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By Kerri Barber
Additional training may not be the panacea protestors demand to fix the plague of police brutality across the country. In fact, after years of Department of Justice mandated consent decree remediation policies, few departments have demonstrated the necessary wherewithal to make new policies stick. The answer for effective policy and training shifts may actually come from an unlikely and yet highly trained force of professionals who tackle unruly and sometimes violent mobs without weapons or using deadly force – the American teacher.
Seattle police posted a photo on their Twitter account, citing this as evidence of, “improvised explosives” used against officers. Upon closer examination, the item in question includes the manufacturer sticker indicating the “device” is in fact, a candle. Candles were placed on the pavement by protesters who were memorializing a woman killed just days ago by Seattle Police and became the subject of ridicule online. One comment illustrated frustration with the police department, “Seattle PD will take 3 months and 2 grand juries to find that this is not in fact a candle. It’s white and therefore acquitted of any incendiary intent.”
Police Departments across the country are facing outraged citizens complaining of excessive force, civil rights violations, and abuse of power.
- Suspension of habeas corpus rights by a federal judge that violate constitutionally protected rights which have placed protestors in custody without the benefit of charges being brought or trials being held.
- New York and Seattle police covering badges to hide badge numbers against their own mourning band protocols.
- The murder of unarmed David McAtee by Louisville police who was not participating in protests, but serving food to both officers and protestors, seven people were injured the following day as a suspected white supremacist vigilante is suspected of firing on the crowd.
- Officers firing on designated, visible journalists in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Louisville, San Diego, Denver, Boston, and New York in clear violation of the First Amendment.
- The murder of Manuel Ellis by Tacoma, Washington police where new cell phone video shows officers beating him and ultimately killing him through asphyxiation (graphic video).
- Two officers were charged with injuring 75-yr old peace activist, Martin Gugino, severely injuring him. Both officers were fired and their colleagues were celebrated for staging their own protest over the firing, saying, “…[officers] were simply following orders from Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia.”
The defense of “just following orders” is known as the Nuremberg Defense, used by Nazi soldiers during crime tribunals to exonerate themselves from criminal culpability. However, as local police forces continue to take a militarized approach, the question then becomes one of which rule of order applies: Civilian and municipal code or military?
The American Historical Association outlines the case against Superior Orders from military precedence:
“The question is being raised whether the rule as to superior orders should not be changed. It should be noted that it did not enter the American Rules until 1914. Before that, the Rules failed to mention “superior orders,” and American courts martial upheld the principle that a soldier obeying-his commander’s orders is not protected if the order is unlawful.”
With no legal cover in military courts, it is unsurprising municipal police seek cover from local courts ill equipped to tackle these questions. The reason is municipal and federal law has not caught up to the pace at which police departments have ramped up militarization in equipment and training, including intensive training with Israeli military. They now model the behavior exemplified in occupied Gaza against Palestinians which includes numerous human rights abuses.
If our police are training to combat terrorism and being equipped for warfare, the question then becomes a matter of who these departments see as “enemies” and “terrorists”.
A Pattern Of Abuse
Charleena Lyles feared an intruder was breaking into her Magnus Park apartment in the morning hours of June 2017. Lyles was home with her four small children and did what any terrified mother would do – she called the police for help. However, by 10:00 am that morning, it was Lyles that would be shot by officers seven times.
Lysles died violently in front of her children and it was revealed in subsequent investigations of the incident that police knew Lysles struggled with mental health issues, having been called to her address several times, and yet they failed to use de-escalation tactics. Lysles was also pregnant at the time of her death. Officers said she charged at them with a knife and they responded by shooting her seven times. The autopsy report highlighted the violence: three of the shots fired by officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew hit Lyles in the front of the torso and chest, three struck her in the back of her arm and one struck the side of her ribs.
North Police Precinct in Seattle has a long history of abuse and was notably opposed to federally mandated reforms. In 2012, federal investigators with The Department of Justice found that officers routinely engaged in excessive use of force, most often against people with mental-health issues or substance-abuse problems. Federal investigators also found evidence of biased policing.
In response, more than 100 officers filed a counter suit against their city and the Department of Justice, refusing the new regulations and training, citing, “…officers have turned in tasers in large numbers because of confusion about how and when to use them…” and, “…reluctance to respond to backup calls for fear of being exposed to unreasonable discipline or termination.” The consent decree order was initiated in 2011 and continues to be monitored and amended as reforms meet minimum criteria. In 2018, the decree was modified, upon request of Seattle Police, for adhering to the remediation plan for some mandated improvements while their Use of Force remediation plan remains in place.
Related: Chicago Residents Push Officials for Answers After Video Shows Police Standing By As White ‘Vigilantes’ Patrol During Protests
Police Departments Under Consent Decree
Seattle is not the only city who has a police force under a federal consent decree remediation program. Newark, New Jersey police had theirs assigned in 2016 with recommendations for a civilian oversight panel. The U.S. Virgin Islands is in the process of removing their decree, Cleveland, Ohio has been under a decree since 2013, The United States of America v. City of Ferguson began in 2016. In 2018, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and the City of Chicago announced a draft consent decree plan noting that $930 million in settlements for improper police conduct, yet the plan itself was stopped by the Trump Administration under Jeff Sessions’ orders as head of the DOJ. Yet, elsewhere from Baltimore, Maryland to Atlanta, Georgia, the DOJ has been working on reform for decades and reflects that progress in their database.
Seattle Police are now facing backlash from their own union organization after clearly violating their oath to uphold the law and the federal consent decree. The MLK Union, which the Police Officers Guild is a member, has been given notice of their expulsion unless basic civil rights are respected and the racial bias dealt with appropriately.
So why does the problem seem to be getting worse in Seattle and wide-spread from cities to rural areas along with more deaths occurring while in police custody?
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Violence
Police departments are increasingly ramping up in expectation of violence and creating their own worst-case scenario. They are outfitted with armor and weapons, creating a mental illusion of adversarial intent, then lined up in military formation with armored vehicles to face citizens angry enough to take to the streets. Instead of being tasked with keeping peace while Americans exercise their free speech and assembly rights, police in the most violent clashes appeared to take the stance of counter-protestors.
Anna North and Catherine Kim may have found the reason for the brutality and violence displayed by officers during what have largely been peaceful protests. They recently published their curated evidence in a Vox article, “These videos show the police aren’t neutral. They’re counter-protesters”. This duo shares the experiences of protesters, who are themselves doctors, nurses, teachers, construction workers – average citizens from every walk of life, who were witnesses to and subjects of police aggression.
“The tone that we felt from the police is: This is their rally,” Dae Shik Kim Jr. told the New York Times after being assaulted and beaten while detained. “They are going to control it from the beginning. They are going to dictate what happens. It’s a very offensive type of approach.”
They included a study on police response to protests showing that because the protests are about police brutality itself officers are more likely to use force against protesters. To make matters worse, data shows police are also more likely to use violence against protesters of color than against white demonstrators. This is borne out time and time again across the country except in areas where officers and departments stood with protestors and without riot gear. These were officers who marched with protestors and stood by in careful observance without using pepper spray and chemical weapons against citizens.
Americas Teachers May Have the Answer
Instead of turning to the military for training, there is already a field of experts in this country adept at maintaining control in sometimes hostile environments. These experts are teachers, particularly those adequately trained in trauma and de-escalation techniques.
These experts have been trained since the early 90’s in managing an orderly classroom despite socioeconomic challenges, including homelessness, abuse, and drug addiction, that cause students to lash out and behave in inappropriate ways. Teachers are not permitted, nor are they inclined toward brutal use of force. Further, those teachers who do engage in such acts of aggression on students are immediately removed from the classroom, investigated, and often terminated. All of this oversight happens with the Teacher’s Union working in partnership with parents and administration.
While this system is not without problems of its own, the teacher-student collaboration model begins from a corrective and re-direction framework. In addition, applicants with a history of transgressions are not eligible for hire and those who are hired, are carefully evaluated by administration and peers with inappropriate candidates weeded out early on. In addition to this, teachers are required, by law, to report instances of child abuse in the home or from a colleague they suspect may have occurred. Contrast this with the “thin blue line” of policing where whistle-blowers fear retaliation, harassment, job loss, and worse from disgruntled colleagues.
As civic authorities and communities make demands on correcting the plague of police brutality and murder of citizens, the impetus must not be to repeat the corrective patterns that clearly are not working.
With each new consent decree levied by the Department of Justice, we continue to see the same standards applied that have not reaped the reform necessary. To enact lasting and meaningful change to policing, the answer rests in taking bold action where the data supports the reform required to protect the lives of good officers and the public they have sworn to protect – even from themselves.