Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Needed Checks and Balances on Police Power

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the systemic racism of the US criminal justice system and the Black Lives Matter movement are getting much needed attention.  In addition, I hope our response to this tragedy leads to a deep dive into power and what leads to abuses of power.  I hope we get to the bottom of the question of why a police officer like the one who killed George Floyd continues to be on the force, carry a gun, interact with the public after 18 complaints were filed against him.

The people who I think are most crucial to this conversation are the ones that are busy dealing with the nationwide reaction to this killing: the law enforcement agents that abhor this kind of violence and are the focus of a lot of hatred right now when they weren't even involved in this situation.  They are trying to keep order and peace as protests unfold with varying degrees of violence and destruction, but when things settle, I think they are the people that we most need in a conversation that would lead to our best response to the ongoing issue of police brutality.

I'd like to ask these officers:
  • In general, are these bad cops noticeable right away when they get on the force?  Is it a particular personality type that is attracted to the power of law enforcement that we need to be on the lookout for?
  • Are there instances when there is an officer of integrity and fairness that starts to make a turn after a certain amount of time on the force?  What events might trigger that change?  What amount of time?
  • Does the stress or number of hours lead to the types of callous and aggressive decision-making we're seeing?  What are the optimum conditions to facilitate cool headed decision making?
  • What kind-of training do you think is lacking and needed to help officers keep both themselves and the citizens they interact with during an encounter safe?  What kind-of training around race have you received and has it made a difference?
  • Why aren't bad cops fired, demoted, charged?  We hear so often when these incidents happen that the officer had a reputation for a long time, so what are the factors that keep these officers out on the street?
One reason why we can't get rid of abusive police officers is because of what is known as the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.  Minnesota is one of the states that has such a law, and it is "intended to protect American law enforcement personnel from investigation and prosecution arising from conduct during official performance of their duties, and provides them with privileges based on due process additional to those normally provided to other citizens." (from the Wikipedia site linked above)  I have more research to do on this, but it certainly seems like one of the pathways needing further scrutiny in our response.

Another blockade to holding these officers accountable is the doctrine of qualified immunity, explored in this article: George Floyd's Death Must Be a Catalyst for Accountability  Per this article, to get around the qualified immunity doctrine and sue a police officer for an act of violence like occurred against Floyd, his family would need to find a precedent case with the same or similar facts in the relevant jurisdiction, which is nearly impossible to do.  Again, need more research, but seems like another avenue for important investigation here.

Also, I'm a long time fan of Bryan Stevenson and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, and when I was reading a recent blog post on the EJI website, I learned that back in May of 2015, Bryan Stevenson was on a task force assembled by President Obama which put together this report: The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  My understanding is that the recommendations aren't currently moving forward.  Again, I need to do more research here, but this does seem like a useful starting point for many key questions of the moment.

Law enforcement officers need power to keep communities safe.  We need them to have weapons, to be trained to protect themselves, the public and each other; we need them to feel able to rush into dangerous situations and keep the peace.  And yet, power is so susceptible to abuse.  I first learned about the 1971 Stanford prison guard study in college, and although I see by looking it up now that it's conclusions are suspect, I still feel in my own gut that there is a truth to its conclusion about the corrupting influence of having power over people.  When a police officer or prison guard has power over people, this dynamic can create a sense of identity in the holder of power.  It can lead that person to dehumanize those he or she has power over, and it can lead to the crossing of ethical boundaries with those people, even without the one in power realizing what they are doing.

We need to look deeply at these dynamics and the roadblocks to removal of corrupt officers.  We'd also do well to study and learn from officers who have had long successful careers wielding this power with great integrity.

With so much attention and energy around these issues, there is great potential in this moment, and I hope we channel at least some of that potential into working on creating a more appropriate balance between meeting law enforcement objectives and adding checks to decrease the occurrence of these intolerable abuses of power.  If we work together here, maybe one day these heartbreaking incidents will truly be a thing of the past.   

Friday, May 29, 2020

A Narrative of Redemption

A few years ago now, I recorded a little video explaining my sense of the need for A New Narrative.

Since that time, I've been really keeping my eye on that story of good and evil, on all the places it shows up, all the scenes it animates, all the excitement and passion it stirs.  And this week feels like a poignant climax of that investigation.

Earlier in the week, I saw an angry post from one of my friends on Facebook about the white woman, Amy Cooper, who called the police on a black man, Christian Cooper, in Central Park.  As I watched the viral video and learned what occurred, I decided to post an article on my Facebook page, share my own thoughts about the harshness of what was happening to the woman, and invite the friend who'd written that angry post to engage. 

The conversation on my post went in a few different directions, felt a bit heated and divided at times, and ultimately I landed here with a final comment:

I know these are sensitive issues, and among everyone who has commented on this thread, I feel the common goal of a more unified and just society where these horrible acts of racially motivated violence end. I very much appreciate that in each of you, even if my comments didn't make that clear.  My intention in posting this was really about the means to get to that more unified and just society. Personally, I strongly dislike the way we use social media to attack and try to cancel or destroy people. The energy behind all that judgement and anger feels like the very same energy we're trying to eliminate. The fact that this woman has received death threats shows just how overblown this kind-of energy can get when we feed it. To me, that energy is the real monster we need to work with, and it's in all of us. And Christian Cooper is a lovely example of not feeding that energy here, being the one in the news today asking people to stop with those attacks and admitting he can't know what's in her mind and heart. We can only know ourselves, and I truly believe the greatest change we can bring to the world is by how we change ourselves.

By the time I closed out my post with that comment, the reaction to the George Floyd killing by a Minnesota police officer was ramping up.  A strange energy started to permeate social media, and I could feel a sense that people likely were or would be judging my post as a defense of a racist.

I kept hearing messages: if you aren't angry, making calls for justice, feeling this way, doing that thing, then it's because you don't care, you're a closeted Amy Cooper, you're a racist white cop in disguise.  The "unfriend me if...." posts start flying.

And as I learned of the escalating looting, violence and destruction in Minnesota, I felt such a sense that these two were linked.  That there was this monster of energy, growing and engulfing people in its flames: an impassioned story of good and evil gone wild.

By the time I finally got out for a walk to work out all the energy building up in me, I felt like an emotionally filled balloon about to burst.  When the trail opened up to a spot where I could just be alone and look out at the river, the tears started falling.  As I was standing there, I remembered crying in that same spot years ago when I was reeling off the news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.  It was very much the same feeling: confusion and grief about why such horrible things happen in our world, why they keep happening.

And as I continued on into the woods, I held my sadness and my hope.  I let the sense that I have no idea what to do, how to help, what is needed continue to wash over me.  Not a hopelessness or frustration, but rather just holding a space in myself.

When I hit this point in the trees that felt far away: no people ahead or behind, no rustling leaves warning of anyone on the way, I felt myself break down in a much stronger fit of tears.  "What is needed here?" I felt myself ask with my whole being, and like it was coming from the wise trees:

Recognize that this pain is all of your pain, that the trauma and torment of slavery lives in all whose ancestors were involved, no matter the role.  Perpetrators of harm are haunted on the inside by the pain the have caused.  Victims are shaped by the harm that's been done to them.  Even if one's ancestors weren't directly involved, still, as members of this human family, the pain is all of your pain.  You all yearn for the pain to be heard, seen, felt, healed.  The human race is one interconnected whole, your pain and healing are inextricably connected.

As I finished my walk, I started getting this sense of a "redemptive narrative."  It's a phrase that struck me a few weeks ago, but it wasn't coming into any form until I was walking that last stretch back to my car.

I sensed a story that could be told of the history of the United States that includes the story of the white people who came from Europe, killing and tricking the Indigenous people they encountered here, enslaving people they kidnapped from their African homes to do the hard work of establishing a home on this soil.  A narrative that is honest and real and forthcoming about how the mixing of cultures here began.

And then the story steps back and shows that this painful history was setting the scene for something to come.  The mixing of cultures in such a dramatic and tumultuous history created a great richness of lessons and opportunities for love, strength, courage and wisdom.  It provided the material for creating infinite scenarios to push humans to continually evolve, melt boundaries, see themselves in others who at first appeared so different.

And in this story, our collective pain isn't wrong, isn't a mistake, isn't something we need to rid ourselves of or forget.  It need not be blamed on anyone or burden anyone; rather, it is our shared birthright, our common teacher, the alchemist that has made us all wiser, kinder and more powerful than the people who came before.

Hmmm, look forward to sitting with this one, and seeing where it leads...