process, with its sophisticated psychological testing, not identify them early on as sociopaths? Such an inquiry would have to begin with my earlier contention that policing in America began in the South as organized slave patrols. It would end in the present with the new sense of permission since the election.
In late July of this year, almost exactly six months after the inauguration, a Cincinnati judge, after two mistrials, dismissed charges against a white police officer for killing an unarmed black motorist. The story is tragic enough, if common. But what we need to know for this discussion, is that the cop, Ray Tensing, who killed Sam DuBose was wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt under his uniform. A month before, the Hollywood, Florida police department defended a cop who took a selfie as he hugged pro-Confederate protestors in the street.
In between the history of slave patrols and the new permissiveness our inquiry would have to acknowledge that white supremacist groups have been infiltrating police departments (as well as the military) for years. Alice Speri of The Intercept quotes from a classified FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide from April 2015:
…domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.
No centralized recruitment process or set of national standards exists for the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. In 2006 the FBI become aware of the term “ghost skins,” used among white supremacists to describe “those who avoid overt displays of their beliefs to blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes.” At least one skinhead group had encouraged ghost skins to seek employment with law enforcement agencies.
That report appeared after a series of scandals involving local police and sheriff’s departments. In Los Angeles in 1991 members of a local sheriff’s department had formed a neo-Nazi gang and habitually terrorized black and Latino residents. In Chicago, a police detective and rumored KKK member was fired, and eventually prosecuted over charges relating to the torture of at least 120 black men during his decades long career. In Cleveland, a number of police officers had scrawled “racist or Nazi graffiti” throughout their department’s locker rooms. In Texas, two police officers were fired when it was discovered they were Klansmen.
The situation got much worse after Obama’s election, and conservative pressure forced his administration to largely dismantle a DHS unit investigating right-wing extremism. In 2014, the Department of Justice re-established its Domestic Terrorism Task Force, a unit that was created following the Oklahoma City bombing. But for the most part, its efforts focused on homegrown extremists radicalized by foreign groups, rather than on white extremists. Trump further emasculated such efforts.
Crazies get to be crazy, especially when they wear badges, and especially now that Trump and Sessions have encouraged them. The dogs are out, in the streets and in the patrol cars.
Read Part Six here.