In George Orwell’s story/essay “Shooting an Elephant,” the young British police officer (Orwell) is given “…a better glimpse than [he] had before of the real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act.” Called upon to “do something about” an elephant raging near the market area of Moulmein in Burma (now Mawlamyine in Myanmar), Orwell takes his rifle – “much too small to kill an elephant” – in pursuit. As he walks through the village, a crowd of villagers follows him. “…I had no intention of shooting the elephant…and it is always unnerving to have a crowd following you.” Upon spotting the elephant eating grass near the road, he stops. “…As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him…. But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute…. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all…. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it…”
Orwell’s parable of sorts is excruciating to read – the racism accompanying Britain’s colonial period is always at the surface and the details around the shooting are brutally inhumane.. This brief summary, however, illustrates one point made by Orwell with regards to people in positions of authority – particularly police – and how they might handle certain situations regardless of the level of crisis presented in a tense circumstance.
Have we come to expect a military-styled “mask” from our police?
Does social media heighten the expectation of lethal force by law enforcement?
Do we expect professionalism from our law enforcement – a measured, thorough, and considered response with lethal force as only a last resort?
Do we engage with law enforcement in positive and encouraging ways in an effort to build overall trust in the community?
How can the media – tv, newspapers, facebook, twitter, etc – help, rather than hinder, this effort?
With a position of authority come responsibilities that can vary according to the population and demographics. Technology has created a demand for transparency and accountability that many cities, states, and agencies are only just understanding the implications.
Some Background on the Use of Force
The Tampa Bay Times recently published the culmination of six years of investigative journalism on police shootings, entitled “Why Cops Shoot.”
Journalist Ben Montgomery wanted to know why no one was keeping track of police shootings in the country’s third largest state.He found that, while plenty of data was available for crimes like thefts and purse snatching, little data was tracked on police shootings, whether it was by Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI, or the US Department of Justice. With Florida’s generous laws relative to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests (sadly, not the case in South Carolina), he reached out to law enforcement agencies in every Florida county, and secured more than 10,000 pages of police reports on shootings occurring between 2009 and 2014 where police officers were involved. By the time Montgomery had added media reports, court files, and interviews, the Times had a comprehensive database covering a longer period of time than any others compiled in recent years. The website provides case studies, video, and demographic data to zero in on circumstances when police shoot.
The things we found most interesting in this report, and what we want to consider as priorities, can make our local law enforcement align with an overall community goal of livability-for-all:
(1) Leadership matters
(2) Trust matters
(3) Race matters
Prior to the series publication in print, (April 2017), Ben Montgomery previewed some of his “Why Cops Shoot” research over the airwaves through a pair of podcasts (here and here) produced by the team at WNYC’s RadioLab. Standing out in Part 1 is the segment featuring former Daytona police chief Michael Chitwood (now sheriff of Volusia County). Chitwood’s ten-year stint as chief resulted in an alignment of the department’s arrest data with the city’s demographics-60% white and 40% black. Contrast this with the City of Charleston with a population that is 67.4% white and 26.9% black. Police department data indicates that between 2009 and 2017, a total of 69,000 arrests were made with 44% white and 56% black.
Chitwood’s tenure was marked by innovative law enforcement practices, such as the adoption of body cameras in 2012 before the technology was widely used. He recruited new officers from the historically black college Bethune-Cookman University, and instituted mandatory race and policing training. He developed training videos illustrating best practices for policing – the audio featured in the RadioLab podcast (and further here) offers fascinating insight into several strategies the officers utilize to successfully defuse a situation involving a man wielding a knife. And, he encouraged officers to be effective communicators. He said “[M]ost officers never fire their guns, yet they spend hundreds of hours at the gun range. They spend far less time training in active listening and communication.”
Many of Chitwood’s strategies are reflected in the “Guiding Principles on Use of Force” issued by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in 2016. While many officers agree with the principles, the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police have vocally been critical of some of the 30 guidelines. But, Chitwood defends them based on his experience as Daytona Beach’s Chief of Police. The city has a population of 62,300 permanent residents and a daytime population of 120,000. It has 8-9 million visitors a year. It is known for its raucous Spring Break crowds, NASCAR’s Daytona 500, and Bike Week, which brings some 500,000 rowdy bikers to town for 10 days every year. “But the city had just four police shooting incidents between 2009 and 2014. Three of the Daytona shootings involved an armed suspect who was endangering lives; the other person shot had crashed into a car, led police on a chase and drove at an officer.” No other city of its size can even compare.
When journalist Ben Montgomery interviewed Tallahassee (Florida) attorney James Cook (here), he gained some insight into other factors that can work against building a more effective and community-based policing effort. Cook, who teaches communities how to behave safely during a stop – Show your hands. Make slow movements. If asked to step out of the car, announce clearly that you’ll be removing your seat belt first. – describes how he thinks we reached this point: “…[P]olice violence stems from the militarization of police, and the spread of SWAT teams after the Watts riots in the mid-1960s…Police agencies use grants to buy military-grade equipment such as Bearcat armored vehicles, M16 rifles, and night vision goggles. These programs grew at the same time Washington launched the “War on Drugs” and passed laws to let police take cash and property from suspected criminals without even pressing charges. It’s called ‘civil asset forfeiture,” and its use has grown rapidly.”
The rise of “civil asset forfeiture” has undoubtedly compromised trust of law enforcement from many perspectives. To stem the practice Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder issued an order in January 2015 to prohibit federal agency forfeiture, “adoptions.” Unfortunately, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced a new expansion of the program as a necessary deterrent to terrorism and organized crime (CBS news coverage of the announcement can be found here). Civil libertarians and conservatives have joined with many law enforcement organizations, marginalized, and minority communities in attacking this move with full throttle concern (read the David French op-ed in the National Review here). Their challenges echo the opinion expressed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who has noted that forfeiture “has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.”
Recent posturing in Washington on the topic is not particularly helpful to local authorities. The Atlantic reports (here) that President Trump in a July 28th speech to police officers on Long Island called upon them to “rough up suspects” who were being brought into detention, a peculiar reminder of the mishandling of detainees during the early stages of the “War on Terror.” Police forces across the nation were quick to rebut this suggestion (here). Fortunately, reports of police misconduct are relatively rare in public media but an episode can be a startling reminder of the occasional miscalculations of law enforcement in the 21st century. A recent Washington Post story (here) chronicles a family’s harrowing early morning encounter with police who burst into their home with a search warrant that was based on a father/son experiment in hydroponic cultivation of tomatoes mistaken as a “pot farm.”
The Marshall Project reports (here) that Gallup pollsters found that “61 percent of whites report having a great deal of confidence in the police while only 45 and 30 percent of Latinos and blacks, respectively,” share the sentiment. This disparity has many communities seeking ways to build trust for law enforcement, especially in minority communities. It was troubling then that Deputy US Attorney General Rob Rosenstein was called upon to substitute for President Trump,who had rejected an invitation to address the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, at its recent 2017 national convention in Baltimore (here). In his short remarks Rosenstein, a former Maryland US attorney, noted “…prosecuting corrupt police is critical,” but “…most police are public servants who want to help…” In his conclusion, he did recognize that “…building public trust in law enforcement is one of our great challenges.”
Rosenstein’s substitution indicated that investment in building trust does not appear to be a priority for the current administration’s Justice Department. It may have been a reflection of what Ron Weitzer, a criminologist at George Washington University, noted in the Marshall Project piece – while some whites are shocked by incidents involving police misconduct or killings of blacks, many compartmentalize incidents as isolated or associate crime with minorities, and, as a result, remain confident in law enforcement. Unfortunately, the heavy lifting of changing “hearts and minds” must rely solely on efforts put forth within communities and through the media and other resources.
Missouri House Representative Shamed Dogan recently contributed an opinion piece in the National Review, “Pro-Black, Pro-Police Reforms One Year Later.” He echoed Rosenstein’s support of police, noting his sponsorship of a Blue Alert law in Missouri, whereby the public is notified whenever an officer is attacked. He has also pressed for pay increases for police officers (see the Charleston City Paper for a local perspective on this).
Dogan goes on, however, to note that serious obstacles remain to building the effectiveness and trust of law enforcement. One was civil assets forfeiture which, he contends, violates citizens’ due-process rights. Another is the need to devote attention to fighting against racial profiling, especially for conservatives. Dogan continues: “We need to ensure that our laws and our law enforcement practices live up to the words of former Attorney General John Ashcroft: ‘Using race …as a proxy for potential criminal behavior is unconstitutional, and it undermines law enforcement by undermining the confidence that people can have in law enforcement.’ It would be foolish to think that every accusation of racial profiling is justified or that most police officers engage in it. But it would be just as foolish to presume that racial profiling is no longer a problem, ignoring the lived experiences of African-Americans such as myself or [SC] Senator Tim Scott.”
In the RadioLab podcast introduction Ben Montgomery notes that the total number of police shootings in Florida, in the six-year time period from 2009 to 2014, is generally flat, even though media reporting would suggest that the numbers have been increasing. But, the greater likelihood of being black and being shot by police is covered in a special section on “Why Cops Shoot,” and it zeroes in on racial profiling.
Journalists Neil Bedi and Connie Humburg process the data and find that the disparities between black and white people who are shot remains higher than population statistics would support. While whites outnumber blacks 3 to 1 in the state of Florida, blacks are a disproportionate number of those shot. And, in those cases where the causes are debatable – when the person is unarmed; pulled over for a minor traffic violation; thought to be reaching for a weapon (but not); chased on foot; or, suspected of a minor crime like smoking pot or merely nothing at all – blacks are two to three times as likely to be shot.
Racial profiling is indeed an issue in law enforcement and three new books show up in the most recent New York Times Book Review that dig deep into the issue (here). But noone is really immune from the phenomena. A personality test developed by Harvard (here) can reveal even subtle tendencies toward racism in our thinking and judgment, and how that can be manifested in our day to day lives. Chris Mooney’s article “The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men” points to some of the research that has led to training police to control implicit bias. However, police are very resistant to this – they don’t consider themselves racist and are often defensive when it comes to the topic. “Consciousness and awareness [of bias] are a start – and the psychological research is nothing if not a consciousness-raiser.”
Bringing It Home
Recent debates at City Council meetings in Charleston, South Carolina are illustrative of the schism between whites and blacks on the topic of law enforcement. The Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM), drawing on data that illustrates a disproportionate number of blacks involved in law enforcement activities, has repeatedly encouraged the City to hire an outside auditing firm to assess racial profiling levels in the Police Department. The Police Department has been resistant to these efforts, pointing to its Illumination Project as an action plan for community building that was developed over the course of a year in neighborhood meetings throughout the city between residents and police. It is thorough, data-driven, and purposeful in an effort to establish a strong community policing effort in the City of Charleston.
Allowing the Illumination Project to be implemented does not necessarily eliminate the need to specifically target racial disparities and profiling. According to the research overview for the Illumination Project, “…the surveys reveal significant differences of opinion [of the police] by race. On many issues related to whether the police do a satisfactory job, Blacks are closer to the ‘neutral’ position (on a sliding agree/disagree scale) while Whites are closer to the ‘agree’ position….Although popular opinion views these gaps as immutable, one of our more encouraging findings is that the gap between Whites and Blacks can be almost entirely undone by positive interactions with the police.”
With the retirement of Police Chief Gregory Mullen, the city of Charleston is at a crossroads, no less than when long term Chief Reuben Greenberg retired. A new police chief will be faced with a fast growing city where residents and tourists are often opponents on the city stage. Leadership at the community level should be fostered and law enforcement must see the possibilities that exist to make the city a vibrant and livable place for all. The plans are in place to strengthen community and police relationships. But the realities of race will remain a stubborn obstacle within our community until we recognize the issues and work to change them.