When dealing with a police officer, there’s a standard wisecrack a lot of people like to pull out: “Hey, I pay your salary; you work for me.” And while it’s true that tax dollars fund America’s police-industrial complex, what’s not true is that police are accountable to the public as an employee is to an employer. Authority figures tell Americans what to do – not the other way around. Continue reading
I’d love to know what Darren Wilson, the white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager, thinks of the rioting, looting, gunfire, and tense protestor/police standoffs that erupted in Ferguson when a grand jury, well after dark on Monday evening, announced its decision not to indict him. Based on Wilson’s testimony to the grand jury and the story he and his department have told ever since Wilson put six bullets in Michael Brown back in August, he might feel like none of this is his fault. Continue reading
If you don’t already, you should follow CopBlock on Facebook. It’s a page that collects examples, very often with video, of police bullying and brutality run amok in America, and the first thing that astounds you is the sheer volume of such incidents. Exaggerated police responses to low-threat situations drive a great deal of the mayhem in America’s streets, and more and more citizens are documenting the disturbing trend for generations to study and learn from. Continue reading
Nobody talks much about the 3rd Amendment. Everyone knows the 1st. There’s entirely too much hubbub about the 2nd. Most people know there used to be a 4th and a 5th. But what about the 3rd ?
For any non-constitutional scholars or anyone who’s forgotten middle school civics, the 3rd Amendment reads: “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
Most casual observers don’t consider the statement especially relevant. There are no soldiers stationed in America against anyone’s consent. Or are there? Continue reading
What’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri is not unprecedented. Police violence in the US has been escalating for years. Given the context of Nixon’s war on drugs, crack’s urban proliferation following the CIA’s funding of cocaine-dealing Contras, and the post-9/11 world of heavily-armed storm troopers kicking ass on Main Street, it’s not difficult to understand how tensions explode between a population and its police force. Continue reading
If the public is starting to sour on the police, there’s a good reason for it: the police soured on the public a long time ago.
Not all police, obviously – like just about any class of people, there are good and bad cops. But as an institution, American police have made so many harmful things common practice that it sounds increasingly naïve to think the good trumps the bad.
Recently, the story of Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh – a toddler blown up in May by a SWAT team in Atlanta, just released from the burn unit of an ICU and still struggling with a sensitive prognosis – cast a new spotlight on the horrifying trend of reckless, excessive police force.
Truly, the story as recounted by the boy’s mother is one of the most complete, emotional, and grippingly terrifying accounts of the growing epidemic of police violence – just the kind of straight-up, knock-you-in-the-fucking-stomach write-up that’s needed to accomplish what statistics and “neutral” reporting cannot. Her bravery in using the language she does to describe her pain and helplessness is admirable.
There is no defense for the actions of the officers who blew up Bou Bou. They broke into the home to arrest a drug suspect, a relative who was later picked up for simple, small-time marijuana possession. SWAT teams routinely break into homes at night in search of small amounts of drugs, guns drawn and grenades detonating, as though the sleeping pothead inside is wearing battle armor and holding a bazooka.
Until it happens to you – or until someone like Alecia Phonesavanh comes along to write about it so vividly – it all seems remote. But it could happen to anyone. An anonymous tip is enough to send police on a reckless, bloodthirsty hunt into your home, even if it’s not the right address. In Phonesavanh’s case, police found no drugs in the home, nor was the suspect even there. Instead, they put a hole into the chest of a 2-year-old boy sleeping in his crib and ordered his innocent, distraught family to shut up.
Even if the suspect had been home – hell, even if the suspect was home and lording over a $2 million pile of cocaine – their actions are overblown and extremely dangerous. These are grown men with the deadliest weaponry on earth and the moral compass of a high school bully, officially sanctioned to use that weaponry any way they see fit against a population they’re taught to regard as the enemy.
Police officers like to say that excessive force is necessary to protect themselves in the field, because they never know what they’re going to come up against. Their solution to that mystery has been to just assume there’s danger and barge in like terrorists, effectively transferring all of the risk in a police action onto the public, guilty or otherwise.
It’s actually an extraordinary cowardly and harmful thing, but it’s a chance SWAT teams are increasingly willing to take. They create a situation of fear and carnage and then command everybody to remain calm under threat of gunpoint. Many have died in SWAT raids for mistaking police for burglars and drawing a home protection gun on them.
Because of the easy and widespread proliferation of military-grade equipment throughout America (thanks in large part to organizations like the NRA and weapons manufacturers), police in big cities need to have well-armed and well-trained SWAT teams to deal with the occasional hostage situation or right-wing gunman. But police violence has been used in everything from drug warrants to checking on barbers licenses, and make no mistake about it: even if no shots are fired, kicking down a door and pointing a rifle in someone’s face is an act of obscene violence.
There are those who will doubt Phonesavanh’s story, and it’s easy to see why they might since it sounds so extreme. Sadly, it fits the narrative of forced police entry perfectly – anyone who pays attention to this kind of thing, let alone has been the victim of it, would feel their heart wracked with pain and have no reason to doubt Phonesavanh’s story.
Whether he makes it or not, baby Bou Bou is not collateral damage in a noble war. He is a senseless throwaway of a police culture that cares about arrests and revenue more than protection of the public. The cultured belief shared by the nation’s police force that everyone can be arrested for something and everyone can be treated with violent cruelty has led to police becoming public enemy #1 for many Americans.
Sadly, consequences for officers committing these kinds of atrocities are nearly nil. At the harsh end of the spectrum, they may receive paid leave or a transfer; more often nothing happens at all and they never lose the support of their brothers and sisters in blue. It’s a dangerous kind of nepotism that perpetuates bad feelings between police and the public when, if anyone should be critical of the SWAT team’s actions in Atlanta, it should be other police officers.
If all of this was happening in Turkey, the American intelligentsia would be outraged. Instead, the only mainstream national news story appeared in USA Today announcing Bou Bou’s recovery – happy news, to be sure, but by focusing on it the media can effectively absolve police of any wrongdoing or chalk it all up to an innocent misunderstanding. Meanwhile, politicians and police chiefs offer weak statements like this one from attorney Sally Yates: “Federal and state authorities are coordinating to get to the bottom of what happened.” What happened is obvious – police exploded a hole, deliberately or blindly, into the chest of a sleeping 2-year-old, and under lame pretenses at that. No further investigation is necessary. This kind of political hand washing – looking at both sides, promising investigations, offering condolences – only ensures that nothing ever gets done.
America is not a warzone, no matter how badly police want to turn it into one. The tactics used on mere suspects of minor crimes are only truly warranted by an extremely small percentage of the criminal population. Most people – even drug dealers – are not gun-crazy, suicidal madmen who would endanger their families in a fight with the police.
As mother Alecia Phonesavanh writes, “I used to tell my kids that if they were ever in trouble, they should go to the police for help. Now my kids don’t want to go to sleep at night because they’re afraid the cops will kill them or their family.” Don’t wait for this to happen to you – take action immediately to get the police back on the public’s side. Write letters, confront loved ones on the force, go to the media with any instance of police abuse, keep the cell phone cameras rolling, and rein the police back in as public servants, not public menaces.
About the author: Kyle Schmidlin is a blogger and musician living in Austin, Texas and the founder of Third Rail News.
If you move through city streets fearful of being assaulted, you better keep one eye on the police – especially if you live in Albuquerque.
Since 2010, police have killed 25 people in New Mexico’s largest city. For every 20 people murdered there, police kill an additional three. Put another way, in Albuquerque, you’re approximately 15 percent as likely to die at the hands of a police officer as you are a common thug or a spurned lover.
Hostility between the Albuquerque Police Department and the citizens has been boiling over for months, and it reached a peak following the release in March of a disturbing video that showed police killing an unarmed, mentally ill homeless man named James Boyd. Mounting protests in the wake of this spate of killings led to a tense confrontation between the city’s government and its population on May 5. Protestors commandeered a meeting at the Albuquerque city hall, calling for a citizen’s arrest of the chief of police and issuing demands.
Media coverage has been limited. Several outlets ran a tedious story with the headline, “What’s Next for Troubled Albuquerque Police?”, as though the real story is the APD’s struggle to move on from their public scrutiny and not the citizens’ outrage over the deaths of their friends and loved ones. “Angry protesters… shout[ed] at council members and caus[ed] such a ruckus that the panel’s president adjourned the meeting,” the story said. Notice that vivid descriptions of the activists’ misbehavior are plentiful, but for police, the language is more reserved and cautious, even as the story describes their lawless executions.
Worse still, the L.A. Times had this to say: “The council had tried to meet Monday, but adjourned early when rowdy protesters took over the meeting – sitting in council members’ chairs and even eating their Girl Scout cookies.” It’s stunning that a news outlet would even mention sitting in chairs and eating Girl Scout cookies when the discussion is supposed to be on deadly, excessive police force.
Albuquerque may be an extreme case of the law spiraling out of control, but it is far from unique. Heart-wrenching statistics about wrong-door raids and petty crimes being met with deadly violence tell a tale the media won’t touch: excessive police force is a systemic problem, not the result of a few bad eggs. It is routine; daily; even hourly. It runs the gamut from the absurd – a whole team of officers detained a female jogger for jaywalking in February – to the outright hideous, as in the cases of James Boyd, Robert Saylor and countless others.
Despite this, and even as more and more of the general population awakens to the reality of routine police cruelty, city officials, congressmen, judges and the U.S. President can say nothing critical of law enforcement without paying an enormous political cost. It’s somewhat mysterious why: on paper, there’s almost nothing in America failing as spectacularly as law enforcement.
Even as the crime rate declines, the use of paramilitary tactics by police escalates. No matter how badly they screw up, there are a plethora of defenses for police to choose from, including the standby, “It’s a dangerous job.” Statistically, being a police officer is far from the deadliest job in America, but a certain degree of risk is entailed. Yet it’s precisely for the assumption of that risk that police are held in such high esteem in the first place. By dressing police up like storm troopers and letting them shoot at anyone who might or might not be holding something that might be a weapon, we take nearly all their risk away and assume it ourselves.
As Radley Balko demonstrates in his crucial “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” both the Pentagon and private defense contractors capitalize on departments’ soaring federal funds, inundating them with unneeded weaponry. Thus, you get perverse statistics like this, from Balko’s book: in 2010 in Johnston, RI, population 28,769, the police department received $4.1 million in surplus military gear from the Pentagon, including 30 M-16s, nearly 10 million rounds of ammunition, a “sniper targeting calculator,” 44 bayonets, 12 Humvees and 23 snow blowers. With so many toys and so little crime, it’s no wonder that police use excessive force on every superficial offense, from low-level drug possessions to barbering without a license.
What’s happening in Albuquerque is truly inspiring. It deserves to be a much bigger news story than it is. As the indictments pour forth on the APD, including a Department of Justice report that documented a pattern of excessive force and poor training, citizens are taking action to ensure that police don’t weasel their way out of the criticism with a few meaningless press conferences and payouts. The city appears to be listening, with Mayor Richard Berry promising changes even before the DOJ issues its recommendations.
Police departments across the nation are rampant with guns and tanks and narrow on compassion and empathy. It’s time to overhaul their militarization and warrior mentality. Law enforcement should be an ally to the people, not the people’s most feared adversary. If change can happen in Albuquerque, it can happen anywhere – we just have to have the courage to demand it.