A Real Pro-Police Agenda is Liberal

Police are killing and being killed because we keep putting them in impossible situations. Let’s stop.

Americans love to tell stories with well-marked villains. For the last two or three years, my social network of liberal friends has been telling a lot of stories about black men killed by police, and in nearly all of them the police are the villains: They strangled Eric Garner as he gasped “I can’t breathe.” They gunned down 12-year-old Tamir Rice with barely a thought. They shot Alton Sterling at point-blank range, while two officers were holding him down. They killed John Crawford III in a Walmart where he was planning to buy a toy gun.

Conservatives have also been telling police stories, but theirs have different villains. Sometimes they make villains out of the same people who were victims in the liberal stories: Michael Brown was a thug, and Tamir Rice was acting like one. Freddie Gray injured himself to make police look bad.

Sometimes the villains are the civil rights leaders who mobilize a community to protest, the people Bill O’Reilly calls “the grievance industry“.

Sometimes the villains are the Black Lives Matter protesters and their allies — people like me and my liberal friends, who are “anti-police”. When gunmen killed police in Dallas on July 7 and in Baton Rouge yesterday, such story-tellers felt validated: This is what happens when you villainize police. People start killing them.

Occasionally, the villains are fantasy people who exist only in the perverse imaginations of hate-mongers like Donald Trump. When Black Lives Matter protests continued after the Dallas shooting, he made up this lie about people who honor the assassin:

The other night you had 11 cities potentially in a blow-up stage. Marches all over the United States—and tough marches. Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac! And some people ask for a moment of silence for him. For the killer!

Not even his campaign can explain where he got that or what he based it on. But of course he offers no apology. (A more typical BLM response to the shootings came from DeRay McKesson, who had been arrested in the demonstrations immediately after Alton Sterling’s death: “The movement began as a call to end violence. That call remains. … My prayers are with the victims of all violence.”)

Three narratives. In short, what we’ve been seeing in the media are two opposing narratives: the liberal “anti-police” narrative in which police are killing young black men for no good reason, and the conservative “pro-police” narrative in which young black men deserve to be killed, and unscrupulous political leaders get publicity by raising anger against the police, resulting in unstable minds deciding to kill them.

I want to propose a third narrative that supports both the police who are trying to do their jobs without killing or being killed, and also the communities of color that feel constantly harassed by police and in danger of violence from them.

Unfortunately, the villains in my story are most of the rest of us, who are in denial about the true state of our country: We throw police into the gap between our Fourth-of-July fantasies and the unjust society we actually live in. We tell them to make those contradictions work, and when they can’t we go looking for someone to blame: either the police themselves, or the victims of injustice they were supposed to keep under control so that we don’t have to notice them.

Scandinavia and Missouri. When liberals argue that violent police are not necessary, we often point to small Scandinavian countries. In Finland, for example, police handle about a million emergency calls every year. In 2013, they dealt with those million situations while firing exactly six bullets. With 5.4 million people, Finland is small as countries go. But it’s bigger than Chicago, and one Chicago police officer fired 16 shots into Laquan McDonald in 13 seconds.

Or take Iceland, which has had one fatal police shooting in its 71-year history. Sure, it only has about 330,000 people, but it’s bigger than Stockton, California, which had three fatal police shootings in the first five months of 2015.

That sounds bad for American police. But I want to propose a thought experiment: What if those non-trigger-happy Finnish and Icelandic police had been covering Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown was killed? The reason I choose Ferguson for my experiment is that we know a lot about what Ferguson police were asked to do, based on the Justice Department reports that got written after the Michael Brown shooting. Here’s what I think is the key sentence:

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.

Let me flesh that out a little: Like several other near suburbs of St. Louis, the kind populated by the people who get pushed out of city centers as they gentrify, Ferguson doesn’t have a sufficient tax base to support schools, street repair, and the other services it needs to offer. Neither St. Louis County nor the State of Missouri wants to take responsibility for this situation, so Ferguson and various other towns came up with what probably seemed like the only solution: They’d use the police and the municipal courts to squeeze fines out of poor people.

In other words, the relationship between the police and the mostly black community was designed to be adversarial, a predator/prey arrangement: The purpose of the police was to find violations they could ticket people for, and the purpose of the courts was to make compliance difficult, so that small fines could be multiplied into ongoing revenue streams. (John Oliver did a great job describing how this system works in municipalities across the country.) When citizens found themselves unable to pay their fines, the police would be called on again to bring them to what was essentially a debtor’s prison.

I’m willing to bet that the Finnish and Icelandic police have no experience making a system like this work. Could they do it without ratcheting up their level of violence? I’ve got my doubts.

My point is that if you watched the Ferguson protests unfold and told a story that made either Michael Brown or Darren Wilson the villain, you missed the bigger picture: Both of them were victims (though of course not equally). Michael Brown had to live (and then die) in a hellish community, and Darren Wilson’s job was to enforce that Hell, and keep it from leaking out and bothering the people who live in more privileged communities.

When social services fail. If you Google “mentally ill man killed by police in parents yard”, you don’t just get one story. That’s a generic description of something that happens over and over. The mother of a victim in Denver described her experience: “I told the cops he was mentally ill. He was schizophrenic. I called for help. I didn’t call for them to kill him.”

The ACLU notes the larger pattern:

Many people recognize the names Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, African-American men, and a child, killed by the police.

Less well known are the names Milton Hall, James Boyd, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, and Tanisha Anderson.

They are people with psychiatric disabilities – most of them people of color – shot and killed by police. In many cases, police were responding to requests for assistance to get the person mental health care.

Teresa Sheehan’s name might also be included in the list. In 2008, she was shot five times by police after her caseworker sought assistance in getting her to the hospital for treatment. She, unlike the others, survived. And she sued.

Schools increasingly have been using police to handle discipline problems. Cops don’t understand kids any better than teachers — probably less so — but they are empowered to use more force. So they do.

As we cut taxes and cut the government services that they fund, police are left to pick up the slack. If you find yourself in a situation you can’t handle, you call 911 and they send the police. The officers who arrive probably have no more training to deal with the situation than you do, but they have no one to pass the buck to. They are not psychologists or negotiators, and the tools they have been trained to use are guns and tasers. The barked orders that will get compliance from a drug dealer may not work on a psychotic or a bratty middle-school student throwing a fit, but it’s what they know.

Sometimes it goes wrong.

Sentinels of the gated community. In the Ozzie-and-Harriet fantasy of middle class America, police are seldom necessary, and when they do show up, they help find a lost child or support the community in some other way. Citizens in this vision of America comply with laws voluntarily, because the laws were made by and for people like them. If you find injustice, you just tell someone, and eventually the word gets to people who can solve the problem.

If the United States was ever that country, it isn’t now, and the situation is getting worse. Again, let’s compare to Finland and Iceland: In a list of 34 OECD countries, Iceland had the lowest level of income inequality after taxes and transfers, with a GINI coefficient of .244. Finland was a bit higher at .260. The United States was the second-most-unequal country (after Chile, a country we don’t usually compare ourselves to), with a .380 coefficient.

When 17 of those same countries are compared according to a standard measure of social mobility (the correlation between the wages of fathers and sons), the United States is the fourth most immobile society. Iceland is not listed, but Finland has the third most fluid society, after fellow Scandinavian countries Denmark and Norway.

As our distribution of wealth and income gets more skewed, our restrictions on campaign contributions are being dismantled, with the result that the concerns of middle-class people — much less the poor — draw less and less attention from government officials. A study by two Princeton political scientists concluded:

When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover … even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

In short, we are becoming a society of haves and have-nots. The lack of social mobility means that if you are born a have-not, you have less and less chance of doing anything about it. And if you can get a lot of have-nots to support changes to make the system fairer … you probably still can’t do anything about it.

In that situation, the case for voluntarily obeying the laws gets less and less compelling. And Sheriff Andy of Mayberry has to get replaced by people who look a lot scarier.

A real pro-police agenda. The phrase “pro-police agenda” conjures up images of bigger budgets, ever more militarized hardware, and decreased accountability when bad things inevitably happen. But that’s “pro-police” only if you believe that police actually want the role we have given them, or that a future as paid thugs for the 1% appeals to them.

But I suspect a lot of American cops envy those Finns who only had to fire six bullets in a million emergency situations, or the Icelanders who only had to kill one person in 71 years.

That’s not some magic of the Northern climate, it’s democratic socialism. It’s the best public school system in the world. It’s mental healthcare integrated into a national healthcare system that interacts with schools and businesses. It’s tuition-free universities. It’s an economy where your parents’ income doesn’t decide your caste. It’s a political system not dominated by money. It’s refusing to segregate poor people into dysfunctional communities.

We could do all that here. And if we did, the United States would be a much easier country to police.

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  • Buzz Fugazi  On July 18, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Reblogged this on buzzfugazi.

  • 1mime  On July 18, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    There needs to be more dialogue like this – focus on causes of problems in order to work on something positive and concrete. Very well articulated and most thoughtful. Just as with the income/wealth divide, there are reasons that tension and resentment fester that are within our capacity to address. Absent attention, you will see more guns, more deaths, and more division. Not the American democracy as we “like” to think we live in.

  • Tom Hutchinson  On July 18, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    When talking about mental health issues lets not forget that 2/3 of all gun deaths are suicides.

    • weeklysift  On July 18, 2016 at 2:07 pm

      With more time for research (this post was conceived after the Baton Rouge shooting and came out late) I would have looked up numbers on police suicide, which I believe is a major problem.

      • 1mime  On July 18, 2016 at 3:18 pm

        Of police suicides, it would be interesting to know how many of these policemen/women came from military service. There is a huge problem with suicide within the military….the reasons for which I am sure are complicated, but the numbers are staggering.

  • cnminter  On July 18, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    Thank you for this it was well done.
    This Vox First Person article showed up in my timeline today. It’s well done too: http://www.vox.com/2016/7/11/12132466/police-officer-shooting

  • Daniel  On July 18, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    “Both of them were victims. Michael Brown had to live in a hellish community, and Darren Wilson’s job was to enforce that Hell, and keep it from leaking out and bothering the people who live in more privileged communities.”

    But our police are not conscripted. Wilson applied for that job voluntarily, and continued to do it after its nature became apparent. So this comparison strikes me as offensive. Given that many people may become cops without knowing exactly what it’s like, or may have become cops when it wasn’t quite this bad yet, and even given that many of them really need the money, it’s still not good to be putting the unjustly damned and our paid volunteer army of demons in parallel clauses as “both victims”. If they don’t want to be paid thugs for the 1% it’s still technically possible to quit.

    • weeklysift  On July 18, 2016 at 6:53 pm

      I altered the phrasing to remove the implication of equal victimhood. I recognize that some may still find the sentence offensive.

      • Daniel  On July 20, 2016 at 4:44 pm

        Thanks. That’s an improvement.

  • Matthew Carlin  On July 18, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    The third narrative is explicitly on display in a popular music video from early last year, which uses two men in a fight to depict the black community and the police as being forced into an endless struggle that neither really wants.

    (Warning: explicit blah blah etc etc)

  • Brent Holman  On July 18, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    I wonder what our GINI score was in 1960

  • Kate  On July 19, 2016 at 3:32 am

    Listening the past week to both Police and BLM there is actually some intersection. Police spokesmen have been complaining about financial cutbacks that impact training. Specifically one national spokesman talked about waiting lists years long to get trained in non-lethal methods of force and de-escalation. The same spokesman also complained about poor screening of police, siting the Tamir Rice case as an example. One aspect of screening might also be not to give preferential treatment in hiring to those who served in the military. Many departments by law have to give preference to veterans — who are trained to fight enemies rather than to peacefully resolve disputes.

    Your mental health point should be expanded on. Next to black men, the second most at risk group from police (first in some areas) are the mentally ill. That is definitely a training issue and perhaps there should be specialists for the mentally ill.

    I think you may even understate the occupying nature of police in poor communities. On The Run, a book by a young sociologist who lived in a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia for her graduate thesis and chronicles life there provides an eye opening view into life under occupation -eye opening even to those of us who think we have an inkling. That is not a situation in which a good policeman can remain a good policeman.

    I have worked with and been well served by police at many times during my life. They seemed to me ordinary people without the training and attitudes to equip them for some of the tougher and more fraught situations. Both they and DA’s and other’s in the justice system I interacted with had racial views similar to others of their race and class — a definite problem. Given that, perhaps traffic cops and others facing non-violent offenders shouldn’t be carrying weapons. If you need a gun to tell someone their taillight isn’t working, perhaps you need a different method that would put both officer and driver less at risk.

    • 1mime  On July 19, 2016 at 9:06 am

      Excellent points, Kate, however, the number of police who have been shot on routine traffic stops might be cautionary about all police officers not carrying guns. Of course, ‘what’ motivates police to ‘pull someone over’ is another big subject (see Sandra Bland), and possibly this is yet another area of introspection. When communities depend upon traffic fines and court fines for revenue, things are bound to get out of hand. (see Ferguson, et al)

    • weeklysift  On July 21, 2016 at 8:54 am

      Near the end of this article, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf suggests that traffic enforcement be a different service entirely. Such a traffic enforcement service would not need to be armed and would not be looking for evidence of other crimes.

  • janinmi  On July 20, 2016 at 9:32 am

    Ending the practice of funneling money to city and county governing bodies via traffic fines, court costs, etc. and more police officers specially trained to nonviolently deal with people with mental illness are two very good steps. A third would be to require independent investigative bodies (like civilian oversight committees) who are properly trained in relevant laws to investigate all officer-related shootings, whether by officers or civilians. Such committees’ reports would have equal evidentiary weight in courts.

    • 1mime  On July 20, 2016 at 11:01 am

      Excellent point, Janinmi. If you have time, view the PBS documentary, “Policing the Police”. Newark, NJ finally was successful in instituting civilian oversight committees. More are needed, not just for assuring the justice system works, but in drawing our election districts. Some states have set these up in lieu of allowing the Legislatures to politically draw districts that are heavily gerrymandered. The courts have ruled this procedure is perfectly legal if the states people vote for it. We just need to get changes like this on the ballot in more states…which is not easy. Especially in the states with the most egregious gerrymandering.

    • weeklysift  On July 21, 2016 at 8:46 am

      It’s easier to rally people behind such changes after the police kill a young white guy from a respectable family. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/08/what-i-did-after-police-killed-my-son-110038

      • Kate  On July 21, 2016 at 8:34 pm

        Actually, it is a little hard to say it is easier — it took a long time. But it does point out that there is value in broadening the alliance. Libertarians are really concerned about this issue and are posting cases of police abuse of all races constantly (I get them from my Libertarian Friends) and those of us with mentally ill or handicapped family are also very concerned since they are also highly likely to be harmed by police. Even though young black men may be the most frequent victims, broadening the story can broaden the concern. I confess I was particularly impacted by the story of Kenneth Chamberlain who was shot dead by police. Mr. Chamberlain was an elderly black man whose safety alarm went off accidentally, calling the police who burst in to his home and gunned him down. Somehow, it impacted me a bit more because I thought of my father who also lived alone with a medi-alert bracelet.

  • H. Fox  On August 4, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    Some great information here, but the elephant is still sitting on the coffee table and nobody will or can mention it, for the obvious reasons.
    I agree Iceland is not Chicago.

  • Paul Hoffman  On September 24, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    I am a liberal and a police officer’s Dad. I marched in Washington against the Vietnam war. I shouted at cops.
    Years later, we helped put our son through the police academy.​ And then I got nervous. He was 23 and a StLouis cop patrolling dangerous areas of the city. Suspects were fighting him. Guns were out a LOT. Everyone’s guns. He broke his hand and needed surgery after someone resisted arrest. He re-arrested felons he’d arrested a few months before. (Once he was next to someone he’d arrested at the practice range!) He started to pull the trigger a few times. He buried fellow officers. He called every night at midnight to decompress.
    America has problems because of severe income disparity. The haves and the have-nots. Same old story. For millenniums. And there are guns. We are the only industrialized nation with this many guns. More than the others combined.
    Trying to be a little more like Japan or Sweden or England wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Less super-haves and less have-nots. Sorry folks but it really is that simple.
    Police work where society has failed.
    Black lives matter. All lives matter.
    Everyone is responsible for their own behavior, whether your parents abused you in Beverly Hills, or Harlem. Whether you grew up in poverty in Washington, DC, or Appalachia.
    If someone is a danger to the community, a cop will be called. Not a surgeon or an accountant. My son will be the one facing the thankless task of resolving a situation caused on the larger scale by a sick society, and by a law breaking citizen on the smaller scale.
    And if he’s arresting someone who is resisting, who is not showing his hands, who is making sudden movements in a car, who he perceives to be a real danger to him, his colleagues, and bystanders, I want my son, the Father of my grandchildren, to shoot.
    In a sick society he didn’t create, he’s the one in a role most of us cringe to ponder.


  • By The Call Remains | The Weekly Sift on July 18, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are “A Real Pro-Police Agenda is Liberal” and “Mike Pence. I’ve heard that name […]

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