On Michael Brown and Eric Garner

British Meme-

Heaven is where the police are British, the lovers French, the mechanics German, the chefs Italian, and it is all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the lovers Swiss, the mechanics French, the chefs British, and it is all organized by the Italians.

As 2014 has now left us, and with a hearty ‘Good Riddance” from many, I thought I might join in the end of year orgy of looking back and over analyzing some of the events of the year.

First I think I should explain myself, I have a BA Honors Degree in History with Sociology, I was a Police Officer in England, in a county force of about 2500 officers. Then when I emigrated to the US I was a Police Officer in a small rural department of five officers for a year. I continued to work in the  Law Enforcement field for a few more years, before turning to the private sector for more of the filthy lucre.

I do not pretend to be an expert on criminology like an old school chum of mine who is a Professor of Criminology, or a published expert like an old patrol buddy. But old habits die hard, I do follow some of the published materials in the field, because it interests me, and certain themes do come to my mind.

Reminiscing back to my years in uniform in ‘the job’ I can strongly remember how it felt to be despised by a large part of society merely by putting on your work clothes. It is difficult not to take that personally, to want the public to see you as an individual in uniform, and not part of ‘the establishment’ or whatever label is in vogue, pigs, copper, gavver. Then of course when the fertilizer hit the windmill, when those who had been screaming epithets at me as an officer suddenly became victims, and now they scream for me to ‘do something’, and serve them to the best of my abilities.

Nowadays I look at the problems with race & policing in the USA in 2014 from the point of view of a white civilian, who lives in a predominantly white state in the eastern United States, who enjoys history and the social commentary of it, and one of the themes I see come to the surface is that a population generally receives the police and government that it deserves. 

In the UK, policing began as volunteer Constables, something which you still see in some small towns in the US. The “Specials” were developed into a paid professional force by Sir. Robert Peel, known as the “Peelers”. Generally speaking there is only one uniformed Law Enforcement agency in any given area in the UK, with a few exceptions such as the British Transport Police. There may be many ‘plain clothes’ departments, especially at the national level such as Special branch, MI5, but generally they do not provide a patrol  or response function. The individual officers are responsible to their hierarchy, and complaints are investigated by the Complaints and Discipline Department or Office of Professional Standards of their own force, who in turn is mandated to report certain complaints to an independent body the Independent Police Complaints Commission. There is also an independently elected Police and Crime Commissioner, who evaluates complaints and sets priorities for the police. Now I am not saying that all this makes the UK Police a bunch of saints (just ask the family of Stephen Lawrence), the very fact that these offices exist demonstrates a need for them. I myself had a run in with ‘my’ Complaints and Discipline Department, which you may have noticed I have not blogged about (yet).

The other area I wanted to mention for comparison purposes is firearms. Each Force in the UK has it’s own firearms department, and generally will have a ‘special’ response vehicle with heavily armed officers available in all geographical areas should a firearms incident take place. Also certain areas such as airports and ports have armed units permanently assigned to them, however on the whole, the usual patrol unit in the UK is not armed with firearms. That is not to say they do not have any deadly weapons, the PR29 or the ASP Tactical Baton are both weapons that can be used with deadly force, but the average patrol officer in the UK is not armed with a firearm.

So let us turn now to the US, where I will speak mainly from my knowledge of Maine, but with some variations, the knowledge can be applied to the rest of the US. There are three immediate levels of patrol departments, first the local / municipal / town police, which is organized and paid for by a town, where the officers only have jurisdiction within that town (barring mutual-aid agreements). Second the county based Sheriff Departments, which in some states do not have a patrol function but only provide the jail system. In Maine the county departments have a patrol function, and a strange sharing agreement with the State Police whereby they divide the county’s in half, and each department (Sheriff and State police) patrols one half for two weeks, then they swap. Then third the State Police, in some states the State Police may only patrol the major highways, or they may be the only department that can investigate major crimes. In some states the towns are so small, few if any of them can afford municipal departments, and the county’s are so huge, the patrol coverage is spread very thin.

On top of this are a multitude of uniformed departments with specialized functions, here in Maine the Game Wardens patrol the entire state, but especially in the Great North Woods, where they may be the only patrol around for a large area. As a border state, we also have Department of Homeland Security Border Patrol. The DHS has many functions in many states. Then you have the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (cue redneck jokes), the Drug Enforcement Agency….the list goes on and on, and if you include plain clothes departments, both federal and state, everything up to the FBI and Secret Service.

Generally speaking each department has it’s own Internal Affairs, although in small departments, this effectively might just be the Chief. But once a complaint clears the Internal Affairs Department, there usually is very few other places to address it. Country Sheriffs do not investigate the municipal police or State Police, State Police do not investigate the Sheriff or the municipal police, the FBI has no power to investigate any of them, your only recourse might be to the ACLU for a civil prosecution if your civil rights have somehow been violated.

To recourse to an old idiom, “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. How can an agency be expected to reach a certain level of ethical responsibility when there is no comeback, no independent regulator. While an agency may have strict internal rules and regulations which govern the conduct of the officers such as no-strangleholds around the neck), it is ethically problematic that they are investigated by colleagues and all are under the jurisdiction of a chief who is paid by the same entity, be it municipal, county or state. This leaves departments open to  structural discrimination, for example, the “Zero Tolerance” Policing Model, which has been detailed before, but in a nutshell, from the Criminal Justice Inspectorates of the UK;

Zero-tolerance is a policing strategy that involves relentless order maintenance and
aggressive law enforcement, against even minor crimes and incivilities. While zero tolerance is most commonly associated with New York Police Department (NYPD)
during the 1990s, the term does not accurately describe the approach that was
Bill Bratton – the NYPD chief during the 1990s – has said that he finds zerotolerance
a “trouble-some” term and that does not “capture the meaning of what
happened in New York City” (1998: 42-43). While recognising that it can send out a
powerful rhetorical message, Bratton has said the language of zero-tolerance oversimplifies the complexity of policing and suggests an over-zealous approach.
Advocates of order maintenance policing have also observed that NYPD officers
simply started paying attention to offences that had previously been ignored, and
only sometimes took formal action (Sousa and Kelling 2006). There is a risk that law
enforcement without targeting could be counter-productive in the longer term if it was
perceived to be unfair, and therefore eroded public trust in the police (Weisburd,
Telep and Braga 2010) (see What stops people offending).

It could be said that Eric Garner’s death could be attributed to continuing Zero Tolerance programs, as a task force for the selling of loose cigarettes without a license and therefore not paying tax would fall neatly in a ‘minor crime’ category. It is interesting to note that the NYPD is apparently now on a ‘work slow’ order, and not addressing minor crimes and incivilities.

By no means do I mean that US policing agencies are in any way more or less corrupt that UK policing agencies, or the police of any other agency, don’t get me wrong, but there is simply no independent agency that any US Law Enforcement is responsible too. In extreme cases the Federal Government can step in and invoke the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 or initiate a Civil Rights lawsuit, which sometimes result in Class Action lawsuits which regulate Policing, but there is no agency tasked with tracking serious complaints against Law Enforcement in the US. As has been pointed out after Ferguson, there is also no agency tasked with compiling statistics on Law Enforcement involved shootings, in fact after the Newtown Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting bloggers realized there was no agency tasked with counting firearms deaths in the US, and so the independent Gun Violence Archive was created, but still has trouble verifying firearms deaths since there is no requirement for agencies to report them.

Of course for for any complaint to become serious enough to warrant a lawsuit, or Federal involvement, either a large number of people have to be involved, such as with the Stop and Frisk Class Action lawsuit in New York, or nationwide media attention has been given to a tragic event, such as in Ferguson MO. But for a minor complaint, weather it be about a particular officer, or a systemic problem in the department, the likelihood of it being addressed are minimal.

I mentioned earlier that I thought the threads of Militarized Policing and Cameras for Police Officers are distractions, smoke and mirrors that obscure a root cause, enabling it to escape without being addressed. Incidents such as the North Hollywood Shootout in February 1997, and the more recent double execution of two officers in New York mean that the police will require sufficient firepower to respond to such incidents. At the end of the work day as a Police Officer, you should be able to go home to your family in the same manner you left, ie uninjured, upright and taking on sustenance.

With body cameras, the lack of any independent complaints agency to act as a regulator, means the storage and retention of any image captured by Police Body Cameras becomes highly problematic, in the same way Internal Investigations and the DA controlled Grand Jury system is has accountability issues already, and notwithstanding that the massive privacy concerns could never be overcome.

The need for militarized equipment to keep up with certain criminal elements is not one I am an expert on. But looking at the situations in Ferguson this year, I remembered the two times I was on duty when a riot or large disturbance was taking place. In the police ranks there was a mix of officers who were scared, officers who just wanted to go home and officers who were scared and showing off bravery to mask the fact they were scared. Then in the ‘crowd’ there were people who thought it wouldn’t get out of hand and were scared when it did, people who were scared and just wanted to leave but couldn’t because of the press of the crowd, and people who were scared and were getting angry to cover up that they were scared.

What protesters tend to forget is that the officers standing behind that body armor is just as nervous as they are, has a family at home that they would like to go back to, has bills to pay, see’s themselves as an individual, and has chosen a profession where they are required to stand in the way of people causing a disturbance and tell them ‘No‘, which has got to be one of the most underused phrases in modern society.

What officers tend to forget, and myself included , is that protesters do not see them as individuals, they are protesting what they see as systemic injustices because they have been denied proper recourse by the courts. Tragic events such as those which led to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner will occasionally happen, and always be regretted, but without an independent means of review, there can be no social redress to ‘right the wrongs’ in a socially acceptable way.

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, which while it is arguable not significant in the articles that were effectively enforced, is significant in the legal and historical precedents it set, that no one, not even the King, was above the law. The document is often cited as a direct precursor to the French Revolution, and the Declaration of Independence, so revolutionary was it’s concept.

In protesting what they see as systemic institutionalized racism, protesters are showing they feel that society holds some members as subject to different standards of law than other members of society. The ‘occupy’ movement sought to hold financial institutions accountable for their actions. Many senior officers of financial institutions committed ‘white collar’ crimes which involved millions, if not billions of dollars, yet to date none of them have served any prison time. In a country that incarcerates it’s population at a level far above any other nation (except for the Seychelles, go figure)  those in prison are predominantly ethnic minorities, this from Wikipedia;-

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) non-Hispanic blacks accounted for 39.4% of the total prison and jail population in 2009 (841,000 black males and 64,800 black females out of a total of 2,096,300 males and 201,200 females).[47] According to the 2010 census of the US Census Bureau blacks (including Hispanic blacks) comprised 13.6% of the US population. Hispanics (of all races) were 20.6% of the total jail and prison population in 2009.[47] Hispanics comprised 16.3% of the US population according to the 2010 US census

Police Officers are frequently called the Thin Blue Line, although most departments have long moved away from blue uniforms for officers. It is not usually mentioned what they are the line between, they are between the law abiding citizens and those who would seek to hurt them, and as such have to often employ the hated word ‘No‘, to stop someone doing something to hurt another, and in the process put themselves in the middle, as the thin blue line, and draw the ire to them.

The recent protests are saying that they do not feel protected by this thin blue line, instead they feel unfairly targeted by it. My response is that the issues which have come to a head in Ferguson and NY City are focusing a policing as a high visibility scapegoat, and to only target Law Enforcement for review would be to miss the greater issue of institutional reform. To make everyone equal before the law was a primary aim of the Declaration of Independence, but appears to have been lost in modern society. As I said earlier, a population generally receives the police and government that it deserves. To reform just one police department, or only Federal departments, would be short sighted, if the protesters are truly seeking reform, what is needed is more focused nationwide change. I am by no means an expert on social change, so that will be up to others. But it is obvious society does not wish to hold individual Police Officers to blame, nor should individual Police Departments be held responsible for an issue that is part of a wider problem.


About limey6

Father of four, husband of one, Ex-pat ex cop Englishman living in rural Maine
This entry was posted in English Police, US Police and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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