Obama’s police reforms will strengthen the police


As Reuters reports, President Obama is planning to spend $263 million on police reforms, including 50,000 body cameras for police officers, which would cover less than 10 percent of the total working in cities and suburbs, in “response to the civil rights upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri,” and “is setting up a task force to study how to improve modern-day policing.”

The White House has also spent months reviewing local police’s military-grade weaponry, like tanks and ballistic helmets and helicopters, and to what should be no one’s surprise, announced that it finds them quite necessary.

The New York Times, nevertheless, framed the review results as adversarial, in an article originally titled “Obama to Toughen Standards on Police Use of Military Gear.” The Times writes that Obama will “tighten standards on the provision of military-style equipment by local police departments” but he “stopped short of curtailing the transfer” of these weapons.

What does that really mean? He’ll tighten standards, but won’t curtail the transfer? The White House’s report found “a lack of consistency in how federal programs are structured, implemented and audited.” According to Reuters, “What is needed…is much greater consistency in oversight of these programs,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

So no changes to the steady flow of weaponry, which the Times helpfully, visually explains here:

State and local police departments can obtain free military surplus equipment through the Defense Department’s 1033 program, which was created in the early 1990s in response to high crime and drug violence across the country. More than $5 billion worth of equipment has been transferred since the program was started.

In its first iteration, the article said, “Mr. Obama is also meeting on Monday with civil rights leaders and law enforcement officials to discuss the stubborn mistrust between the police and the public in African-American communities.” Are both sides “stubborn”? It’s conveniently unclear. Certainly the public has ample reason not to “trust” cops, one of whom has recently killed Michael Brown and been cleared, the rest of whom have spent months of their energy, money, time, and weaponry to defend. As NewsDiffs shows, this article endured several serious edits, and that paragraph was changed to put the neutrality in Obama’s mouth: “Ferguson laid bare a problem that is not unique to St. Louis,” the president told reporters, describing a “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” He called for a “sustained conversation in which, in each region of the country, people are talking about this honestly.”

On to what Obama actually did call for, and what many police reformers have been calling for: body cameras. Both the Times and Reuters reports note that such cameras “could” help give more information in police altercations, with the Times saying it could’ve helped “clarify” Michael Brown’s killing.

The problem with this new policy is the cameras will be under cops’ control, not merely filming their interactions. Police will simply use this new footage — another system of surveillance at their hip — to their advantage. In a post countering several arguments in favor of body cameras for police, David Banks shows how police officers already using them reveal their intent: “Cop-mounted cameras are meant to compete with, and ultimately discredit, citizens’ filming of cops.”

Further police testimony is telling:

One officer praises the cameras for capturing what a nearby cell phone video did not: “Now you can see the [suspect] punching the officer twice in the face before he hits him with his baton.” These sorts of quotes are almost always paired with an assurance that these systems do not get officers in trouble. From the same article: “I heard guys complaining it would get them into trouble, but I’ve had no problems so I’m OK with it[.]”

Banks quotes Ben Brucato, “the very proliferation of media documenting extreme police violence, resulting in severe injuries and even death to civilians, speaks to the limitations of visibility as a protective power.” Many cops have been caught killing civilians on camera, only to twist the evidence in court and ultimately walk free.

Perhaps video footage would have helped indict Darren Wilson, but as I noted here, grand juries are essentially rubber stamps for cops, and experts have already observed the many ways in which Wilson acted improperly, and the grand jury exonerated him anyway.

Furthermore, technology can stop working for authorities at crucial moments (video feed cut out at several moments when I covered the Manning trial, at Ft. Meade, where they’re competent enough to host the NSA). The medical examiner in Michael Brown’s case did not photograph Brown’s body. When asked why, s/he said, “My battery in my camera died.”

Cameras on cops will be trained on citizens, not police. We need to curtail cops’ weapons, surveillance, and immunity. None of Obama’s reforms move toward those goals.

Update, 12/2/14: President Obama is establishing a Task Force on 21st Century Policing, to be co-chaired by Philadelphia police chief Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, George Mason University professor and former DOJ assistant attorney general. As Alternet reports, Ramsey in particular is known for abusive tactics. The director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund said, “If the president’s idea of reforming policing practices includes mass false arrests, brutality, and the eviscerating of civil rights, then Ramsey’s his man.”

New York Times plays up Ferguson’s Good Cop

(Analyzing the NYT’s framing could be a fulltime job.)

Lt. Jerry Lohr | Photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

On Thursday, the New York Times published “In Ferguson, Officer Defused Eruptions as Crowds Grew Tense,” a profile of St. Louis County Police’s Good Cop, Lt. Jerry Lohr. Lohr, with the Times‘ help, is here to counter what you’ve been hearing for months about the Ferguson cops and their abuse of the black community rising up in anger over the death of Michael Brown. Naturally, the Times opens its story with descriptions of the violence protesters have been perpetrating, burying accounts of tear gas and omitting rubber bullets altogether. But to the main point, the Times writes:

Before, during and after that first night of violence, few law enforcement officials have done more on the ground to ease the volatility of protesters than Lieutenant Lohr, who is white. And few of his white colleagues have been able to connect with the largely black crowds better than he has.

To give him credibility, they write:

“We were having a conversation one day out here, and he seemed like a pretty decent guy, so I grew to like him,” said [protester] Mr. Williams, who is black and lives in Ferguson.

Lohr, who “never wears riot gear,” appeals to white liberals (Times readers) because he seems to represent the idea that a simple dialogue is all that’s needed to bridge racial and power disparities.

He also helps them forget about the army of cops, in Ferguson and in every city in America, and increasingly in every small town, who nearly always wear riot gear to quell protests, no matter how peaceful.

The main effect of the Times piece, intentional or not, is to advance the cops’ strategy, which is to deploy a Good Cop who distracts from the Bad Cops, makes you think the especially bad ones are just “bad apples” running rogue, and implies that simple reforms or mere rooting out of the excessive few is all that’s needed.

The good cop/bad cop routine is typically used in interrogations, but it’s easy to see how the principle can be applied more broadly.

Slate asked retired police officers and experts to confirm that the practice is used, and they explain it:

Joseph Pollini, a retired lieutenant commander, told us that it’s definitely used on occasion. The typical set-up, he said, will have the intimidating “bad” cop first, followed by the more personable “good” cop, who assures the suspect that everything will be “fine.” Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that it’s used “all the time,” mainly by detectives. “When a person is confronted by two individuals, one friendly and one hostile, he or she will ultimately create a much better relationship or zone of comfort with the friendly one,” Haberfeld explains. “Especially if the hostile one is truly threatening.”

In Ferguson, after media messaging got out of hand, with police portrayed as unruly and too aggressive, the police sent in the good cop, to calm the crowds and send the message via the media that not all cops are riot-geared warriors and that dialogue is feasible.

This isn’t the first time that Ferguson police have tried this, and it isn’t the first time the media have helped. In August, we suddenly began hearing stories about Ferguson’s Captain Ronald Johnson, who the Times wrote “immediately signaled a change in approach. Captain Johnson told reporters he had ordered troopers to remove their tear-gas masks, and in the early evening he accompanied several groups of protesters through the streets, clasping hands, listening to stories and marching alongside them.” He might as well be one of them.

A week later Johnson got his own laudatory Times profile, in which he says, “I’ve just tried to stand on that line of what’s right.” This too, obscures the basic power imbalance the police will always wield. Cops are getting more and more weapons from the Department of Homeland Security while decrying the protestors’ “violence.” According to the Bureau of Justice, “U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010…Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.” Meanwhile, “In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment.”

As Malcom Harris wrote at the time:

After making headlines for mediating, Capt. Johnson observed a “turning point” in the police response to protesters. That could be read another way, as a call for turning point, as a request for passivity — in the several months since, Johnson has faded from media headlines, but the protests continue, as Governor Nixon announced a state of emergency before a non-indictment, the St. Louis County exonerated the now-retired-and-married Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, and police continue to violently repress.

By portraying a single cop’s narrative, the Times distracts from the rest of what Ferguson’s protesters are dealing with. But especially by playing up a “good cop,” the Times is playing right into police strategy, as those in riot gear lie in wait.

Entrapment and how systemic abuse perpetuates itself

I have a new article up over at Truthout, “Not So Paranoid,” regarding the New York Times‘ reporting on the US government’s increased and increasing use of undercover agents in nearly every agency. This privacy-infringing practice is immune from accountability, and it only serves to justify its own expansion, since it entraps people who wouldn’t be committing crimes otherwise.

Read the full piece here.

Bad apples, rotten orchard

Holding individual cops accountable for particularly egregious offenses can give a thin veneer of justice to a systemic problem. There are no mere “bad apples”; American police uphold a racist and classist system through and through. The whole orchard is rotten

Latest adventures in America’s police state

Loved ones mourn the loss of Kenneth Chamberlain

As George Zimmerman was finally charged in the murder of the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last month, I couldn’t bring myself to call it “justice.” Not because Zimmerman doesn’t deserve to be tried, but because that case’s singular popularity reminded me how rare it was for a victim of American racism to get such extensive national spotlight.

It brought to mind, for instance, the little-known killing of 68-year-old Kenneth Chamberlain, a black man murdered in his pajamas by White Plains police when he mistakenly set off his medical aid alarm. After an internal investigation, the white officers who killed him with a Taser, beanbag gun, and finally live rounds were – surprise, surprise – not indicted.

But I’m happy to find positives in the Trayvon case as well, few and far between as they are. For one thing, Zimmerman’s killing and the police inaction seem to have spawned an uptick in publicity for both American racist injustice and the violence of its paramilitary gatekeepers.

In New York, race-based stop-and-frisks continue apace, with dangerous results. Just the other day, NYPD cops seem to have completely fabricated illegal-drug evidence for which they stopped 19-year-old Jateik Reed. When Reed resisted, as he had no reason to think he was breaking the law, they beat him bloody, with one cop coming in to kick Reed when he was fully subdued, just for good measure.

But American injustice is not just racist – it persecutes the poor, too. Watch, if you can, the horrific and vicious murder of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man in California. Listen closely for this noble rhetoric from Fullerton’s finest, after giving Thomas conflicting instructions:

“Now you see my fists?” Fullerton police officer Manny Ramos asked Thomas while slipping on a pair of latex gloves.

“Yeah, what about them?” Thomas responded.

“They are getting ready to fuck you up,” said Ramos, a burly cop who appears to outweigh Thomas by 100 pounds.

Listen even more closely for Thomas’ unanswered pleas for help, his desperate last breaths.

How do we stop police? It feels especially difficult when those privileged enough to avoid the bloody edges of America’s injustice system consistently hail cops as the bravest among us, or thank them for providing constant security. And police certainly aren’t going to curtail themselves, or even the worst among each other:

“They teach us to lie about stopping people. They teach us to lie about tickets, and ruin lives,” said Officer Polanco, who after about a decade on the force is suspended with pay. “I’ve never been a disciplinary problem. The only problem came when I decided to open my mouth.”

For now, it seems, our best weapons of resistance are cameras, documenting and publicizing police aggression. Without cameras, we may never have known the true horrors of Thomas’s and Chamberlain’s killings. Beyond everyday citizens filming protests on their smartphones, look to Cop Block, Reason Magazine, or this fledgling doctoral research on cops on cameras. But even catching Thomas’s and Chamberlain’s uniformed killers on camera didn’t bring them to justice.

Furthermore, holding individual cops accountable for particularly egregious offenses can give a thin veneer of justice to a systemic problem. As there are no mere “bad apples” in the military, American police uphold a racist and classist system through and through. The whole orchard’s rotten.

(The drug war is routinely among the best examples of the heinous system cops uphold. On May 1, DEA agents raided the house of 24-year-old student Daniel Chong, suspecting he had marijuana. Chong was detained and then abandoned in his cell for five days, forced to drink his own urine to survive. No charges were brought against him, and needless to say, none will be brought against those who neglected him.)

We should understand that this is their job. Police are paid to aggressively defend the status quo, no matter how clearly it needs protest and change. Some among Occupy Wall Street’s more charitable (or privileged?) protesters call on police to join them – for they too are among the 99%, with pensions, jobs, and futures on the line. But these calls fall on deaf ears, as cops continue to kettle, entrap, infiltrate, beat, pepper spray, and tear gas peaceful demonstrators. Maybe we can think about police as part of the “99%” when they resign in public protest of the system they perpetuate.