In a context of no accountability from the top, a “Law and Order” President who encourages police rioting, police in cities across the country have been exacerbating violence with a warrior mindset and military-style equipment, abusing citizens and journalists, even clergy. It’s as if they were hell-bent on proving every criticism of police brutality correct, bringing it all out in the open for every cell phone camera to see. In most places their political sway and contractual protections make them untouchable and unreachable for reform.
So if professions of shock and outrage from our leaders are to mean anything, they need to translate into action.
On Sunday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo tweeted: “I grieve with the family of George Floyd and members of communities who have seen heinous incidents like these remain all too frequent in our society. This was not policing. This was a crime. I’m committed to learning from these communities and amplifying my colleagues’ voices.”Chris Van Buskirk, State House News Service, in the Dorchester Reporter 6/1/20
Show, don’t tell, Mister Speaker.
Ayanna Pressley has made proposals for police accountability, by ending qualified immunity and instituting civilian review boards. Read the resolution here.
Pressley said she and another congressional colleague have filed a resolution in Congress calling on lawmakers to “make clear that this Congress stands on the side of racial justice.” She said the resolution calls for adopting policies to end injustice and improve oversight of police misconduct probes. In addition, she said, the resolution calls for uniform standards on police use of force and for eliminating “special” protections for officers in brutality cases.
(Both Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy III have signed onto versions in their respective chambers.)
My town of Arlington issued a good and necessary statement upon the death of Mr. Floyd.
“The actions of the Minneapolis police officers leading to the death of George Floyd represent at the very least a staggering departure from the training standards of a professional peace officer whose badge represents a commitment to protect life,” Chief Flaherty said. “The behavior of these officers — whether by action or inaction — constitute a failure resulting in the ultimate cost in the loss of life. I condemn these acts in the strongest possible terms.”
Massachusetts police officers have thoroughly embraced the six pillars of the principles embodied in the final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and remain committed to professional conduct, democratic policing and procedural justice for all people.
The Arlington Police Department undergoes regular training on de-escalation techniques, mental health, diversity and inclusion, fair and impartial policing and police legitimacy. This includes advanced training through the Police Executive Research Forum entitled “Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics” or ICAT.
This is not feel-good talk for those Arlington people-who-care-about-such-things; it’s a live issue in the town, having recently had a police officer who made incendiary, racist calls for violence in print. Dissatisfaction with that disciplinary process (via Restorative Justice) has prompted a handful of School Committee, Select Board, and Town Meeting candidates to sign onto an explicitly anti-racist platform. Arlington currently doesn’t have a civilian review board, but that may get consideration in the future — when COVID-19 isn’t limiting the scope of town meeting’s deliberations. (There was pretty thorough reporting on this incident in the Weekly Dig.)
But even the best bureaucratic processes and policies don’t win hearts and minds. We need to have a forthright conversation about the attitudes cops have about their work. Arlington, and Massachusetts more broadly, may have adopted relatively progressive policing policies. But one wonders if the rank and file have internalized those values. The town and former police chief Fred Ryan had already invested a lot of energy and reputation in implementing approaches that Lt. Pedrini directly repudiated in 2018. It’s hard to believe he was the only one; he was writing for what he thought was a sympathetic audience. No one at the Mass. Police Association told him, Look, this is too hot. We can’t run this.
Why are cops so far removed, so actively hostile to the communities they serve? The attitudes of police organization reps – from Arlington to New York to Minneapolis – show a besieged attitude, a sense that they’re always under threat. And as Pedrini’s writings reflect, this is partly a by-product of direct or indirect trauma they experience in the line of work: He was writing in the wake of the deaths of two officers in Massachusetts. This is not an excuse; but we need to understand the mindset at work.
Police are the “legitimated power of governmental violence“: They have guns; they can take away your freedom; they can shoot you with rubber or metal bullets or gas canisters or pepper spray if they want. Particularly without the backup of a vigorously engaged federal Department of Justice, they’ll get away with it — which is reflected in the out-of-control police forces and widespread abuse we’re seeing this week.
But as is the case with any public employee union, the public is always in the room. You can’t win a cushy, protective contract and lose the politics — if people are watching. The Minneapolis City Council is talking about disbanding its police department entirely, and going with a new model of public safety. It’s a huge step, but the MPD has surely shown itself “irredeemably beyond reform”, both before, during, and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Is this reform possible in New York City, where the police union has long acted like a protection racket? In Chicago? Boston? Is the gig up?
Power, even the power of state violence, is always a negotiation. And it depends upon the consent of the governed. The police unions have imagined that it is they who are the “governed”; but the ultimate power is in the neighborhoods they’re supposed to protect. In cities across the country, police are losing power and esteem, and they’re reacting badly.
It’s going to be a tough summer. Try to be safe. Black Lives Matter.