“…the way we do policing needs to change.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio reacting to a grand jury’s decision not to indict in the death of Eric Garner.
After September 11, 2001, there was no pedestal too high on which to place the brave members of the NYPD, and by association, those who served all other police departments. But that deification of the duty-bound washed out to sea with the ashes and dust clouds of the fallen. Respect for their bravery has turned into resentment of the gall with which too many carry out their daily chores. The veil has been lifted, and now justice is in pursuit of those for whom it has often been a shield.
Following the Staten Island, New York, grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, President Obama said he is “somebody who believes that law enforcement has an incredibly difficult job; that every man or woman in uniform are putting their lives at risk to protect us… but that they’re only going to be able to do their job effectively if everybody has confidence in the system.”
The lawman carries a gun, and a Taser and a nightstick. If those fail, he can always use pepper spray or even his fists. These are his crime-fighting tools. Too often, as Attorney General Eric Holder announced in Cleveland, Ohio, last week, the use of those tools can result in the loss of our Constitutional rights, because of bad training and an “us vs. them” mentality.
“We have determined,” he said, “that there is reasonable cause to believe that the Cleveland Division of Police engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force – in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and as a result of systemic deficiencies, including insufficient accountability, inadequate training and equipment, ineffective policies, and inadequate engagement with the community.”
It’s important to note that the Department of Justice investigation into the Cleveland police began in March, 2013, well before the recent, tragic shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by a young officer who CNN discovered had previously been cited for:
“…’a pattern of lack of maturity, indiscretion and not following instructions,’ a ‘dangerous loss of composure during live range training’ and an ‘inability to manage personal stress.'”
Although the Tamir Rice incident is not part of the events detailed in Justice’s report, it is consistent with its accusations of bad “pattern or practice,” including:
The unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons; The unnecessary, excessive or retaliatory use of less lethal force including Tasers, chemical spray and fists; Excessive force against persons who are mentally ill or in crisis, including in cases where the officers were called exclusively for a welfare check; and The employment of poor and dangerous tactics that place officers in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable.”
What the DoJ is pointing out is the one tool that the Cleveland police consistently fail to use – good judgement and discretion. It concludes that “this pattern of excessive force has eroded public confidence in the police. The trust between the Cleveland Division of Police and many of the communities it serves is broken.” The result? It isn’t crime the Cleveland Division of Police is fighting with their often deadly implements – it’s people. Fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers. People.
And when the people he is taught to target are always targeted, always harassed, always arrested or charged, based on the melatonin in their DNA and their zip code, he has lost their respect.
“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me… every time you see me, you want to harass me,” exclaimed the late Eric Garner, before an overzealous, poorly supervised police officer choked him to death.
We are no longer talking about police committed to public safety, but to a methodology that supports a community corroding agenda. Whether it be filling privately run prisons or the county coffers or their own incentivized arrest performance, it seems that cops are expected to be, and are rewarded for being, more Dirty Harry and less Andy Taylor. Maybe part of it is a holdover of swollen post-9/11 pride, where no wrong can be done in pursuit of justice. Maybe it is the recent wars, where we give no quarter to disruption, giving undue attention to the benign in pursuit of the horrid.
The head of the NYPD Police Benevolent Association issued a statement, last week, blaming the victim in the Garner case, in the same way many blamed Michael Brown for the tragedy in Ferguson. “Mr. Garner made a choice that day to resist arrest,” PBA president Patrick Lynch said, adding, “You cannot resist arrest. Because resisting arrest leads to confrontation. Confrontation leads to tragedy.”
But unless the suspect draws a weapon, resisting arrest shouldn’t result in tragedy. Never, ever. A cop yelling, “Stop, or I’ll shoot,” at a fleeing suspect, and following through on that threat, was ruled a civil rights violation by the United States Supreme Court in 1985 (Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1):
“The Tennessee statute is unconstitutional insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against, as in this case, an apparently unarmed, nondangerous (emph. mine) fleeing suspect…”
In the case of Eric Garner (no relation to the Tennessee victim), not only was he “unarmed” and “nondangerous,” he wasn’t even fleeing. The officers had many alternatives, but the choice was theirs to gang tackle and choke Eric Garner to death – not the victim’s. Resisting arrest, if that is what he was doing, is not a capital offense.
The police in all these cases have lost their perspective. Like a soldier who has been deployed too many times for too long, the method has replaced the mission. That is what Mayor de Blasio meant when he said, “…policing needs to change.”
Stop-and-frisk was bad policing because, like an antibiotic, it affects good cells as well as bad. The good cell doesn’t care that you think this is all for the betterment of the community. It only knows it’s under attack. Likewise, busting drug users on a possession charge doesn’t get rid of drug dealers. It treats a symptom of the crime and not the reason for it.
“Stop because I told you to,” is the language parents use with unruly children because they have the authority. It cannot be the language we use with self-determined, adult human beings. The authority of police is delusional when it is based on power – having carte blanche to hassle and bully, and the means to beat, maim and kill – instead of on the law they are supposed to represent, and their respect for the community they are sworn to serve.