Police Brutality, Warrior Cops and Disability – Why is this happening and what do we do?

Yesterday’s piece in The Atlantic has a quite excellent comment section (in general, Atlantic readers’ comments are polite and smart, if still sometimes easily led to the hostility that happens online everywhere).

Here are three followup points (I know this is long, but bear with me).

1. Why/how are these incidents happening now?
2. How much risk do we, as a society, ask our police to take on? What are the trade-offs? (h/t Schneier)
3. What about accountability and lawsuits?

1. One early comment linked the problem that Lawrence and I wrote about to the “rise of the warrior cop,” a phrase coined by Radley Balko in a must-read book. His figures and basic argument is unimpeachable: The rise is happening, it’s dangerous, SWAT is wildly overused (both links to Balko), and it’s a societal problem.

I’m not sure, though, that it’s specifically the problem leading to the violence against people with disabilities. I responded to the comment:

I think about this all the time. Are these trends part of the post-9/11 change that Balko so ably documents, or do we just have better technology for locating, recording, and nationalizing these incidents? I genuinely do not know the answer.

From another reader, I received this very smart response:

Were I interested in crafting a thesis on a broader issue perhaps driving that change, I might focus on how violence is folded into a community. Certainly in this country we have a history of violence in the name of preserving community, the KKK being a quite visible example. Now we’ve arrived at a place where government functions have been formally decontextualized from the historically standard “community,” and law enforcement along with them. LEOs therefore no longer act so much as members of the community as neutral agents representing the monolith of the law – but they’re only people, and furthermore they’re people who have to navigate communities in the midst of a century (so far) of contentious social navigation, as our entire society translates from one of assimilation to one possessing a much more complex matrix of identity. Add to that cocktail ubiquitous camera ownership, and it’s easy to contrast what we believe police should be with what they’re used to doing.

Read that again. I don’t know that I agree totally, but read it again as it’s complex and interesting.

I’ve been arguing about “the what” – the cult of compliance – as a way to coordinate diverse acts of compliance-veneration across the country and beyond the arena of law enforcement.

This comment offers a thought on “the how” – why is this happening and why is this happening more now.

This is why I engage in my comments, to get smarter. To learn to see things new way.

2. Another set of comments both on the article and elsewhere focus on the police and the hazardous nature of their job. They have the right to demand respect, they have the obligation to treat every contact as a potential maniac (note the disability word there) about to go crazy (again) and attack them, and we have the obligation to obey.

It’s true that we ask police to do a very difficult job and we need to afford them considerable latitude in how they do it. And we do – they have all kinds of powers that most of us don’t have, including laws that make it illegal to “resist or obstruct” them. In exchange for these powers, we have to ask them to accept risk. Bruce Schneier wrote about this last year.

We’re afraid of risk. It’s a normal part of life, but we’re increasingly unwilling to accept it at any level. So we turn to technology to protect us. The problem is that technological security measures aren’t free. They cost money, of course, but they cost other things as well. They often don’t provide the security they advertise, and — paradoxically — they often increase risk somewhere else. This problem is particularly stark when the risk involves another person: crime, terrorism, and so on. While technology has made us much safer against natural risks like accidents and disease, it works less well against man-made risks.

Three examples:

We have allowed the police to turn themselves into a paramilitary organization. They deploy SWAT teams multiple times a day, almost always in nondangerous situations. They tase people at minimal provocation, often when it’s not warranted. Unprovoked shootings are on the rise. One result of these measures is that honest mistakes — a wrong address on a warrant, a misunderstanding — result in the terrorizing of innocent people, and more death in what were once nonviolent confrontations with police.

He goes on to talk about zero-tolerance in schools, the money fighting terrorism, and so forth. Read the essay.

The question we have to weigh is how much risk should police take on versus how many innocent but potentially non-compliant people getting hurt or even killed? More risk and more patience in dealing with complex scenarios saves civilian lives. Less risk and the tase-first attitude kills more suspects, some of whom will be innocent, others of whom will be guilty only of minor infractions that do not justify the application of force. Schneier finishes:

We need to relearn how to recognize the trade-offs that come from risk management, especially risk from our fellow human beings. We need to relearn how to accept risk, and even embrace it, as essential to human progress and our free society. The more we expect technology to protect us from people in the same way it protects us from nature, the more we will sacrifice the very values of our society in futile attempts to achieve this security.

3. Then there are just bad cops.

There are abusers in the police, some intentionally, some reflexively. All organizations have bad people; bad people in the police carry firearms and have widespread protections against accountability. Civil lawsuits have to be a part of the remedy, as they allow for discovery, which can untangle the obfuscatory nature of departmental CYA policies. But really, departments and their supervising bodies need to hold their own accountable in ALL CASES.

Disability gives us a wedge here. I wrote about Antonio Martinez, the Latino man with Down syndrome who was attacked by police who mistook him for a different (and foot taller) Latino man. I have always read this as a case of racial profiling gone wrong, but only thanks to Martinez’ disability did it make news. I can’t prove this, of course.

I wrote about accountability here, in the wake of the Ethan Saylor discussion last fall. On Martinez:

Strip away the explanation of disability and reconsider each incident. After the Martinez beating, the San Diego Sheriff’s department admitted their mistake. Spokesperson Jan Caldwell said, “It was a dark night. There was a non-compliant person that was hiding his face and hiding his hands. It’s clear in the light of day that this man had a disability, but the deputy at the time didn’t know that.” Blaine Young, the president of the board of commissioners in Frederick County, Maryland, similarly blames non-compliance for Saylor’s death. Young said, “If people get in trouble and would just do what the officers say, we wouldn’t have any incidents.”

According to Caldwell, if you don’t have a disability, but are walking down the street on a chilly night, wearing a hoodie and hiding your hands, any amount of non-compliance merits a truncheon to the head and pepper spray in the eyes. According to Young, it is Saylor’s fault for not listening that led to his death over the price of a movie ticket. 

A man without Down syndrome who died in custody for not having a movie ticket doesn’t generate national news. A Latino beaten by police in San Diego doesn’t generate national news.  It’s reading these explanations by Caldwell and Young, along with so many others, that pushed me to talk about the cult of compliance as a generalized societal problem. The cases involve disability deserve attention for their own merits, but let them also serve as a canary in the coal mine. Our civil liberties really are under attack.

There are remedies:

We can start pushing the pendulum back toward a more free society. We can balance our safety and our civil liberties against the safety of our first responders.

First, police must stop thinking of their tasers, pepper spray, and truncheons as a first-resort solution. Deploying a weapon, any weapon, must require a potentially dangerous situation.

Second, we must push for increased emphasis on non-violent training programs for those who are sworn to protect and serve. Police need more training in defusing situations by communicating and by staying calm, not by shooting 40,000 volts through the body or launching pepper spray into the eyes.

Finally, accountability must be part of equation. This is not just an abstract problem. Robert Ethan Saylor is dead. The men who killed him went back to work after their boss said they did nothing wrong. There must be consequences for people who choose force instead of patience.

There really must be consequences for people who choose force instead of patience.  

2 Replies to “Police Brutality, Warrior Cops and Disability – Why is this happening and what do we do?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Helpful follow-up to a great piece.

    One more element in the "Rise of the Warrior Cop," (on my to-read pile now) is the reflex valorization of soliders, and more recently, police officers. They are "heroes" by definition, not by action. These heroes get wider latitude when they err, even when their errors involve dignity, community freedom, health, or life.

  2. Andrew Keir says:

    "There really must be consequences for people who choose force instead of patience. "

    Agreed. And, to bring these consequences about, we need
    – evidence – we need to get the idea across that citizens taking pictures of (or recording) cops in action is usual, legal and not to be resisted. "If they are innocent, they have nothing to hide" – right?
    – spread the news – if you are the one witness to police behaviour, good or bad, pass the news around. Reinforcing good policing is at least as important as censuring bad behaviour; ask any educator.
    – use the channels. Every force has (at least in protocol) ways for citizens to complain (and praise!) when the police do something unusual. Use them! If the official ways don't work, then it may be time for mass protests to your politicians. I know that here in the UK, a few bags of letters to the Member of Parliament will often result in a vigorous enquiry, and will (at the least) do that officer's career no good at all. And the police know this too.
    Basically this adds up to – preserve your rights (to video police in action), comment (by blog, newspaper, and through 'the channels'), and give them feedback, good and (if necessary) bad. Organise!

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