Making a case for police reform

Abuse of police power has grown of late, but it should not sur­prise us: cops are humans after all, and like all humans they need to be reg­u­lated strin­gently.

Wednes­day this past week, a web­page on The Guardian was updated with news of Mr Phi­lando Castile’s death. The St Paul Public School dis­trict cafe­te­ria worker was described as respect­ful, kind, warm, and funny by those who knew him. He was trav­el­ing by car with his girl­friend, Dia­mond Reynolds, that day when he was pulled over by two cops for a broken tail­light. At the school, every­one believes he made a real dif­fer­ence; he taught kids to eat their veg­eta­bles, he remem­bered who had not drank milk, he was friendly and ensured that the cafe­te­ria was a pleas­ant and calm envi­ron­ment. Mr Castile was reach­ing for his license and reg­is­tra­tion when a cop shot him four times and killed him. Ms Reynolds live streamed the entire ten-minute video to Face­book. They later hand­cuffed her, also for no reason.

Just one day ear­lier, the news­pa­per had logged another entry: the 32-year-old black man, Alton Ster­ling, who was shot dead for a sim­i­larly non-exis­tent reason. His killing too was caught on video and went viral. The cops were white in both cases, their vic­tims black and unarmed. While this may seem like purely an issue of race, the num­bers also point to it being a case of police ruf­fi­an­ism, plain and simple. Over the course of a day, between Mr Sterling’s and Mr Castile’s deaths, three others were killed by the police. Five had been killed the day before Mr Ster­ling was shot, and six have been killed since Mr Castile’s death. Of these, seven car­ried firearms (which does not always imply an intent to shoot), three car­ried knives, four have been assigned an unknown’ status regard­ing any weapons they may or may not have car­ried, one was unques­tion­ably unarmed, and one is filed as having used his car against the police by dri­ving it towards them — in which case it is nat­ural to shoot at the tyres, not at the driver.

As of July 2016, The Guardian’s web­page ded­i­cated to police killings reported in the US has more entries than fes­ti­vals in a Hindu cal­en­dar. It is alarm­ing that 569 people have been killed this year alone, as of the time of pub­lish­ing this arti­cle. 569 people in 192 days. Pick a bunch of random entries and you will find most of them are black or His­panic, a few are white, and nearly all are men. And almost every single case is marked as being under inves­ti­ga­tion’.

There is no doubt that police killings are on the rise and it is a matter of con­cern. Look­ing at the videos of Messrs Ster­ling and Castile, the cops in each case look more like pan­icky, eighty-year-old ner­vous wrecks who acci­den­tally pulled the trig­ger thanks to the sheer excite­ment of having a gun in their hands. As if they did it just because they could.

Black people are arrested at a rate 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white people in pro­por­tion to their pop­u­la­tion.

Extreme right wing pub­li­ca­tions like The Daily Wire work unusu­ally hard to give read­ers a dis­torted pic­ture of the sta­tis­tics, claim­ing that reports of unrea­son­able killings by police are mole­hills pre­sented as moun­tains. Their main argu­ment is that more white people are killed than are black people. Vox reports in agree­ment that 52% of vic­tims are white and 31% are black. How­ever, only 13% of the pop­u­la­tion is black and 63% is white, which is what makes the count of black vic­tims dis­pro­por­tion­ately high.

The Daily Wire goes on to quote polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor, Heather Mac Donald, who once pointed out in a Hills­dale Col­lege pub­li­ca­tion that this is to be expected since crime rates are higher among black com­mu­ni­ties. Ms Mac Donald is a known sec­u­lar con­ser­v­a­tive who has views in line with Donald Trump and prob­lems with every­thing from teach­ers to immi­gra­tion, and she omits a key con­text in her state­ment (and in her arti­cle which car­ries no cita­tions what­so­ever despite the numer­ous sta­tis­tics pre­sented). Black com­mu­ni­ties are more densely pop­u­lated, war­rant­ing heav­ier polic­ing and in turn more fre­quent arrests. For exam­ple, con­sider a recent Human Rights Watch report that showed that, although sim­i­lar rates of drug use exists between blacks and whites, black people are arrested at a rate 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white people in pro­por­tion to their pop­u­la­tion.

There are other ridicu­lously unre­lated sta­tis­tics used to make a case jus­ti­fy­ing the nature of police killings includ­ing blacks are more likely to kill cops than be killed by cops’, and black and His­panic police offi­cers are more likely to fire a gun at blacks than white offi­cers’ (once again, the fact that they fired a gun does not mean they killed some­one).

The first prob­lem is that police are not pros­e­cuted for use of force, which means they often see no need to jus­tify their actions or show any form of account­abil­ity. The second is that police in Amer­ica are increas­ingly being given unusu­ally free access to mil­i­tary gear that they will likely never need in a civil­ian envi­ron­ment. And when you give kids new toys, they will def­i­nitely play with them. There’s a gen­eral sense that many law enforce­ment offi­cers now see them­selves as a sol­dier force more than a com­mu­nity force,’ says lawyer Mary Anne Franks of the Uni­ver­sity of Miami. Our research has shown that law enforce­ment will show up and use it all the time even when it doesn’t call for it.’

In the face of increas­ingly damn­ing evi­dence point­ing to racial bias in arrests and unjus­ti­fi­able attacks against civil­ians, Bill John­son, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the National Asso­ci­a­tion of Police Orga­ni­za­tions, explained that there has to be con­cern for cops, and that because of the job, because of the uni­form… [they’re] being tar­geted.’ At least Mr John­son and his col­leagues can take their uni­forms off; black people cannot peel their skin off at will. Besides, as many excel­lent and noble cops as they may be, the order of soci­ety, for good or worse, is that when a con­sid­er­able number of rotten cops make them­selves shown, fin­gers are pointed at the entire police force. And nobody but the police can set them­selves right.

A good place to start would be the begin­ning: around the early 1800s Sir Robert Peel, in the British par­lia­ment, passed the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Police Act’, giving rise to the police forces of today, present all over the world. The idea, besides set­ting up a pro­fes­sional police force, was to define the manner in which polic­ing worked. Specif­i­cally, how it is not like a mil­i­tary com­pany but rather works by con­sent. The UK gov­ern­ment recently released an offi­cial state­ment of Sir Peel’s nine prin­ci­ples of polic­ing. In brief —

  1. Pre­vent crime and dis­or­der instead of legally pun­ish­ing or mil­i­taris­ti­cally repress­ing it.
  2. Secure public trust and respect because police power arises from the public’s approval of their exis­tence.
  3. Coöper­ate with the public in pro­tect­ing laws.
  4. Recog­nise that the more phys­i­cal force used the less likely it is that public coöper­a­tion can be secured.
  5. Pre­serve public favour through impar­tial ser­vice and friend­ship regard­less of an individual’s wealth or social stand­ing.
  6. Use min­i­mum phys­i­cal force to secure coöper­a­tion after con­sid­er­able per­sua­sion, advice, and warn­ing are all found to be in vain.
  7. Recog­nise that the police are merely the public who are paid to give full time atten­tion to com­mu­nity safety and wel­fare.
  8. The police are an exec­u­tive body who should never usurp the powers of the judi­ciary by judg­ing guilt or inno­cence or aveng­ing either indi­vid­u­als or the state.
  9. The test of police effi­ciency is the absence of crime and dis­or­der, not the vis­i­ble evi­dence of police action.

It is remark­able how valid these rules are today, espe­cially in an age when nearly half of them have been vio­lated. The recent snip­ing against police in Dallas during a peace­ful protest against police racism forced the move­ment to take sev­eral steps back. The attack was hor­rific, unwar­ranted and undid every­thing peace­ful move­ments like Black lives matter have stood for. It hurt more than helped make a state­ment for police reform and gave a trump card to the likes of Rush Lim­baugh who have labelled the move­ment as a ter­ror­ist organ­i­sa­tion’, and of course Ms Mac Donald who goes on about an alleged ongo­ing war on cops’ — the number of cops dying in the line of duty has actu­ally been decreas­ing as reported by the BBC recently, based on offi­cial FBI sta­tis­tics.

While the push for police reforms and for bridg­ing the gap between the public who are cops and the public who are var­i­ous things other than cops is the need of the hour, and while it has seen an obsta­cle in the form of a Black Power extrem­ist with a mis­guided zeal, the move­ment itself is not in threat. Police reforms will come even if they come late; they should be pressed for non-vio­lently, which should have been obvi­ous already, and in any case reforms should come before Amer­ica becomes a mil­i­tary state from the inside out.

The assault on science

Pop­ulist poli­cies have begun to affect sci­ence adversely. The trou­ble is, they are hap­pen­ing slowly enough that nobody seems to notice.

Continue reading

A fresh restart

Dra­matic changes on this web­site, and the soft­ware pow­er­ing it, to cel­e­brate ten years since it came into exis­tence.

Continue reading

Life on other planets

We have finally taken our search for extra-​ter­res­trial life seri­ously. But just how are we approach­ing this sys­tem­atic search for a needle in a haystack?

Continue reading