Tag Archives: police

Justice and the Police

Inside our nation is a colony of poor, mostly non-white communities whose police are not under their democratic control. Jeff Sessions wants to keep it that way.


Recalling Ferguson. I remember exactly when I came to accept that Darren Wilson should not be prosecuted for killing Michael Brown: when I read the Justice Department’s report on the shooting. Until then, no entity I trusted had been able to examine all the evidence and report its findings to the public.

From the beginning, the Ferguson police had shown no interest in uncovering the truth; Wilson was their man, and they wanted him to go free. The local prosecutor, likewise, did not want to get on the wrong side of the police, and even Missouri’s Democratic governor saw the case as too hot a potato to pick up.

Only the Obama administration’s Justice Department was far enough removed from the local power structure to be objective. So its report was what finally convinced me: Wilson’s account of the incident was closer to the evidence than the hands-up-don’t-shoot narrative that had been echoing through Ferguson’s black community.

Even after that report, I still believed that Wilson’s animalistic (and at times even demonic) description of Brown was racist. I will never be convinced that killing Brown was his only option, or that he wouldn’t have found another way to resolve the situation if Brown had been white and middle-class. But even so, I knew that if the case went to trial and I were a juror, I could not vote to convict.

Simultaneously, though, Justice issued a parallel report about the general state of policing in Ferguson. The primary mission of Ferguson’s police, the report found, was not public safety, but generating revenue for the city by citing poor blacks for violations that carried fines. Likewise, the municipal court’s mission was to monetize those violations, and if possible to multiply them by making the court process as difficult as possible to navigate without incurring further fines.

The community’s response to Brown’s killing, the two reports implied, was based not so much on the facts of that particular case as on a hope: Maybe finally the police had done something so egregious that the outside world would have to notice the illegal and unconstitutional abuses Ferguson’s black citizens had to endure every day.

The Justice Department had noticed. It worked out a consent decree with the city to change how its police and court systems operate. It is one of many consent decrees Justice has worked out with cities all over the country.

But it’s not going to do that any more.

From oversee to overlook. This week, the Trump Justice Department, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, gave notice that it was getting out of the business of overseeing local police. In a memo to his department heads and to local U.S. attorneys, Sessions wrote:

Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies. [1] … The Deputy Attorney General and Associate Attorney General are hereby directed to immediately review all Department activities — including … compliance reviews, existing or contemplated consent decrees — … in order to ensure that they fully and effectively promote the principles outlined above.

That memo had immediate effects, though perhaps not entirely the ones Sessions intended. His subordinates tried to torpedo the consent decree that Obama’s Justice Department had worked out with Baltimore just before leaving office. But the presiding judge was having none of it, ruling that

The case is no longer in a phase where any party is unilaterally entitled to reconsider the terms of the settlement; the parties are bound to each other by their prior agreement. The time for negotiating the agreement is over. The only question now is whether the Court needs more time to consider the proposed decree. It does not.

Having received the judge’s blessing, the Baltimore agreement is now in force. However, the outline of an agreement that had been worked out with Chicago is not yet official, and may well go back to the drawing board. Mother Jones paints the larger picture:

A report released in February by Samuel Walker, a police reform expert at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, determined that most consent decrees enforced by the Department of Justice since 1994—when Congress passed legislation granting the DOJ oversight authority over local police agencies—have been successful in achieving long-term reforms. Consent decrees are binding legal agreements, and once signed, they are overseen by a federal judge and an appointed monitor. The DOJ’s ability to interfere with that process is limited, [former Obama Justice official Jonathan] Smith said.

But there are things the DOJ can do to undermine it. It could ignore violations of decrees and stop taking police departments to court because of them. It could also seek to renegotiate the terms of a decree or to have it dropped altogether—though that would be difficult even with the cooperation of a police department, Smith said. “After all, these injunctions are entered to protect the public interest,” Smith said.

Why isn’t local accountability enough? But even if we recognize the damage likely to result from Sessions’ decision to stop overseeing and start overlooking police abuses, we have to admit that the first line I quoted from his memo is quite true:

Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing.

The obvious question to ask, then, is why such local accountability doesn’t exist in so many places. The black citizens of Ferguson live in a democracy, after all, and local elections are held on a regular basis. Why did they — or the black citizens of Baltimore or Chicago or dozens of other cities — have to raise the attention of the national media and of Washington in order to get local reform?

The answer to that question is in Chris Hayes’ fortuitously timed A Colony in a Nation, which came out last month.

This book makes a simple argument: that American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land. … If you live in the Nation, the criminal justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.

Ferguson and the Founders. Hayes begins, like I just did, in Ferguson, where the goal of policing is not public safety, but revenue enhancement. And he draws a parallel I would not have thought of: to the American colonies in the decade before the revolution.

In high school American History, we were all taught that the revolution was about “taxation without representation”. But in fact, Hayes argues, the colonies had existed under onerous tax-and-tariff laws for a long time. From Britain’s point of view, the purpose of the American colonies had always been to produce raw materials for British industry and markets for its finished goods. From the beginning, the colonies had been barred from trading with rival powers and taxed steeply when they traded with the homeland.

And from the beginning, the colonies had been rife with smugglers, some of whom (like John Hancock) achieved great prestige. Colonial life was largely one big smuggling conspiracy. Ordinary people did their best to interfere with customs agents, and juries often let guilty smugglers go.

What changed after the French and Indian War wasn’t so much the British laws and taxes, but their policing regime: They began trying to collect the taxes the law said were owed.

The British crackdown essentially inaugurated America’s first tough-on-crime era. It was a classic crackdown: more customs officials were granted more expansive powers, while courts were streamlined to produce swift punishment and avoid the maddening jury nullification … After 1763 customs officials no longer looked the other way in exchange for small bribe. Instead, they began operating in ways that looked a lot like what we now call “stop and frisk.” … American colonists were subject to British invasions of their carriages, ships, and homes without the safeguards enjoyed by their English cousins.

It wasn’t the financial burden of taxes that caused the revolution, it was the “insulting and humiliating” policing necessary to collect those taxes.

No wonder places like Ferguson sometimes seem so rebellious now.

Real community policing. Among law-enforcement theorists, community policing means that police maintain relationships with the local community. The image of community policing is the cop walking a beat, recognizing and being recognized by the people he passes.

But Hayes raises the stakes, pointing out what community policing might mean: Not individual cops maintaining relationships, but an entire system of policing — what laws get enforced and how — that is responsive to the community being policed.

That sounds incredibly utopian until Hayes points out that such systems already exist: on college campuses. First he describes the lax enforcement of drug laws he remembers from his student days at Brown. But then he reports the shock to his Ivy League sensibilities when he got a job in Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin.

Nothing I’d seen during my college years quite prepared me for the sheer insanity of a big football program home game. Tens upon tens of thousands of people, of all ages, were shit-faced drunk. Frat row was in a state of debaucherous pandemonium, with dozens of students passed out on lawns and outdoor couches, amid no small amount of vomit, urine, and broken bottles.

He wonders about the role of race.

[W]ould all this (mostly harmless) mayhem meet with such enthusiastic tolerance if it were a hundred thousand drunk-as-hell black folks streaming through downtown Madison? Something tells me, no chance.

The couple I was staying with had season tickets to the games, and while they rolled their eyes a touch at some of the excesses, they were part of a community, and they understood and embraced that this was a community ritual, a norm collectively arrived at.

Compare that mental image to the militarized police rolling down the streets of Ferguson during the Michael Brown demonstrations. Was that display of force also “a norm collectively arrived at”? Or was it control from the outside?

If you took a lot of [student] behavior out of the Nation and put it in the Colony — say, out of Harvard Yard and into a big city housing project — if would provide the material for dozens of articles on the pathologies of poverty that hold back poor people of color. People sleep all day; they engage in loud, frequent relationship dramas while having numerous different sexual partners, and they get into drunken arguments and brawls and consume ungodly amounts of controlled substances.

University police know that their job is to serve the interests of the students they police (and their parents, who pay the bills). No one wants to pay hundreds of thousands to send their children to college, only to have them sent from there to jail, or to come home with a criminal record. So universities are policed in a way that minimizes those outcomes.

No doubt citizens of the black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York didn’t want to be routinely stopped and frisked, or to see minor confrontations spiral out of control until their fellow citizens were imprisoned or dead. Black citizens of Ferguson didn’t want police to see them as prey, as sheep to be sheared for the benefit of the municipal budget. But they lacked the power to get the policing they wanted through local democratic channels. And now, under the Trump administration, they will also lack the power to go over the heads of local political interests and get a sympathetic hearing from federal officials.

Larger factors. So far, my summary sells Hayes’ book short: It paints a far larger picture, including discussions of white fear, the difference between law and order (and public safety, which is a separate consideration), and the financial value of order to owners of real estate.

But the book will have done an important job if it simply gets its central image into the public discussion: Some parts of the United States are nothing more than colonies run for the benefit of other parts.

To the Colony, Jeff Sessions is like the new governor sent over by George III to maintain control. And the next time there’s a shooting like Michael Brown, we will never really know what happened, because no disinterested party will ever investigate.


[1] Actually, it is the responsibility of the Justice Department. In essence, Sessions is saying that he will not enforce the following paragraph of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

§ 14141. Cause of action

(a) Unlawful conduct

It shall be unlawful for any governmental authority, or any agent thereof, or any person acting on behalf of a governmental authority, to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers or by officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of juvenile justice or the incarceration of juveniles that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.

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.

Nonviolence and the Police

I assume that by now you’ve heard about this week’s police attacks on the Occupy protests — most outrageously in Oakland, but also in Denver and Atlanta. (If not, chase the links and watch some of the video. Descriptions don’t capture it.) These attacks resemble what had happened previously in New York and Boston.

This is a good time to review how nonviolent protest works, because a violent response challenges a nonviolent movement in two ways: First, violence makes protesters angry and tempts them to respond in kind, which hardly ever turns out well. You can’t win physically against the police, and unless it is clear that the violence comes entirely from their side, you won’t win in the media either. “They started it” wasn’t a convincing argument when you were ten, and it still isn’t.

Second, watching your nonviolent allies lose the battle — as they always do when the police are determined and ruthless enough — is discouraging. You might wonder: How can we ever win when they can be violent and we can’t?

And yet, nonviolent movements do cause major change (the Civil Rights movement), have defeated empires (the British in India), and can even overthrow dictators willing to torture and kill (most recently in the Arab Spring). How does that work?

In stages:

  1. Bring a problem to public attention and make its victims visible.
  2. Demonstrate the injustice of the system’s response.
  3. Make explicit the implicit violence that maintains the unjust system.
  4. Turn the servants of the unjust system, including (eventually) the police.

If you make it to stage 4, where the police simply refuse to follow orders, the government either gives in or falls. Governments know this, which is why they frequently give in sooner.

Now let’s go through the stages more slowly.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has already succeeded at Stage 1. FDL finds the value of the protest in

its shoving the Overton Window away from the far right end of the spectrum, far enough away to make talk of meaningful solutions possible, which is the first step towards making them politically viable. Putting a surtax on the rich and/or letting the Bush tax cuts finally expire was considered politically verboten as recently as a month ago. Then Occupy Wall Street got started, and suddenly surtaxes on millionaires start becoming very much discussed indeed.

Also, people are finally starting to pay attention to the fact that many of the financial manipulations leading up to the crash were illegal, and that the bankers/criminals are either getting away with it or paying wrist-slap fines far smaller than their ill-gotten gains.

Sometimes stage 1 is all that’s necessary to create change, but usually you need to keep going.

It’s working on stage 2, occasionally popping up to 3. The main response the authorities are making to the protests is to identify broken regulations — there’s no camping in this park — and then say “We can’t tolerate breaking the law.”

The movement hasn’t succeeded yet in making the public see the hypocrisy in this. What the system actually can’t tolerate are little people breaking little laws. When Goldman Sachs commits fraud, or Bank of America illegally repossesses people’s homes, no one is arrested and no heads get broken. But put up a tent someplace you shouldn’t and all hell breaks loose.

The next job is to get people all over America asking, “What’s up with that?”

Here’s the comparable phase in the Civil Rights movement: when ordinary white people started seeing the Whites Only signs differently. At some point, they realized that there were no separate-but-equal facilities for blacks, and that blacks’ absence did not mean that they were happier with their own kind. Instead, whites began to see Whites Only not as an organizing label (like Men and Women signs on restrooms), but as a threat to have blacks carted away by force. Ordinary white people began to see the violence implicit in their apparently peaceful segregated lunch counters.

In order to win this phase, OWS has to stay as peaceful and orderly as possible, while continuing to keep up the pressure. The disproportion between their civil disobedience and the response it draws — and the contrast with the easy law-breaking of the financial elite — is what makes the case.

One NYC protestor had it exactly right (at the 5:30 mark)

Each new depiction of the abuses of the police on the First Amendment, the more people will show up here in New York City, and the more waves of occupation will spread across this country. And you should be proud of that, police, because you are participating in our media publicity campaign. Thank you for attending.

The challenge will be to keep Wall Street in the picture, and not let the financiers disappear behind the police.

Stage 4. Sometimes you establish the injustice of the system and the violence that maintains it, and it’s still not enough. The moral pretentions of the powerful have been exposed, but they’re basically saying, “Yeah, we’re bad guys. So what? We’re still bigger than you.”

That’s when an invisible moral force begins to work in your favor. You see, most people don’t grow up wanting to be evil. Maybe a few become bankers so that they can foreclose on widows and orphans, Snidely Whiplash style, but probably not many. Maybe a few become police so that they can get away with pepper-spraying defenseless young women in the face, but probably not many.

A lot of police joined the force because they wanted to be good guys, not bad guys. Many of them still want to be good guys. That’s why they can be turned.

Turning the police takes incredible courage and persistence on the part of the protesters. Basically, you have to let them beat you up until they can’t make themselves do it any more. One event that spins out of control is usually not enough. Police have to go to bed knowing that tomorrow they will get up and beat innocent people, like they did today.

At some point they’ll just stop. The order will come down and they’ll say no. It sounds incredible, but it happens.

Usually it doesn’t come to that, because the authorities will do anything to avoid it. (In Cairo, the army forced Mubarak to resign rather than see their ranks dissolve. At Tiananmen Square, the government brought in troops from the provinces, because they were afraid local soldiers wouldn’t obey.) But whether things actually go that far or not, the ultimate threat of a nonviolent movement is to turn the police. No government can survive that.

Protesters need to understand this threat from the beginning, and treat the police accordingly: Shame them but don’t insult them, and above all don’t threaten them. They are your ultimate weapon.

This video from Occupy Boston, of protesters chanting “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” is exactly right. Those are the questions we want cops asking each other in the privacy of their squad cars, and asking themselves late at night when they can’t sleep. We want them discussing that topic in their union meetings, and mulling it over when the 1%’s refusal to pay taxes leads to layoffs of good cops.

Who are the 99%, officer? You are. So what are you doing on that side of the barricade?