Posts Tagged ‘police’

Two Deaths Separated Only by Decades

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

By Bob Gaydos

Eric Garner, moments before his death.

Eric Garner, moments before his death.

Jimmy Lee Bruce, meet Eric Garner. You’ve got a lot in common. You’re both black men from New York state. Both of you had an encounter with police officers over some comparatively minor matter. Neither of you had any weapon. You both gave the police a hard time and had what is described as a “choke hold” applied to you by an officer. You both died as a result of that use of official force.

Interestingly, those police officers had some things in common as well. They were all white. None of them was trained in the use of the choke hold, which was prohibited by their respective police forces. Also, none of them was indicted on any charges by a grand jury in connection with your deaths.

The only thing separating the two of you is time. A little more than twenty-seven years. …

Jimmy Lee Bruce died in the back of a patrol car near Middletown, N.Y., on Dec. 13, 1986. He was 20 years old. He and a group of friends from Ellenville, N.Y., had gone to a movie theater in a mall outside Middletown. The group became rowdy. There was drinking involved. Off-duty Middletown police officers acting as security guards, escorted the group out of the theater, where a scuffle ensued. An officer applied the choke hold to Bruce and tossed him in the back of a police car, which had brought two on-duty Town of Wallkill police officers to the scene.

The police then drove around for 7 ½ minutes looking for Bruce’s friends. When they returned to the theater, a state trooper, who had also arrived on the scene, shined a flashlight in the back of the patrol car and noticed the young man was not responding to the light. Police rushed him to a nearby hospital, but attempts to revive him failed.

Two months after the incident, an Orange County grand jury began considering whether any of the officers did anything criminally wrong in connection with Bruce’s death. It determined that none of the officers did anything criminally wrong because none of them had received any training in the proper application of what they, more benignly, referred to as the “sleeper hold,” nor in what could result from improper use of the dangerous hold. It was an accident.

Which brings us to Eric Garner, at 43, somewhat older than Bruce and someone known to police in his Staten Island neighborhood as a familiar problem — mostly for selling loose cigarettes on the street and getting mouthy with police who tell him to stop. On July 17 of this year, Garner, the father of six, got mouthy and maybe more with a police officer who told him to stop selling the cigarettes. The officer applied the choke hold. Garner went down. A witness taped the incident on a cell phone and caught Garner, an asthmatic, exclaiming, “I can’t breathe!” A coroner ruled the death a homicide.

A Richmond County grand jury this month determined — despite the video — that there was no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the police officer. This ruling, coming on the heels of a similar case in Ferguson, Mo., and in the wake of a number of deaths of young black males at the hands of white police, has spurred large, public demonstrations across the country and, in fact, around the world. Justice! is the cry.

But what is justice?

For sure, it means eliminating any doubt of conflict of interest in the future by having special prosecutors, not local district attorneys, handle cases involving deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of local police officers. This would protect police, prosecutors and the public.

But that’s not nearly enough.

Shortly after Garner’s death, William Bratton, New York City police commissioner, told the New York City Council that he was calling for a “fundamental shift in the culture of the department” in the wake of the chokehold killing of Garner. That “shift” will include three days of annual training for every police officer who works patrol on:

  • How to talk to the public
  • How to de-escalate tense situations
  • How to use force.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Nearly three decades ago, I wrote an editorial for The Times Herald-Record in Middletown about the grand jury ruling on Jimmy Lee Bruce’s death: “Your son’s death resulted because the police didn’t know what they were doing, not because they intended to kill your son. Case closed. The system worked. Do you buy that …?”

Yet today, the head of the largest police force in the country tells us that men and women going through New York City’s Police Academy are not trained on how to talk to the public. Not taught how to de-escalate tense situations. Aren’t instructed on how to properly use force.

How then are they supposed to do their job? Police work can be  dangerous. Many officers handle it daily with sensitivity and professionalism. But justice, it would seem to me, would begin with preparing all officers to deal with what they are likely to encounter on the streets, not simply giving them firearms training. And certainly not arming them with military-grade weaponry that creates an us-versus-them situation. This can lead some police officers to forget that they, indeed, are also us.

To protect and serve is the mission of police. That must begin with a certain mindset. It astounds me that Bratton still has his job after his admission before the City Council. Not only did he say his officers aren’t trained to deal with tense situations and how to properly use force, he actually asked for 1,000 more officers and $25 million for instructors and overtime to cover posts while patrol officers are receiving three days of annual training. If it were up to me, I’d provide the department with the money and the positions and get rid of the commissioner, who all of a sudden realizes he needs to change the “culture” of his department.

The pressures of policing in Ferguson, New York City and Middletown are different, but the answers are the same. Justice for all must begin with an emphasis on diversity in police recruiting, so that minority populations can feel they at least have a voice in their own protection. The diversity of the crowds demonstrating in response to the Garner case give credence to that. Justice also means providing the training Bratton acknowledges his officers need today — the training the officers in Middletown needed on Dec. 13, 1986.

The outrage expressed by demonstrators over the grand jury decision in the Garner case is magnified for me by having known the story of Jimmy Lee Bruce. Have we learned nothing in all that time? Should Jimmy Lee Bruce have reacted differently when confronted by police? Hindsight would suggest yes. The same goes for Eric Garner. But being rowdy in a movie theater, selling loose cigarettes and being confrontational with police are not capital crimes.

rjgaydos@gmail.com

 

When Police Act Like an Occupying Army

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

By Bob Gaydos

Heavily armed police watch protesters in Ferguson, Mo.

Heavily armed police watch protesters in Ferguson, Mo.

A white cop shoots and kills an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., and police respond to the ensuing peaceful demonstration with a massive display of manpower in riot gear. They are supported by armored vehicles mounted with heavy weaponry, lots of rifles and automatic weapons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and verbal threats to shoot anyone who dares resist. They arrest anyone with a camera, including journalists.

Suddenly, Americans notice that many of their police departments resemble occupying armies more than agencies charged with protecting and preserving the peace in their communities.

Where have you been, America? This has been going on — gaining momentum, in fact — for several years. Indeed, the militarization of domestic police forces and the use of modern military equipment and tactics played a major role in quelling the Occupy movement demonstrations a couple of years ago.

The Occupiers were unarmed private citizens, who gathered across the country, protesting the power and privilege large corporations and banks were given by Congress to use and abuse the economy to their benefit at the expense of individuals. The citizen protesters were treated by police as if they were terrorists. They were tear-gassed, Maced, had rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades fired at them. They were roughed up and arrested, all by local police armed with military grade weapons and supported by armored vehicles.

The military hardware came free, courtesy of a Congress looking to do something with surplus military equipment. (The idea of maybe spending less money on military equipment in the first place apparently has not occurred to the members.) Today, dozens of police departments across the country have such military gear at their disposal. What they apparently don’t have is the proper training to use such equipment appropriately and judiciously.

That is, like a police force dealing with private citizens exercising their constitutional rights to assemble, to speak, to report on the goings on, rather than like an army moving in with intimidating force, intent on quashing resistance in any and all ways. Those weapons, remember, are not intended just to scare. They are designed to kill.

But deadly force, or the threat of it, should not be the first option for a police force dealing with unarmed citizens and peaceful demonstrations. Yes, troublemakers need to be dealt with, but again, police should be trained to do that without automatically resorting to threats and aggressive actions against everyone. When protests are handled properly by police at the outset, there is less likelihood or opportunity for troublemakers to join in. The longer confrontations last and the more aggressive police action becomes, the more likely it is that things will get worse because of outside agitation.

But it’s almost as if, in putting on the new military gear and marching alongside armored vehicles, the mindset of the police changes from preserving the peace and protecting their fellow citizens to overpowering anyone who stands in their way.

In Ferguson, the obvious racism of the local police only increased the us-versus-them mentality. But even during the Occupy sit-ins, police seemed to forget that they were — are — us, and that the protesters were speaking on their behalf, too. The mission has been clouded.

There’s talk in Congress now of, not only stopping the giveaway of military hardware to police, but taking some of it back. Good luck with that. Some agencies might be able to admit they don’t really need it, but a lot of others are not going to want to give it up. And cops vote.

The Ferguson shooting and the abysmal handling of it by local authorities has led to a movement called “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” The Occupy community has been part of the coordination. This movement has been fueled by incidents elsewhere similar to that in Ferguson. It speaks to the breakdown of trust between blacks and police, something that was already badly strained.

And not all the incidents involved weapons. An unarmed black man died on Staten Island recently, apparently the result of a chokehold applied by a police officer. The hold has been banned for years by New York police. The man was selling loose cigarettes. Michael Brown, the youth shot in Ferguson, had shoplifted a box of cigars.

There’s obviously something more going on here. Taking the military hardware away from police may be a good start on reminding them of their mission, but massive retraining and serious recruiting of minorities would seem to be even more critical.

A caveat: Not all police departments behave the same way. It would behoove community groups, politicians, concerned citizens to identify those agencies that understand their role as police, not an occupying army, and that demonstrate the proper way to fulfill it. Use them as models to teach those that don’t. They can start in Ferguson.

rjgaydos@gmail.com

A Power Play in Turkey

Thursday, June 6th, 2013
turkey-protest

Protestors in Istanbul struggle with tear gas deployed on them by police.

By Bob Gaydos

The question of the week is: Why would someone who has an entire country to run — to plan a budget, promote economic and social health, maintain an army, deal with leaders of other countries — bother with eliminating the last remaining park space in a busy area of his county’s largest city?

The answer: Because he can. Or, more accurately, because he thinks he can, and, even more accurately, because he wants to and doesn’t think anyone else can stop him.

It is, simply, the allure of power, perhaps the most cunning and pervasive of all addictions. In my limited exposure to the human condition, which includes writing about addictions, I’ve noticed that few are immune from the euphoria of the perception of absolute power. Which, of course, does not exist. Nor, as far as I know, does a 12-step program for those addicted to it.

In Turkey, where the power play over a popular open space area in Istanbul erupted into days of public protests, the demonstration of government power included an extreme overreaction by police, including widespread use of tear gas, arrests and efforts to shut down social media sites on the Internet. These are typical 21st century reactions to civil disobedience, as demonstrators in the United States, home of free speech, have also discovered. Even people who supposedly understand the necessary limits on it often abuse what power they have. Such is the addiction — do not dare to disagree with me, or else.

As this is written, the conflict persists in Turkey, but the rest of the world is well aware of what is happening, as it was when similar protests erupted in Turkey’s neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, recently. The Turkish protests seem to fall into the “last straw” category. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected fair and square, so to speak, in a democratic election. He replaced a military government, which many Turks found to be oppressive. Be careful what you wish for.

Erdogan, who insists on putting a shopping mall and mosque in a popular open area dotted with restaurants and shops (an issue mayors usually deal with), has turned out to be as intractable and authoritarian in his rule as any military type. In fact, perhaps more so because he seems to believe that winning the most votes gives him the right to do whatever he pleases, no matter how many of his countrymen and women it displeases. Compromise with a different viewpoint is not part of his makeup, nor, as events in Egypt suggest, is it part of the understanding of governing of other Islamists. Democracy in its truest sense will likely be slow to come in the Middle East.

But there are two sides to the power equation. Those in power can only remain there as long as those out of power allow. Where power is seized by force, obviously, the resistance and determination to alter the equation takes longer to materialize and succeed. But a tipping point eventually does come and revolutions happen. Turkey may be headed there today. If so, the aid and encouragement of nations that have a better grasp on the just exercise of power should pressure Erdogan to loosen his grip and allow all Turks to express their views without fear of violent repercussions.

It takes physical courage to take to the streets against an oppressive government, to stand in front of a line of tanks, to tear down a wall, to occupy a park, to declare independence. But it’s not always necessary to take to the streets to overcome abuse of power. The human voice when summoned and combined into a chorus of dissent can be a powerful weapon.

Today, the Internet makes it possible to martial tens of thousands of voices rather quickly. Find a cause, find a message, find like-minded people. Does Monsanto, the ubiquitous source of the world’s genetically modified food, have too much power over how the food is grown and packaged? The Internet is awash with the voices of those who believe so and do not hesitate to tell their elected leaders how they feel. Threaten those in position of political power with loss of their power and they may actually hear you. Complain to your friends and do nothing and the power remains with Monsanto and its money. (Example of success: Connecticut recently became the first state to require labeling of GMOs.)

I do not mean to suggest it is easy to redraw the power equation, that there are not sometimes very real dangers in trying to do so. But I do know that those who have power, however they come by it, seldom give it up willingly. And, like all addictions, it inevitably gives those afflicted a skewed view of the world and their importance in it.

Solidarity with the people of Turkey.

bob@zestoforange.com