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.

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