Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Community vs. Chaos

I was at the town hall at UNO last night on the topic "What Would We Do If Ferguson Happened in Omaha". The meeting was facilitated by Willie Hamilton and Angel Martin, and the panelists were community activist Leo Louis, UNO Professor Emeritus Sam Walker, project K.N.O.S.E. founder Robert Wagner, Reverend Ed Rollerson Chairman of Black Men United, Mr. Larry Duncan of Jericho Counseling, and Omaha police captain Gates.

General impressions:

This was a very interesting, and at times quite emotional, discussion. I swear I could listen to Leo Louis talk all night long - he speaks with such clarity that the only interpretation of his words is truth. And if you don't agree with him, then just call it honesty.

And I love hearing Robert Wagner speak as well. The simple earnestness behind his words and his demeanor serves to actually magnify the power and importance of his message.

In contrast to the calmness of both Leo and Robert was Larry Duncan, who I had never seen or heard speak before. His passion was infectious, and so much of what he had to say was so similar to my own positions on many topics that my wife and I turned to look at each other when he made them!

In sharp relief to the other panelists stood, not surprisingly, officer Gates. While I certainly appreciate his willingness to participate in what could only be perceived as a mostly hostile environment, so much of what he had to say was easily predictable.

My thoughts:

A popular point of discussion was on the merits of the police using body cameras. Some pointed to studies that show the effectiveness in curbing both police and citizen misbehavior, while others pointed out that officers can just turn them off whenever they want. The other side of the debate was that such tools are better used by citizens to hold police accountable for their actions. Both sides are, I think, right - but the problem is broader than this. I know we've tried recording police in public and are always told we can't do that by the police, which is of course incorrect. We can, YOU can. But this is the heart of my point - until the officers entrusted with protecting and serving are truly interested in protecting and serving US, they will just act as the bullies they so often are.

Which was another large point of discussion and general agreement - police have a gang mentality, and often operate in much the same way as gangs - this is police culture. The culture within the police department is commonly and colloquially referred to as "brotherhood", but I term it differently. It's "us vs. them" in their minds. This is why at the slightest hint of danger - say, a black teen reaching for his ID - cops tend to unload their clips.

Professor Walker put it most precisely when describing his view of what police culture means: it's when the informal rules are more important than the formal ones. I term this as the "words on a page" mentality. There are lots of laws the govern how citizens and police should act - but those in the position of authority can choose to point to the words on the pages of law when it benefits them, and totally ignore them when it suits them. Worse yet, as I mentioned earlier, they can flat-out lie about what your rights are - as they so often do when the public tries to record them. And yet citizens don't get very far when pointing out law to those in authority - at least not without very expensive attorney's to make their arguments.

Another point that came up a few times concerned the accessibility of the police Standard Operating Procedures. To me, whether this is available to the public or not is moot. While it would be helpful to know what the police should and should not do according to their own guidelines, and what is expected of citizens as well, the larger, more important point is that police officers are supposed to be professionals. They must proactively know and inform all citizens they have contact with what their rights are, and what they as officers can and cannot do, and what they as officers must and must not do. But this is not how police typically act. They try to get away with whatever they can whenever they can.

This also touches on the topic raised of police brutality and culture. Police are entrusted to carry weapons because they are professionals trained in their use, and more importantly, their proper use. But that is not what we experience. From police shooting unarmed, non-threatening citizens, to how they even talk to black people on the street, they are far too often unprofessional in their conduct. And yet, as was pointed out in several cases, what happens to them when they are "caught"? Typically just a suspension followed by secret, sealed arbitration that gets them back on the job. That's what happened in Robert Wagner's case, and many others. It's simply unconscionable.

So where does the attitude that we've too often seen of officers come from? Does the militarization of the police merely serve contribute to the culture of violence within the police?

I'll conclude this little diatribe by (mis)paraphrasing Mr. Duncan: If we want real change, we need rebellion against the status quo, and people don't rebel unless they are hungry, hurting. And yet Ben Franklin said: "Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are." To reconcile these two viewpoints, either we need a widespread economic collapse in this country so that average citizens actually become outraged, or those who are not yet affected need to wake up and take action with those who are.

Random unattributed quotes:

- community vs. chaos, which do you choose?
- citizen review board tried before, failed
- independent auditor with subpoena power is better, but not determined by police but by lawmakers
- any agency with respectability should not have a problem with oversight
- officer conduct on the street is a problem
- what is necessary to police a community, it's about police culture
- not police culture, but society. the police reflect what society deems necessary
- meetings on these topics without the right community involvement are just dress rehearsals
- what type of officers are driving the streets?
- economic interest in arrests to keep sections of people in check
- some officers abuse their power, and they do that more in disadvantaged areas than like in west Omaha
- nothing really happens to officers that do wrong
- America is Disneyland for the rich, and it is the poor and oppressed that built it.
- how am I contributing to this problem? policy never admit to any contribution, or wrongdoing.
- success of police efforts can only be measured by the community.
- gang mentality of the police. why do the police empty their clips? how can the police bridge the gap with community when they act this way?
- the police aren't here to protect me, they are here to protect the property of those that live downtown
- police are just road patrols and slave catchers
- police body cameras have been shown to help address police misconduct.
- better solution is to put cameras in the hands of citizens. empower the people, not the establishment
- effective policing in a community is only possible when the officers live in that community directly.
- if I don't know you as a human being, it's easy to treat you as other than that.
- when you hurt, you lash out.
- the people in this room are not going to go home and commit a crime, so who are we really reaching?
- I can't trust you or believe anything you say if I don't have a relationship with you, even if what you say is the truth.

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