If policing is the problem in America, then are the police part of the solution? As America and the world witnesses each new video of a lynching–the real-life murder of a black child, woman or man, captured in real time with a cellphone, dashcam or bodycam, questions arise. For example, why do the police continue to kill black people? What is the role of the police, particularly in communities of color, anyway? And what needs to be done in order to change what passes for policing in this country?
Some members of law enforcement who have patrolled the streets and have worked in the belly of the beast have an opinion of the system and how to fix it, but perhaps not the point of view that many would expect.
Meanwhile, the crisis in law enforcement has reached such proportions that a United Nations panel in Geneva issued a report concluding that “Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching.”
“I’ll go beyond that. I think it’s worse, because we have that media which continually reinforces the trauma of seeing the videos. Like yeah, we have pictures from lynchings, but lynchings are done by citizens we can understand, we kind of grasp that people haven’t gotten along,” said Michael A. Wood, Jr., a retired Baltimore police officer and Marine Corps vet who is now a police reform activist. “But what we don’t grasp is that people that we are paying to protect us all are on video conducting lynchings that we can watch over and over again. So, that is definitely a different ballgame–and I would argue much worse.”
Wood, who is a Ph.D. student in management education, says that policing in the U.S. is not the same as it is in the rest of the world, such as England, which has a community policing foundation. “In America it didn’t come out that way. It came from three things: It came from slave catching and returning them to their owners, it came from the protection of white property, and it came from the continued genocide of the Native American people, so we are seeing an evolution of that very same beginning and those very same problems that we point to in our past.”
The protection of white property governs policing, according to Wood, something which was on display with the presence of riot police following the uprising after the death of Freddie Gray. “The whole time during the uprising, the only person that died in that entire event was Freddy Gray. So, they didn’t care about sending the slaves back into the new Jim Crow. That’s not what was flooding the news waves. What was in the news was the protection of white property.”
Woods says the drug war, of which Gray was a victim, is a war on people, which is the definition of an occupation. Norm Stamper, the former chief of the Seattle Police department, agrees, believing that war has done a great deal of damage. “The drug war has been the single most harmful and pernicious public policy in my day…. I’ve called it the worst public policy since slavery and Jim Crow and largely because of its disparate disproportionate effect on young people and poor people and people of color,” said Stamper, who is the author of To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police.
“So when Richard Nixon famously proclaimed drugs and drug abuse public enemy number one and declared all-out war on them, he was actually declaring war on his own people, and especially those people young poor of color who have had the worst relations with police because of police oppression or neglect or abuse dating all the way back. This is a direct line to the slave patrols,” Stamper added. “As far as I’m concerned it has been uninterrupted for all of these generations. So, in addition to the individual and raw examples of racism attributed to individuals we have deep seated structural or systemic racism. And the drug war accounts for the lion’s share of that. We have incarcerated literally tens of millions of nonviolent drug offenders, once again disproportionately poor young and black and Latino, and the result has been fractured families and ruined lives and no appreciable effect on the stated goals of the drug war” he said. “In other words, drugs today are more readily available at lower prices making them more accessible to everyone including our children and at higher levels of potency. So if there’s ever been a more colossal failure of public policy, I don’t know what it is.”
According to Stamper, the racial profiling policies that are practiced throughout the country are “a picture of wholesale abuse–constitutional abuse– of the rights of African-Americans and other ethnic minorities and young people, because those are the typical targets. It’s rarely white middle class citizens who are being stopped on these so-called Stop and Frisk stops.”
“It is my contention that altogether too many white police officers are afraid of black people. They are afraid particularly of young black males, and the bigger and the darker the black male the greater the fear. That kind of raw racism is a product of ignorance. It is a product of fear Itself, but when fear is not a socially acceptable emotion within a particular occupation or culture like police work, it gets expressed in sort of compensatory ways,” Stamper continued. “The bigger, the darker the more menacing to my eye as a white middle class cop perhaps one who did not grow up with any neighbors of color and suddenly find himself or herself as a police officer policing say a black community, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. And I think that happens altogether too often.”
Law enforcement, like the greater society, has not been able to rid itself of racism, Stamper notes. But rather than point the finger at bigoted police officers, misperception and lying come into play, such as the cover up of the Laquan MacDonald case by the Chicago police, and the killing of Walter Scott and the planting of evidence by police in North Charleston. “What is causing white middle class Americans to rethink what they have been fed for decades literally for generations?” Stamper asked. “When it happens that citizens are given another example of duplicitousness or dishonesty on the part of the police, it makes building a truthful and trusting relationship impossible, and it sours the relationship literally for years and years.”
And in some cases, bad cops are rewarded. For example, the officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray were honored at a right-wing gala held by the Media Research Center in Washington, DC. Wood believes that the white cops in that case likely broke Gray’s neck through the common practice of dropping a knee on the back of a person’s neck, then handed him over to the three black officers without telling them.
“They say he injured his neck in the back of the van. The prosecutor gets stuck on this strange narrative, and that’s not the ideal line that’s pursued. If that is what happened, it means that those three white cops who were being praised at that gala drug in the three black cops into having their careers ruined over something they really didn’t have anything to do with or know anything about. So why would you think that somebody’s neck was broken when you’re like, ‘I’ve been with this guy the whole time. Nothing happened to him.’ So that process might not enter your brain. If the other three cops broke a goddamn neck in an alley and didn’t tell you about it, well then starts to make sense.”
Stamper, who is actively involved in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) said that the real world that rookie cops enter “is defined, it’s populated by real cops, and it’s defined by them in their own idiosyncratic terms. That’s why you will hear senior cops say to their recruit officers next to them in a police car in their early rides in their career: ‘You forget that bullshit they taught you in the academy son. You’re in the real world now, and this is how it’s done.’ And they will teach young officers how to bait citizens to take a swing at them so they can choke them out,” he said. In his first book Breaking Rank, Stamper recalled his days as a rookie who defied his superior. “I was riding around with a senior officer who pulled up in front of a tavern and after they nicknamed the bucket of blood. There were a lot of shootings and stabbings at this tavern or bar on Imperial Avenue in San Diego. And he said, I’m quoting directly, ‘Get your n*gger knocker, go in there and pick out the biggest, meanest, blackest motherfucking n*gger in the place, and arrest him and bring him out here.’ And I was shocked to my soul.”
Further, Stamper argues, policing has become dependent on statistics. “Well it’s had a huge impact for generations, literally, in police work when police administrators decide to direct and govern police activity through counting, through assessing so-called productivity through the numbers of activities that officers collect. They put the entire institution on the wrong course,” Stamper noted. “Policing should be about public safety. It should be about guaranteeing civil liberties of citizens, and it should be about effective crime fighting aimed at predatory criminal offenses, the kind that scare people and cause them to change that way they live and so forth. So, somewhere along the line, many, many years ago, we decided that a quota system for arrests as well as citations and other kinds of police activities would be the best way to both guide and evaluate police performance, when it turns out to be not only unuseful but also harmful. And I think that’s exactly what’s happened with the arrest statistics. Arrest is a process. It’s not an outcome,” he said.
Wood argues that under a system of policing that executes white supremacy, a switch to an evidence-based system is more of the same. “We’ll use the data. That’s a really easy decision to make when you know that all the data that you’ve collected over the last 200 years is data directly executed from those three founding principles,” Wood said. “So, if you were only going around locking up black guys, then you say, ‘We’re going to look at our data, and look, the data says black guys commit crimes. Well, then we’ll look at black guys. Nothing has changed, so of course they love to go to the data now because it continues the system because the data is shit.”
Meanwhile, in an era of the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for reform and police transparency and accountability, there is a counter-movement for “law and order” and returning to the good old days. The Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose platform for black and Latino communities calls for more stop and frisk.
Wood noted that police unions tend to endorse Republicans, and police unions are the only unions the GOP support. “While there is a good old boys network of a bunch of racist old clowns running it, we have to be careful to understand that their membership isn’t really that way. It’s that leadership, that same oligarchy that same power structure that is interested in…continuing the Jim Crow, of protecting my property,” he added. “We see them, and I’m not upset about seeing them. I’d rather see them. I’m a little more scared of the wolf in the sheep’s clothing than I am of the wolf that announces himself. Yeah they’re there and now they’re being loud, but they were always there and I think they’re always getting smaller. It’s just that they have this license to speak now,” Wood said.
Stamper calls the Blue Lives Matter response to police brutality activism “viable and vitriolic” and its participants view it as their salvation. “The only surprise to me is how long it took certain forces within policing to mount what I’ve been loosely calling a counter offensive responding a Black Lives Matter…. I get feeds from former law enforcement organizations and informal affiliations and so forth that are very troubling to me personally,” the retired police chief said. “No longer do certain segments of police officers or groups of police officers refer to the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s now Black Lives Matter thugs. And so Black Lives Matter has become a sort of a tripartite adjective for thugs, and that’s careless, that’s reckless, but it’s also genuine. And that’s what’s most disturbing about it.”
These officers point to the ambush assassinations of cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge as a justification for a war mentality against the public, Stamper added. “And they really do believe they are at war,” he said. “But where they’ve got this chip on their shoulder in the first place they make otherwise positive contacts turned bad and that happens I’m afraid all the time in police work. Police officers who are screaming at motorists, who literally have raised the decibel level through the roof and are screeching. These are police officers who are out of control, not in control and what’s desperately needed. Under those circumstances is a confident calm professional police officer who is thoroughly skilled in de-escalation and conflict management skills. So, officers who have embraced this mentality this us-them, we-they, military and the enemy kind of attitude, and who present themselves as irrational and rash human beings in police uniforms are doing great damage to the institution and to the relationship.”
Looking at solutions, Wood maintains that a civilian-led model of policing is necessary, because the system is poisoned and cannot be reformed. “Protect and serve” must apply to the people, not the power structure. “The only reform I think is possible is to think of stakeholders theory in a business, where the concept is everyone that gets served by this business has a say in how it will operate, because we’re all participants holistically in the success of this endeavor. If people can conceptualize that and like a C.E.O.-to-board relationship where the board directs the company and sets its guidance, but the C.E.O. is charged with executing those directives and putting them actually into practice as the board suggests,” Wood said. They key to disrupting the current power structure, Wood suggests, is to take a civilian review board which deals with policing and place it at the top of the food chain, above the mayor and the city council, replacing the politicians who are conditioned to think only in short term, four-year election cycles.
Regarding law enforcement reform, Stamper has a three-point plan, beginning with ending the war on drugs. “It’s just done so much damage to community police relations and helped to create this mentality that we see in too many police officers. So we need to in my judgment legalize and regulate all drugs. The more sinister, the more dangerous, the more sensational the reporting and mass media and the like, the greater the justification for legalization, because that allows us then to regulate those drugs,” Stamper said. “And what’s happening with the horrific opioid abuse these days, what’s happening with heroin overdoses and the like won’t go away, but the situation would be dramatically improved if we declare a truce and armistice or whatever we need to do to extract ourselves from the drug war and replace prohibition with a rigorously enforced regulatory model.”
In addition, Stamper calls for national policing standards, with one binding standard for all police departments, from stop and frisk and search and seizure and arrests and lethal force. “So we need standards that bind a cop in Ferguson the same way those standards bind a cop in New York to the Constitution, and we don’t have a single unified set of standards. We don’t have a single standard really for police work in this country. We have 18,000 law enforcement agencies, and if we were to divide them up into good, bad and terrible or some other kind of categorization we still wouldn’t know how many police officers are in fact playing by the rules and what we’re doing about those who are not,” he noted. “And then guess what if you as a police officer don’t play by those rules. You’re not only are you fired your barred from taking another police job anywhere in the country.”
“I think about Timothy Loehmann–fired by the Independence Ohio Police Department, a couple of years later hired without benefit of a background investigation by the Cleveland Police Department, who goes on to take the life of a lonely 12-year-old boy on a snow-filled field in Cleveland. That officer should not have been a cop anywhere in this country,” Stamper said of the cop who killed Tamir Rice. “He broke down on the pistol range, he cries himself to sleep, according to his mother, weeping over is academy manual for a couple of months every night. This was somebody who may have been in horrible pain, and as a human being I can have sympathy, but he should not be wearing a badge or carrying a gun. And he should have been banned by a national system of certification and the certification. In other words, after Independence, he should have licensed lost his license to practice police work. We don’t have that and I think we desperately need it. And of course that’s one thing that my adversaries are really generating a good deal of blowback around. …We need to answer the question: How good is good enough to be a cop in this country? That answer ought to be relevant in every city, every county, every hamlet in the United States,” he added.
“Number three is if the police do not invite the community to take a seat at the table and all police operations the community ought to demand it,” Stamper offered, with an educated and informed citizen saying enough and demanding change, and citizens involved in hiring officers, developing policy and teaching at the academy.
Meanwhile, Wood says he owes his work to Tamir Rice. “Thank Tamir Rice. He was the martyr for me, and I can’t move on past that. That’s going to haunt me forever. I have to make sure there’s not another Tamir. Obviously we’re failing at that at the moment but we’ve got to fight towards that.”
Featured image by Amanjeev via Flickr.