Police Reform

For those of us who paid attention one of the lessons we learned from Martin Luther King is that demonstrations bring attention to a problem; then the difficult work of solving the problem begins. The title of today’s article is Police Reform. If anyone things I will have a comprehensive answer in the next few paragraphs, I thank you for the compliment, but I will simultaneously apologize for failing. However, I have a few thoughts and ideas on the topic that I’d like to share with you. Let’s explore.

For the last fortnight or so there have been worldwide demonstrations against certain police tactics and the actions of some law enforcement officers. The murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police force was the catalyst and unfortunately several more instances of illegal police conduct have been caught on film in the attempts to control the demonstrators, including a now infamous one in Niagara Square of my native Buffalo, New York.

Like corporate pollution and safety violations culture, in this case police culture, is the main culprit. Until and unless we change the culture the problem will persist. Both police unions and hierarchy are the problems. I’m a typical progressive and am very pro-union but the situation in Buffalo illustrates one of the main arguments of anti-union people that unions make it difficult to weed out the bad apples and in this case those apples have spoiled the barrel in many cases by intimidating others into “silent compliance”.

When two Buffalo police officers, who as members of a special crowd control unit, were suspended without pay for assaulting a protester, the union declared that it would no longer cover the legal expenses of that unit’s members in any future incidents. That left the remaining members of the unit with no choice but to resign from it.

I have no problem with the union defending its members in departmental and legal proceedings. That is simply part of their function. However, this move was designed to box the city into a corner. (Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown quickly lined up an alternative force(s) from other police agencies.)

In “defense” of those and other officers caught in misconduct while attempting to control crowds the orders from up top and the culture contributed to their bad actions. Often the order is given to clear an area or hold a line with little or no instructions as to tactics. The police have a macho mentality where discretion is often viewed as weakness and no young guy wants to look weak in front of his peers (the police perpetrators have been almost if not exclusively male). Racism is prevalent in police forces and in a demonstration situation white liberals are viewed as an even lower life form. I am not a sociologist, but the best suggestion I have heard for changing the culture has come from senior black police officials who say that they want to reform the system from within. That is happening, albeit much too slowly, and it will take time.

There is a call for disbanding police departments. That is insanity! The vast majority of people are good people who use common sense and courtesy to the extent that laws and law enforcement is not necessary. I’m a typical American in that my “police record” consists of a very few traffic tickets. However, there is a bad element among us and a professional, trained police force is the best way to maintain order and protect the majority of law abiding citizens from a small minority of criminals.

One of the books on the Recommended Reading List is Criminal Injustice by Dr. Matthew B. Robinson of Appalachian State University. One of his theories is that we put all the blame on the street cop because they are visible when often they are given lousy laws to enforce that are enacted (or not enacted) by state legislators who are never blamed. This is seldom discussed and in fact office holders often use civil unrest as a political backdrop to look concerned.

Mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs are two other factors that end up being counterproductive and discriminatory. The best work on those topics can also be found on the Recommended Reading List in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Communities of color, particularly those also of less wealth, have felt the negative impact of these policies and are justifiably angry.

If we want to reform the police disbanding them or defunding them are not the answers. However I’d like to see a different allocation of resources, funding and emphasis. Criminologists have long proven that more Americans (particularly white Americans) are the victims of white collar crime than what we normally think of as criminal offenses. Most law enforcement agencies have at best a token force to investigate and stop what are the majority of criminal offenses. Corporations pollute and financial institutions overcharge all the time and those criminals never seem to go to prison. Yet a kid smokes some dope – which I am certainly not condoning – and we not only lock them up we saddle them with a criminal record that disqualifies them from certain aid and professional opportunities for the rest of their life. Simultaneously we currently have a president who is openly violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution and we do nothing. In fact his lawyers backed up by his Attorney General/Consigliere contend that he is above even investigation.

The demonstrations have certainly brought attention and awareness to the problem; now let’s hope the hard work of enacting a solution begins.

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