Fund the Police . . . And Others, Too (concluded)

When police actions go bad, we shout, “Reform the police.” “Defund the police.” But we should be looking at ourselves. We proclaim that we are the richest and most powerful country in the world, but we the people refuse to spend the money to make things better. We are more concerned with taxes than with the public welfare. It isn’t just on the police; it is also on us.

We should have police reforms. We should have better screening of those who become an officer. We should have a national database of problem cops who sometimes now go from one police force to another without information available about their past performance. We should have better training for the police especially on how to restrain potentially violent people. We need better discipline of the police. We need a reconsideration of qualified immunity. But many of these steps require funding, and we don’t want to provide it.

A seemingly simple reform would be to require body cams. Studies have shown police behave better if they know they are being videoed, but these cameras also help the police. Charges of abuse were lodged against an officer in a small Pennsylvania department recently, but he was wearing a body cam, and the video of the incident exonerated him. Both the police and the general public have a stake in police body cams.

At the police forum I recently attended, a police chief said that he welcomed body cams, but he pointed out that not only does it take money to get the equipment, it takes a computer technician to maintain, store, and review the results. The police chief did not have money for a technician to maintain his current computer equipment. He certainly had no money in his budget for the support needed for body cams even if he had money to obtain the cameras themselves. I repeat; that shortfall is on us, not on the police.

But something more is on us. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his son in Between the World and Me and says, “But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive moments.”

Coates is speaking to a sad reality. We are too often unable to fully see blacks as individuals; instead we see them as a member of group. The tendency then is to assume that the worst actions of one of them applies to all of them. This gets ingrained in the subconscious, including the subconscious of police officers. A split skull and much worse too often results.

We do something similar to the police. Although there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of interactions between the police and the rest of us each day, we see on the news, the internet, and social media the worst actions by individual officers; we don’t see the professional, useful, helpful encounters. We make all police officers responsible for those racist, brutal, incompetent police behaviors committed by some of them. And so we tend to lump all police together — the good ones and the bad ones. And the natural reaction is for police officers to hunker down in their tribe and separate themselves from the rest of us. This only exacerbates the problem.

The police may need to change attitudes and practices, but we also need to change our attitudes towards the police. We can’t just view police officers as the evil “other.” Recently I taught a seminar at an Ivy League university entitled “Race, Poverty, and Criminal Justice.” Not surprisingly in a course with that title, almost all of the liberal-minded students were anti-police. They would speak at length – and with too little data — of how bad the police and police departments are. I asked if any of them would consider becoming a police officer. They had looks of horror as if we were inside a chainsaw-massacre-movie. They not only could not imagine being an officer, they could not even imagine that a “normal” person would want to be one. The police were completely “other.”

That is a problem for all of us.

Fund the Police . . . And Others, Too (continued)

Police brutality was on my radar a generation or two ago when I was defending criminal cases. Some defendants when first appearing in court would have fresh blood, ugly bruises, cuts, or contusions on their bodies. They would tell me that officers beat them up for no reason. When we would appear in court, I would list for the public record the injuries and marks on the defendant. The prosecutor gave the uniform reply that these injuries came when the defendant resisted the officers’ lawful, peaceful arrest, and the charges the defendant faced in these circumstances always included a count of resisting arrest. Back then, neither prosecutors, judges, nor police commanders seemed to care a whit about allegations of excessive force. My organization did what the police and prosecutors should have been doing: we started keeping records of the officers who were involved in the beatings to see if we could identify problem cops. I was part of a unit that sued officers for excessive force and tried to collect damages for those beaten up with the hope that the police department would discipline some notorious officers. I confess that we weren’t successful.

Smartphones with cameras and body and dashboard cams have made a dent in this world. Sometimes now we have a video of the encounter. It is no longer just a defendant’s or bystander’s word against that of a police officer. With increasing recorded visual evidence, at least some of the time, a claim of needless or excessive force is taken more seriously today.

So, yes, police sometimes lie, misrepresent evidence, and sometimes use unnecessary force. Even so, we need the police. Besides my muggings—the spouse, too, has been mugged—I have been the victim of a considerable number of crimes—cars, car batteries, car radios, and bikes have been stolen, and the house has been burglarized more than once. The police I have dealt with as a result have been professional and helpful. My world would not be better without police. One day two officers rang my doorbell. They said that they had heard a loud bang from my house and wanted to make sure everything was all right. The adjoining building, once a hospital, was being gutted by a Catholic charity in order to turn it into housing. What the police had heard was from the demolition next door, but I was grateful for the officers’ concern and attention. There are many problems with individual police officers and with police as an institution, but there are many, perhaps most, cops who do want to serve and protect.

Thrown about now is the poorly chosen phrase “defund the police.” The term seems to have different meanings to different people. Its most sensible use seeks to shift funds away from the police to other agencies who might better deal with certain problems. So, e.g., have you or someone you know ever called the cops? The possibilities seem endless. Loud party next door; call the police. Screams in the night; call the police. Reckless driving; call the police. Dead dog in the street; call the police. Shots fired; call the police. Money short in the till; call the police. Men shoving each other on the corner; call the police. Furtive exchange of money for (possible) drugs; call the police. Baseball through the window; call the police. Scantily clad women hanging around; call the police. Tricked out of some money; call the police. Someone overdosed; call the police. Untaxed cigarettes for sale; call for the police (after buying a carton?). People not wearing face masks; call the police. Could any single person or organization be trained and competent to handle all that we ask of the police?

Here’s a personal example. My nonbinary progeny was on the subway when a disheveled man for no reason socked her in the jaw. (The NBP was incredibly proud of taking the blow without being knocked down.) He got off the train at the next stop. People followed him and found a police officer who took him into custody. He was mentally ill. A high percentage of the people who the police interact with are mentally ill or otherwise have a mental disability. P.S. the police took the NBP to the station and someone waited with them until the spouse could come to take them home.

The police are not the obvious organization to deal with the mentally ill or disabled. It seems sensible to have psychiatric social workers or similar people responding in these situations, but it is not that simple. A call comes in and says, “My son is threatening me with a knife.” That son might have a mental illness, but who should respond to a potentially violent situation such as this? Perhaps the best answer is that both a well-trained police officer and a well-trained social worker should. But that is not accomplished by shifting money from the police to a social welfare agency. Instead we need more money for the psychiatric social workers. We need more funds, not just a shift in budgets.

I attended a forum with police representatives and the community in a northeast Pennsylvania county. A police chief said that she would welcome the assistance of social workers for many of the calls her department responded to, but she also said that her budget had been cut over the last fifteen years as had been the money for social welfare agencies. Psychiatric social workers were not available for all the times that they could be useful. The only available responders to the mentally ill (and to the homeless, to the drunk on the corner, etc. etc.) would come from the increasingly strapped police and the overwhelmed court system. When I worked recently in a Florida public defender’s office, the head of the office told me, “We have a mental health facility here; It’s called the county jail.” And that is it how it is handled throughout much of this country.

(concluded October 8)