Tag Archives: #blacklivesmatter

Don’t Shoot

Utah has decided to bring back the firing squad. This decision was motivated by a shortage of lethal injection drugs, whose European manufacturers refuse to sell them to U.S. prison officials for the executions.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 9.08.23 PMIt’s no surprise that European drug companies aren’t on board with the whole execution thing: the only country in Europe still executing people is Belarus (2 people were executed in Europe last year). In contrast, the only countries that use the death penalty more than the U.S. are Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and China. Woof.

The death penalty is on the decline nationwide; 2014 had the smallest number of execution in 20 years with 39 people executed, and fewer death sentences were handed down as well. Changing public sentiment may be guiding the shift. One widely shared concern relates to the alarming rate of false convictions: 150 people on death row have been exonerated nationwide, and the National Academy of Sciences estimates that 1 in 25 death row inmates are likely innocent.

But some experts believe that the decline is largely due to unavailability of lethal injection drugs, which became a significant issue for prison officials in 2011 when the European Commission blocked exports of all known lethal injection drugs with the explicit purpose of “abolishing the death penalty worldwide.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 10.20.59 PMSo what to think about Utah’s archaic “solution” to the shortage? Sister Helen Prejean, human rights leader and anti-death penalty activist, thinks it’s a good thing. “I think the firing squad is more honest in a way and transparent, that you’re actually killing a person,” she opined. “You’re going to see the blood dripping from the chair. I think, in a way, it’s more transparent. I think it’s going to help end it quicker.”

I agree that lethal injection seems to put an incongruously “humane” face on killing a person. But I worry that we’ve simply gone too far down the road of dehumanization to be much moved by watching someone get shot to death and bleed onto the floor.

Corrections officers, prison administrators, and even prison medical personnel have witnessed (and caused) incredible pain and suffering, both physical and mental, to people in their custody and dismissed it as faked, provoked, or deserved. A couple of weeks ago Missouri executed a 74-year-old man with severe brain damage for goodness’ sake. And, like every other problem associated with the criminal justice system, this is some racist shit: death sentences are more likely to be given to Black offenders, and they’re most likely when the victim was white.

Like Sister Prejean, I hope that this alarming move on Utah’s part will serve as a well-needed wake up call, but until we recognize the people we’re killing as people, I’m skeptical that society will be “up in arms” about it.

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Police Reformers Emphasize Department Culture

How can we heal the rift between police officers and the communities they patrol, improve public safety, and reduce violence committed by and against officers? That question was at the heart of a recent panel on police reform at NYU Law. An impressive group of panelists with experience as community leaders, police officers, civil rights prosecutors, and public defenders shared a range of ideas with a common thread: a change in department culture is the key.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 11.28.39 PMEric Adams, Brooklyn Bureau President and former police officer and state legislator, opened the discussion by asking the audience to raise what they were drinking. Analogizing to the successful culture shift from drinking soda to drinking water, he stated, “We have evolved as a society – policing has not.” Changing the culture within police departments will require “getting them to leave the Pepsi on the table.”

Camden Police Commissioner J. Scott Thompson elaborated on the idea of a culture shift, calling it a shift from “warrior to guardian.” Getting out of the patrol cars and into communities is the first step. In Camden, this meant (among other things) literally loading up paddy wagons full of cops and dropping them off in neighborhoods for the day. “You’re not going to change the culture through classroom training,” he explained.

Building trust between community leaders and police officers isn’t just good for PR purposes – it has the potentially to significantly reduce crime. “In some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, which were in Camden, we reduced the homicide rate by 50%. We didn’t do it by incarcerating people,” Thompson explained. “We did it by empowering the matriarchal and patriarchal figures in the community.”

Another panelist, NYU Law Clinical Professor Kim Taylor-Thompson, reinforced this idea. Studies have shown, she argued, that police officers – including police officers of color – are operating with embedded racial stereotypes that shape the way they approach certain communities, leading to disparate stops, arrests, and use of violence. Fixing this (huge) problem requires understanding the problem, and it requires exposure to members of the community that you’re policing that doesn’t start and end with a crisis. Police officers need to understand that the categories the criminal justice system imposes – offender, victim, etc. – are “permeable – they change every day.” When you see someone in contexts other than crisis, you see them as more than a threat to public safety.

Police academies don’t typically teach officers how to have casual, pleasant conversations with people in the communities they’re patrolling, but Adams had some concrete ideas for getting a new discourse off the ground. Cops who walk beats usually aren’t responding to calls – they could use that time effectively. “We’ve got a pre-K program – have them spread the word about that. We have a new municipal ID program – they could be talking to people about that. They could be saying ‘Hello.'” It’s Adams’ view that this could create a cascade of change in a community: “All of a sudden, you’ll have people talking about their neighborhood cop at cook-outs, at church.”

Another concrete recommendation for change included a shift regarding ways that departments get money. Right now, most funding programs ask questions about the number of arrests you have. As panelist James Johnson put it: “What are the questions you’re asking? What are the practices you want to see?” If those aren’t aligned, then you’re sending mixed messages.

Christy Lopez, Deputy Chief of the Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Unit, in the U.S. Department of Justice, suggested motivating good policing by emphasizing something most cops are drawn to already: legality. They’re here to uphold the law, she argued, and they are motivated to follow it themselves. But that requires consistently upholding standards not just within police departments, but throughout the whole criminal justice system.

Mixed messages come from prosecutors and judges, figures that Adams described as the “co-conspirators” of bad policing. These actors in the system know when they’re seeing the results of overly aggressive, racist policing. When they play along, they validate bad actors, a message that responsible, idealistic officers will absorb.

Lopez pointed to another complicit party: partners. Advocating for training on peer intervention, she pointed out how powerful a voice of reason could be. “How much better would these situations we’re talking about be if the partner has just stepped in?” she asked. Training on peer intervention – and support within the department for officers who are willing to intervene – would go “much further than body cams.”

NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has a different strategy for change in mind: turning resisting arrest into a felony. “We need to get around this idea that you can resist arrest,” he told NPR in December. “It results in potential injuries to the officer, to the suspect. And we need to change that, and the way to change that is to start penalties for it.”

Taylor-Thompson disagrees. She described representing clients charged with resisting arrest while with the D.C. Public Defender Services. Those clients were often beaten so badly they were hospitalized, while the police officer involved walked away unscathed. This led her to conclude that these charges were nothing but a cover for officers to justify use of force. Talking about increasing penalties is “missing the point,” she said.

But what can we do with departments that aren’t willing to make reforms on their own – or even to admit there’s something that needs to be reformed? Lopez recently returned from the prototypical example of just such a department: Ferguson. “Within moments, it was obvious this was a troubled department,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve ever used the word ‘compassion’ in a DOJ report, but that’s what it was – the lack of compassion was just so palpable.” She was particularly explicit about (very) thinly veiled racism she heard from officers she interviewed. “It was more normal, less harmful, for Black people to go to prison. ‘Some people just need to take responsibility’ was the message. This is what they were telling themselves – this is how they slept at night.”

Ferguson may be the poster child for problem departments,but the panelists made it clear that racism is a problem everywhere. Adams, for instance, described training a rookie officer in a housing project when he was a cop. The rookie pointed to urine in an elevator to say that the project residents didn’t deserve their help. “One person pissed in an elevator,” Adams responded, “a hundred others are just as upset about it as you are!”

Taylor-Thompson explained the message that was drilled into her growing up a Black girl in the Bronx: if a police officer talks to you “don’t talk back; pray they won’t do anything.” The idea that police officers might be violent was normalized. Adams talked about being arrested and beaten by police officers when he was 15 (“My brother and I peed blood for weeks”), and Johnson described moving slowly when he was pulled over because he knew that “your next fast move might be your last.”

Changes need to happen, and for some departments they will undoubtedly need to be imposed from the outside, like Lopez’s work with the DOJ in Ferguson. Change can also come from internal leadership, as Scott has shown in Camden. And it can come from local pressure, like that Adams is advocating in Brooklyn. Whatever the source, confronting racism head-on and turning to communities for guidance and partnership will be instrumental.

And what about the rest of the system? Adams pointed out that police officers don’t need to be identified exclusively with the criminal justice system – they’re already engaged with communities in many ways, and that can be expanded. But realistically the shortcomings of the rest of the process will be reflected on the gatekeepers: police officers.

“Police bear the brunt of the problems within the rest of the criminal justice system,” Lopez acknowledged. Improvements to the rest of the system will make their jobs and reputations better as well.

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The Dangerous Class

Not long ago I was meeting with a young man at Riker’s, New York City’s infamous island of jails, when an alarm started sounding. “That sounds like my block” he told me, intrigued, as a number of correctional officers (“COs”) started flooding into the corridor outside our glassed-in meeting room. To my surprise, without saying a word to either of us (or the other man whose lawyer had just left and who was sitting nearby in the same enclosure), a CO came over and locked us in. Then I watched as five, ten, twenty COs suited up in what looked like a cross between football pads and hazmat suits. They drew long wooden clubs out of a bin next to their gear cubbies, and several of them clipped massive spray cans to their belts. “Pepper spray?” I asked my client. “Worse,” he responded. “This is way worse than pepper spray. It’s made for bears.”

He told me that he’s been nearby when it’s been sprayed before, and even just being close is terrible. “I coughed so hard blood came up,” he said. Hearing this description, and watching guard after guard show up to get in gear, I wonder how much of the extreme level of security we’re seeing can be attributed to real risk faced by officers. Certainly there is some risk – anyone incarcerated at Riker’s will tell you it’s a dangerous place for prisoners – but to send in twenty or more guards, with clubs and bear spray, I would think they ought to have a good reason. So I looked for some numbers.

In a ten-year period between 1999 – 2007, 113 COs were killed on the job. In a smaller timeframe, from 2001 – 2007, 356 prisoners were victims of homicide (and, side note, 1,386 prisoners committed suicide). By comparison, from 1999 – 2007, 1,529 police officers in the U.S. were killed, and, just to throw in another dangerous job, 335 coal miners died at work. Deaths are, obviously, just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s also an important marker of how dangerous a job really is. And although any number of deaths is too many, 113 in ten years sounds relatively low to me. Note that there are about 470,000 people currently employed as correctional officers in the U.S. today, so over ten years a generous estimate would be that 0.003% of COs are killed per year.

So what’s with the riot gear, the clubs, the bear spray? What’s with the regular complaints of egregious violence at Riker’s and elsewhere?

It’s my view – and I’m not alone here – that this comes from the idea that prisoners are part of a “dangerous class” who, regardless of the offense that landed them in prison and regardless of their conduct while incarcerated are perceived as violent animals who are liable to strike out in any way possible at any time. And it’s easy to see the connection between the level of security and surveillance in prisons and jails to the treatment of people who are perceived as part of this “dangerous class” on the outside. For example, black men between the ages of 15-19 are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts are, and the average sentence for murder grew 238% in the 80’s and 90’s. These are all manifestations of an idea of dangerous, bad people whose sentence and even whose offense are secondary to a general inhumanity.

The really low rate of death among correctional officers is probably due in part to the extremely high level of security employed, but it comes at the price of a widespread dismissal of the humanity of the people who are incarcerated (literally using products designed to keep vicious animals at bay). This is not the product of individual failings among COs, nor is the policing statistic a reflection of individual assholes in police departments, nor is the sentencing statistic a product of bad prosecutors personally bent on creating more punitive systems. These are symptoms of a fundamental shift in the way that we understand people involved with the criminal justice system, and more generally people of color and poor people in our society. This is the new face of prejudice that Michelle Alexander was describing in her blockbuster critique of our criminal justice system, The New Jim Crow. It’s what protesters in Ferguson, New York City, Madison, Charlottesville, etc. are calling out when they insist that #blacklivesmatter. It’s the message that Right on Crime and other conservatives are reinforcing when they call for justice only for non-violent, low-level offenders and fail to call our system into question more broadly. And, in my humble opinion, it’s why we need to fundamentally rethink not only how prisons operate, but also whether we should have them at all.

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Whites Accept Racially Disparate Imprisonment

One of the defining features of the U.S. prison population is how disproportionately black and brown it is. The more the word gets out about that, the better, right? Wouldn’t you think people would be outraged?

Turns out, a study by two Stanford researchers suggests the opposite. What researchers Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt found when they introduced information about racial disparities in prisons was that whites were, in general, more afraid of crime and more supportive of highly punitive responses to crime than when they were unaware of the difference.

My guess as to the reason for this horrifying outcome is that we’ve been trained to view people of color as dangerous, and also as fundamentally different (“other,” as they say). See my post in a couple of days for more on the “dangerous class.”

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Ferguson: Police State

Ferguson has been getting a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. Much has appropriately been made of the ridiculously racist emails the DOJ investigation turned up, as well as the preferential treatment meted out to friends and family while those who lacked connections were slapped with harsh sanctions and huge fines, ironically financing the very system that was sucking them dry.

But the story that the DOJ report tells is not only one of an egregiously racist system. It is also a story of an alarming scope of policing. I’ve never been a proponent of “small government,” but the sheer volume of outstanding charges, well described in this Huff Post Blog post, tells a dystopian story of an entire town under the thumb of a police force and prosecutor’s office – 16,000 of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents have outstanding charges against them; there were nearly 33,000 different warrants in 2013. Had the timing been different, the movement less well-organized, the inciting event less powerful, this kind of approach to “law and order” wouldn’t have come to light in Ferguson. In fact, even now it’s hardly receiving honorable mention as the media divides into two predictable camps and argues about whether the Ferguson PD is really all that racist, or whether they’re just indiscriminately terrible.

One thing that all police departments and prosecutors’ offices have in common when they engage in this kind of draconian law enforcement is this: they are acting entirely within the legal bounds of their discretion, and we are virtually powerless to stop them. In this case a social movement, the eyes of sympathetic media, and the influence of the Department of Justice may be enough to rein in Ferguson – at least for now. But as long as we exist in a society riddled with racism and classism, the kind of discretion and power afforded to police officers and prosecutors will permit problems to prosper silently. While we work on communicating the message that #blacklivesmatter, we should also be imposing reasonable limits and meaningful accountability on our police officers and prosecutors so that the kind of police state the DOJ found in Ferguson isn’t permitted to flourish unseen everywhere else.

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