Monday, December 22, 2014

Ugh. . .A Post About Police and Violence

Ever since this summer and the events in Ferguson, I've been thinking about the police and the violent world we find ourselves. In fact, if you are an American, you've had to think about these issues because they've dominated our news feeds for the past six months or so.  But with the birth of my daughter coming soon, I've been left wondering about the world she's being born into, and where I want the world to be when she's an adult.

And then on Saturday, a deranged gunman with a history of violence and mental illness* shot and killed two New York City Police Officers. He did so claiming that he was avenging the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner - two African American men killed by White police officers. The two police officers he killed, by the way, were not White, one was Latino, the other was Asian. In response, Rudy Giuliani and others blamed Progressives like me for this lunatic's actions. In response to them, I'd like to say a few things:

The Killing of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos is Absolutely Tragic and Awful: Before anything really can be said, the deaths of these two men, who only sought to serve and protect the people of New York City, is absolutely terrible. Honestly, there aren't words for how bad this is. Officer Ramos just got married a few months ago. Neither of these two men deserved to die like this, and their deaths were pointless and horrific. Because the shooter (who I won't name because fuck that guy) took his own life, the families of the fallen will not get justice. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Unfortunately, I'm getting used to this feeling - its the same feeling I had after Newtown, the Gifford's shooting, and half a dozen other mass shootings.  

Police Officers Can Be, and Usually Are, a Force for Good: I hate getting ticketed as much as the next guy, but police officers are there to keep everyone safe, and they generally do a fantastic job of it. Crime rates in this country are down to pretty much the lowest point ever (except for the South Side of Chicago, for some reason). What's more, police officers are often the first level of government interaction with people. I've had police officers refer cases to me when I worked for the Fair Housing Council of San Diego, and sat on the San Diego Hate Crimes Taskforce with several members of law enforcement. 99% of the police officers I've known throughout my life have been good people.

But, with that said:

Police Officers Have Way Too Much Latitude In the Use of Violence: Over the past summer, we've seen the police shoot and kill several unarmed African American men and boys, and the circumstances for each killing is awful and tragic. But its not the deaths of these men and boys that's the problem - these deaths represent a tiny fraction of the confrontations Police Officers have with the general public every single day - but how those deaths are handled by the justice system that's bad.

Let's take the example of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson have a confrontation where Michael Brown is shot and killed by Darren Wilson. This death is a tragedy - Michael Brown was 19 years old and set to go to college in the fall.  Without knowing the circumstances Michael Brown's death, what I do know is that in response to his death, the Ferguson Police Department left Michael Brown's body out to rot for several hours, that they immediately had Darren Wilson go into hiding, and the first public statement by the Ferguson Police Department attacked Michael Brown (for stealing some cheap cigars). Then, the District Attorney, rather than investigating the incident and determining whether or not to indict Darren Wilson, submitted evidence to a Grand Jury, including evidence the District Attorney knew was false (and thus, suborning perjury), and gave the Grand Jury the wrong legal standard for the indictment. In other words, he bent over backwards to make sure Darren Wilson would not be indicted.

My point is, I don't know whether or not Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown and killing him. But its pretty clear from the actions of his fellow officers and the District Attorney that it didn't matter one way or another. He was never going to be charged with a crime. And this is just one of many examples of police officers using violence in questionable circumstances and prosecutors letting them do so. There are no effective checks on the power of police officers to kill or maim citizens.  And that's scary since we give police officers the right to kill and/or maim, and provide them with the instrumentalities to do so.

Look, police officers will, on occasion, have to kill people. That's why police officers are provided handguns, bullet proof vests, shotguns, and firearms. That's why we pay taxes to not just provide these instrumentalities of killing, but also provide police officers with training on when and how to kill people. It is an awful, but necessary, part of the job.  The key is what is done after the shooting - who investigates the shooting, who determines whether to prosecute, how the officer is treated - and that is still unsettled.

Going back to our Michael Brown example, had the Ferguson Police Department immediately stated that (1) the death of Michael Brown was a horrible tragedy; (2) that Officer Darren Wilson was involved in the shooting and has been put on administrative leave (with pay) pending the outcome of the investigation; and (3) that the investigation will be lead by a Special Prosecutor to avoid the appearance of a conflict (as the St. Louis DA's father, a police officer, was shot and killed in the line of duty) - had the system appeared to be working impartially - there would have been few, if any, protests. That wasn't Michael Brown's fault, that wasn't Darren Wilson's fault, that was the fault of the Ferguson Police Department and the St. Louis DA.

And that's my point - we have to give police officers latitude to perform their duties and to protect their lives, but doing so can't mean giving police the right to kill or maim at will.

Progressives Like Bill de Blasio, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson Had Nothing to Do With the Murders of Officers Ramos and Liu: Now here, I do have to admit that I'm being a bit hypocritical here - in the aftermath of the shooting of Gabby Giffords, I blamed conservatives for the act of a deranged man. But that said, at no time did de Blasio, Sharpton, Jackson, President Obama, or anyone else use violent rhetoric against police officers. They didn't put the faces of Officers Liu and Ramos on a website and put targets over their pictures, nor did they suggest that protesters find a "2nd Amendment solution" to police violence. Instead, they asked questions raised by the protesters were already raising.

No, the deaths of Officers Ramos and Liu came as a result of a deranged man who instead of committing suicide, killed his girlfriend and then went hunting for the police. Was he drawn to do this by the rhetoric of the protesters? Maybe. Maybe he wanted to commit suicide by cop. But ultimately, he chose to commit these crimes himself, despite constant calls for nonviolence and restraint from people like de Blasio and Obama. He chose to kill Officers Ramos and Liu.

Anyway, this is a horrible subject and I hope to write about more joyful topics (and write more often) next year.

*By the way, the fact that the shooter had a mental illness doesn't mean he naturally violent. There are lots of people who suffer from mental illness who aren't violent.