Thursday, July 30, 2015

Police Policing Police

I did some work at Brookhaven National Labs a few years back.  It's a Department of Energy site up in New York. Their safety track record had not been looking good and the site was trying hard to correct that.

They implemented a system where people were responsible for, accountable for, and had the power to impact the safety of not just themselves but their co-workers and general environment.  Anyone, and I do mean anyone, who observed something they considered to be unsafe could walk up and address the issue and even had the power to issue a stop work order that could only be released through official channels.  Seriously, any random Joe walking by could say "I think what you're doing is unsafe and I want you to stop." and you would have to stop and get it sorted.  More importantly, there was accountability not just for a person's own actions but for what they permitted.

In one incident there were two workers in a laser lab.  One was wearing eye protection and the other was not.  The person who was not wearing eye protection was injured by a laser and both were fired - one for not wearing appropriate protection and the other for allowing that to go on in their presence.  That's when I knew they were serious, that they were "on a safety warpath" as one contractor put it.  "Do not fuck around with safety here" became the common wisdom, and it was because safety was being enforced seriously.  People were being held uncommonly accountable; non-compliance was simply not accepted in any sense.

A similar approach was taken in the Navy's nuclear program.  If someone is screwing up, virtually everyone in the room will be held accountable to some degree if they do not recognize the problem and intervene.  The question "Why did you allow this to happen?" is going to get asked at the investigation.  You simply do not walk past or ignore someone who is doing the wrong thing.  The results were not perfect but they were extremely good.

These measures are what is done when an organization or institution is serious about compliance, when they are creating a culture in which the right thing to do is the only thing to do.  The results will not be the perfect; people will still conspire to break the rules together and not report each other.  These are important steps though, and they do increase compliance dramatically.

We need this for police.  There are rules and regulations that they must follow, and none of that has any meaning if it is not enforced.  The police are the law enforcers though, which brings us to our problem: they generally look the other way where other police are concerned.

I understand that.  Truly, I do.  I have seen time and again that the people who do the real work will conspire to circumvent annoying bureaucratic restrictions on getting their jobs done.  I have seen time and again that when you trust another person with your life and safety that a bond of loyalty forms, that this bond typically trumps loyalty to institution or rules or even principles.  I can easily imagine police officers would be fearful for their lives, dealing with criminals day in and day out, having their hands tied by frustrating rules, and finding that camaraderie with other officers is their only barrier against these things.  I can imagine someone covering a fuckup because the damage is already done, that guy saved your ass last month, and you're not going to let him burn for a mistake.  I can imagine an underculture forming, complete with its verbal wisdom on how to circumvent the rules, how to cover career-ending mistakes, how to get the bad guys and watch each other's backs and keep the bureaucrats out of your way.  I can imagine cops opining that a lot of police power is an image, an illusion, and that it must be carefully maintained.  That allowing someone to be disrespectful to or disregarding of an officer makes all police look weak, and that this appearance of weakness will directly endangers the lives of their fellow officers in the future.  That you must seize control of a situation and not let go of it, squash defiance before it spreads, before the many realize their power over the few.  I can imagine things getting to where they are now.

I can see all of this but I cannot accept it.  I cannot accept it because the bureaucratic rules they conspire to break for each other are there to protect the lives and freedom of people who are not police. I cannot accept it because the purpose of law enforcement is to enforce the law and they are breaking it.  I cannot accept it because it is necessary for a free society to not accept abuses of police power.  I cannot accept it because they actually destabilize the rule of law by erroding public trust in law enforcement.  And I cannot accept it because Black Lives Matter, and are being lost.

We are beginning, perhaps, to see the first glimmers of accountability for officers who murder.  It is not enough.  There must be accountability for those who helped cover it up, for the officers who do not intervene when a co-worker is out of control and escalating a situation unnecessarily.  Police must be expected to enforce the rules on each other as well as the public and hold themselves to the higher standard.  They won't want to do it.  It will have to come down from above.  Police chiefs will have to truly hold their officers accountable.  Some chiefs will not want to, they will pay lip service but look the other way, and they must be held accountable for their failure to clean up their organization.  We must demand results and reject excuses.  The hard, accusatory questions about the police culture must be asked of those in charge: "Why is it possible for an officer in your department to not understand that a bullet to the head is not the right response to a fleeing suspect?  Why do your officers think it is ok to falsify a report?  What the hell is going on in your department, exactly?"

I don't think that what is going on at UC is actually that unusual, but we must de-normalize this corruption.  We must be outraged at law-breaking by law-enforcement even when we are not surprised.

There is only one thing that will get this done, and that is accountability.  It isn't easy; there will be uncomfortable costs.  Well-liked officers with long service will have their careers ruined and lives disrupted.  There is not another path to ending police abuses, and lives are already being ruined and ended.  Real accountability must be put in place and held firm until police forces around the nation understand that the public is not fucking around, and that they really and truly must obey the rules and ensure that the rules are being obeyed by their co-workers.  It will put the government and the people in conflict with police unions.  It may result in police strikes or similar threats to try to remind the public that we need the police and shouldn't oppose them.  There will be emotional appeals about the dangers of police work and the respect due to people who put their lives on the line.  None of this must sway us, because none of this excuses corruption and abuse.  It will require our political will to persevere, to insist that our policing is done ethically every day and in every department.

And honestly, I don't care if we have to flush an entire department and hire a pack of well-meaning newbies to replace them.  That's not a good result but it's better than tolerating the corruption.  I'm willing to escalate that far if that's what it takes for our rights to be more real than illusion.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Criticizing Police: Institutions and Individuals

"A few bad apples."  "I know there are some bad cops out there but remember that most of them are good." etc.

This stuff comes out frequently in conversations about abuses of police power.  The intent of it seems to be to deny that there is any systemic issue to address, only a few bad cops. 

Let me try to steelman this:

 "Inevitably in any organization as large as the police are nationwide, there will be individuals who misbehave.  Their bad behavior might tarnish the reputation of police generally, but this is not fair because it is not an accurate reflection of the other cops.  Other officers who are doing their job correctly should not be blamed for the ones who are doing theirs poorly, in the same sense that we don't blame all Christians for the small minority who are Christian terrorists."

This "a few bad apples" argument totally falls apart because police forces are hierarchical organizations.  There is a chain of command. Regulations.  Extensive and ongoing training.  Review.  Orders. Punitive actions.  Other groups, like "Christians", do not contain this organizing structure, so there can be no accountability to the whole for the actions of a part.  The group "Christians" do not have any real power over the group "Christian terrorists".

Police organizations do have real, extensive, and direct power over the police who work for them. An agency is responsible for how they respond to these incidents, and what we frequently see is agencies closing ranks around their officers to defend them from criticism of wrongdoing. So that, by itself, already makes this a systemic problem, and a serious one.  In the "few bad apples" hypothesis, the police chief and all of that officer's peers are horrified by the wrongdoing, and massive social and institutional pressure is brought down from within to correct the issue by shaming, denouncing, remediating, firing, and/or arresting the offending officer.  Is that what we observe?

Agencies train and indoctrinate their officers into an organizational culture; they set the standard for what is or is not acceptable.  Because of that, there is a sense in which the chain of command is responsible the very moment one of their officers does something wrong.  Obviously someone somewhere will still make a mistake, but in an organization where the standards are correctly communicated and upheld, the group will police itself at a peer level when possible and at a supervisory level when that fails.  In an incident with 5 cops on scene, when one got unnecessarily violent, the others would recoil in horror and tell them to back off or tone it down.  "You're out of line Officer Johnson, step back and we'll handle this.  We can discuss it back at the precinct." Or similar.  Is this what we observe?

In the best organizations a commander will take real responsibility for the failure, take real corrective action, and vow that the organization can and will do better in the future.  Is this what we observe?

A better analogy than the Christian terrorists would be Catholic priests and cardinals.  Is it appropriate to criticize the Church for the child rapes conducted by priests?  You're damn right it is.  In addition to having a responsibility to preventatively protect the children in their care, they have a responsibility to respond to incidents in a way that protects victims and others who might be vulnerable to future victimization.  They have a responsibility to use their institutional power over the priests to hold them accountable for their actions, at minimum.  The cardinals who knew about this and did nothing or protected the priests have no defense.  The organization as a whole has no defense.  The most I can say for the clergy in general is that it is plausible that many of them did not know this was going on.  A priest cannot be responsible for his peers raping if he does not know it is occurring. 

The same cannot be said for the police who were standing there, watching abusive violence from other cops.  The same cannot be said for the police who were helping.  The same cannot be said for the police who express public solidarity with these abusive officers.  I actually think law enforcement, as a whole, is more culpable for their wrongs than the Catholic Church, because the wrongdoing of their peers is not secret.  We are all aware, and still they close ranks. 

I think part of the issue is that they (and we) have decided that a particular group, "criminals", deserves whatever they get in their contact with law enforcement, so once they have mentally designated someone as a trouble-maker the ethical concerns evaporate.  This is why there is a rush to demonize the victims of police violence.  We have accepted the premise that it is possible to deserve police abuse, that it is justifiable if we disapprove of the victim sufficiently.  I won't go into it now.  Suffice to say democracy cannot thrive when state agents decide who does or does not have rights, which is why the ACLU defends terrible people against infringements and why it must be that way.  Anything else makes your rights up to someone else's discretion.

This does not mean that all cops are "bad".  It does mean there is a systemic issue with abuse of power in American law enforcement.  It does mean that there are law-abiding citizens with good cause to be afraid of the police.  In my view, because of the social dynamics that arise in groups who rely on each other in life-threatening situations, this problem can only be addressed from the top down.  Institutional reform with teeth is required.  Officers must be held accountable for what they do, and what they accept from other officers.  Whistleblowing must be a thing that is actually safe to do.  We're a long ways from there.

They will not give up their power and privilege easily, will not break ranks quickly, will not accept real accountability if it can in any way be avoided.  The powerful and exempt never do.  Please don't help them avoid accountability by dismissing the problem as isolated to a few bad cops, because it isn't.  That is not what we observe.  And this is not what we deserve.