Are Police Placed in Situations That Threaten Public Safety?
Following the murder of two NYC police officers, Paul Jay speaks with former Black Panther Eddie Conway and ACLU-DC policy director Seema Sadanandan about the role of police in our society
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Since August, when Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson and protesters filled the streets, the issue of police violence, police killing civilians has come to the fore, or at least in terms of the mass media. It’s been a daily occurrence for many Americans for years, police abuse, police brutality, and killings, but now the country is talking about it.
Now, with the killing of two police officers in New York, a whole ‘nother round of discussion has started about the role of police, who’s really in danger here, and just what role do police play in our society.
Now joining us to talk about all of this first of all, in our studio, is Eddie Conway. Eddie is a former political prisoner. He was in jail for 44 years. And he is now a producer at The Real News Network. And also Seema Sadanandan. She’s the policy and advocacy director of the Washington, D.C., ACLU.
Thank you both for joining me.
EDDIE CONWAY, FMR. BLACK PANTHER, BALTIMORE CHAPTER: Okay. Thank you.
JAY: So, well, let’s talk a little bit about New York first, seeing as that’s what’s in the news, and then we’ll kind of broaden the topic a bit. Seema, this has broken out into becoming a sort of a fight between the police union and the mayor of New York. There’s some innuendo that this is all because of an atmosphere created by the protesters that these two cops were killed. What do you make of all this?
SEEMA SADANANDAN, PROGRAM DIRECTOR, ACLU OF THE NATION’S CAPITAL: Well, I think that there’s no doubt that it was a tragic loss of life, and the lives of the police officers is no less valuable than the lives of young men who are being gunned down by police across the country almost every other day.
I think that the important thing to realize is that the protests have largely been nonviolent, but even with that, that this issue of violence versus nonviolence, these are just strategies and tactics. And we shouldn’t get distracted. We should look at the larger issue that’s driving tens of thousands of people into the streets and cities across the country.
JAY: Eddie, what’s your take?
CONWAY: Well, my take is–you know, and it is a tragedy, the loss of life is always a tragedy. But one thing that people have to realize is that there is a cause and effect of everything that happens. And one of the things is that if you continue to execute brutality in communities, at some point somewhere along the line somebody in that community may in fact respond to you. I think that might be a case of what happened in New York.
But the solution is to find a way to better police the community and interact with the community, as opposed to having these confrontations and conflicts.
JAY: I mean, it seems in this particular case in New York, where it’s a sort of–what do they call it?–suicide by police, the guy seemed–I think he was pretty clear on what the outcome of this was. Whether he killed himself or a cop killed him, it was pretty much of a suicide mission. And that isn’t such a rational, political, conscious act. And who knows whether this had happened in a time that had nothing to do with Ferguson, or this guy had his own rage against the police. Who knows? But the underlying thing–and I think this is kind of the point Eddie makes–no one’s suggesting this is the way to act out. But there is an underlying rage amongst people of color, but also poor people across the country, and the police are the focus of it. But should they be?
SADANANDAN: Well, I think you’re right. The police are the focus of it. And should they be depends on who you ask. We’re seeing that police unions in New York City and across the country are being forced to take a position that’s against the protesters.
But the real issue is that police are being put in very dangerous situations by the way in which they’re being deployed in various communities, the distrust it sows with that community, and then the nonviolent offenses that they’re being asked to aggressively police. So this is a very dangerous dynamic. And it’s important that both police and the impacted communities start to see their common interests in creating a public safety model that actually makes communities safer.
I don’t think that the average police officer is going into the force wanting to be part of this very oppressive occupying army sort of atmosphere. I think many people join police forces because they have an interest in protecting people and doing something that’s quite injust.
JAY: Right, just do their job.
SADANANDAN: Or they need a job. But I think that the average person isn’t necessarily geared towards that. But the culture of policing and the way in which certain types of policing are being incentivized by federal funding is really what the issue is. So I think that police are the ones who are delivering this injustice upon the community, and for many poor people, they are the judge and the jury in the way in which they interact and then deliver punishment. But I think we need to remove them from that role, for the safety of the community and for the safety of the police.
JAY: Well, how do you remove them from that role?
SADANANDAN: Well, in every city across the country and in every neighborhood, there is public safety paradigm, there’s a public safety–institutions that come together to provide public safety. And police are not the only institution in that. There are mental health providers. There are people who respond to child services. There are a whole range of different–there’s fire and rescue.
And so what’s happened after the war on drugs is that police have really risen to the most well funded and to the center of that public safety paradigm. They’re our solution for every problem. Your kid acts up in school, call the police. Get into a fight with your partner, call the police. Somebody’s smoking marijuana. Call the police.
And so we need to really recapture this idea of public safety in a way that makes sense for our communities and figure out a role that is appropriate for police, because I think that there is a role. You know, if someone’s child gets abducted, we want the police out there looking for that child. But we don’t necessarily need the police shaking down every young black man in a black neighborhood.
JAY: Right. I mean, I wrote a thing recently on the website, and I was saying that we shouldn’t forget that what they also call themselves is law enforcement officers. In fact, they like to use the word law enforcement. And I think that’s actually the point that gets missed in a lot of this conversation, that they’re primarily enforcing very unjust laws. It’s the whole legislative framework that sustains chronic poverty. And what is their role in this situation? ‘Cause now we’re talking about street crime. The far bigger crimes are not being done on the street. I mean, the far bigger crimes are being done at the level of white-collar crime, banking, and such, which gets very little–I mean, I mean, you don’t send anybody to jail for it. But in terms of street crime, it’s unemployment, it’s a crazy drug policy, it’s chronic poverty. And what is the role of the police? To keep a lid on it. Well, as long as that’s their role, then–and that’s what society seems to be asking of them, at least those that are–you know, have the more power in society, what else are you going to expect?
CONWAY: Well, I mean, the social contract has been broken. I mean, you had a economic system that it had the ability to let people work for wages to produce products, to then in turn take those wages and buy those products. Now, because of the deindustrialization, you have a lot of unemployment. That massive unemployment is a breach of that social contract. And initially it’s being addressed by putting people in the prison system. It’s also being addressed by policing the communities that have the largest rate of unemployment, or also have to use other means of survival that’s illegal means. So the police are put in that position where they have to maintain social order in a society that the order has broke down economically. And that’s going to continue to intensify until it’s addressed in terms of people having the ability to survive, make a living, or take care of their self and their families. And you’re going to probably have, probably, more and more conflict and encounters until there’s a better social arrangement created.
JAY: I mean, isn’t–public safety is not the objective. It’s not, like, a better strategy for public safety. What the objective is: make sure people that own stuff are protected. And the more stuff you own, the more you’re protected. And it’s kind of a trickle down. I mean, if you own a little bit, you’ll get some protection. If you’re living in poverty, you actually are considered the threat, not–and it’s not public safety for poor people; it’s safety for people that have something. That’s this–I mean, I think you’re getting at this in terms of there’s various other agencies and institutions that can be brought in on this. But that’s not the objective, public safety, so they’re not brought in on it.
SADANANDAN: Yeah, and I think words really matter. Even this idea of a criminal justice system, what is the purpose of the system we use to maintain the social contract and to maintain social order? And oftentimes we’ll talk a lot about nonviolent offenses. But I don’t in any way mean to say that our approach as a society to people who commit violent offenses is appropriate or effective. I mean, the fact of the matter is is most people who commit a murder only commit a murder that one time in their life, and more than likely these are largely people who can be reintegrated into our society as functional, valuable members. And so our entire system is really set up to capture people into this criminal justice system and to return them in a substandard citizenship. And so I think that it’s something to definitely think about. You know, we’ve even heard about these ideas about police officers coming from the community. Well, in a place like the District of Columbia, that’s very difficult when three out of every four black men is spending time in jail or prison, and there are barriers to employment in the police department if you have a prior criminal record. So it becomes a cycle of disenfranchisement, and it’s a very difficult to break.
So with respect to public safety, I think you’re right. I don’t think that’s what it’s actually been about. But when we think about what people want and we talk to victims, victims of violent crime, for example, what they want is to feel safe. And in that image of safety, we very rarely hear victims saying that they want–you know, in that idea in their mind, they want more police or they want guns or they want jails. What they want is a feeling of safety for themselves, for their children, for their families, for their communities. And we need to recapture those values, because they belong to us, they belong to our communities.
JAY: I mean, if you look at Baltimore, I think last year was something like 214 murders, maybe higher. There were only 11 white people murdered. It was actually a very safe city in terms of murder for white people. Who’s suffering lack of safety is poor people. And that clearly comes from desperate conditions. And people either act out unconsciously, sometimes very destructively, self-destructively, but it’s a product of desperation. But the society is not very worried about safety for that part of the public. We’ve actually written off that part of the public. All we want to do is keep a lid on now.
SADANANDAN: Yeah, it think that that’s exactly right. I mean, the number one victim of violent crime is young black men, not just here in Baltimore, but across the country. But when you talk about violent crime, it’s usually white women who are held up as the image or the media image of who was the victim. And so it’s important for us to recognize that public safety must take into account the safety and well-being of young black men.
JAY: Well, when you go around Baltimore and you raise the issue of policing, people are asking for public safety. They’re not necessarily asking for more policing, although sometimes that is the answer, but not more of the kind of policing they’re getting, which is, like, harass people on street corners so you can up your metrics on your arrest. The actual objective of making it safer to live in these areas of Baltimore doesn’t seem to be on the police agenda. It’s far more, you know, as I say, moving up your numbers.
CONWAY: Well, you know, one of the things is you have that high rate of violence in the poor economic communities. Like I said before, because of the broken social contract, there is no jobs in the community. There is massive poverty. Even in places where people are working, I mean, there’s actually people working in Walmart or Target or Johns Hopkins or other places that are working for 40 hours a week and they still need to be on food stamps. There’s a level of poverty in the community that causes people to try to get whatever it is they can based on the fact that they’re hungry or their children are going to be hungry or they don’t know when they’re going to be able to pay the rent again. So that causes of lot of conflicts. It causes a lot of frustration. That frustration plays out in the community. And there’s very little, very little policing in terms of protecting the community. Pretty much the policing is, okay, well, he’s [dead (?)], I’ll lock you up, not that we’re going to come in and make your community safe. And so that’s really a large part of that problem.
In other communities, you see law enforcement agencies saying, we’re here to make your community safer. Somebody come in this community or somebody act out, we’re going to talk to them right away, we’re going to throw them down on the ground and we’re going to have some other kind of interaction with them, because we won’t have that in this community.
JAY: Yeah, in Baltimore, in Federal Hill, if you’re a black teenager walking around late in the evening, you’re going to be asked, what are you doing here?
JAY: The same rigor is certainly not in the poorer neighborhoods.
CONWAY: Yeah. Yeah. But wait, Paul. Let me just make one more point, too, because this always brings me back to my pet peeve, and that’s, like, the biker boys in Baltimore. You have, in the city, dirtbike guys riding around with dirt bikes. All in the rest of the state of Maryland, all around, in all the counties, all the other municipalities, that’s okay. That’s authorized. That’s legal. Here in Baltimore, you can get a charge, you can get a criminal charge for riding a dirtbike, just because you’re within the boundaries of this particular city. And that stigmatizes young, like, black males just actually trying to have recreation. And you go across the county line, and white males, or black males, for that matter, across that line are okay. They’re enjoying theirself. You know. So it’s those kind of laws that are directed in policing the black community here within the city that creates criminal elements.
And the impact of this is–and there’s something like 2.2 million people in the prison system. And they lose their rights, like you were saying, in terms of coming back disenfranchised. But what people don’t realize a lot is that the whole prison system nationally is transitory. So even though you got 2.2 million people in that system now, it’s always hundreds of thousands flowing through. So the damage and the impact on a poor and oppressed or black population is tremendous when you look over ten years or twenty years of those–or how many people then flow through that system and how many people then lost their rights. And just the devastation of not being able to vote dehumanizes you and diminish your capacity.
So all of those things create a level of frustration, and that frustration plays out in the community. And if we’re not careful, it’ll play out in other ways.
JAY: You know, this thing in–what took place in New York, it should be pointed out that it’s far more dangerous to be a construction worker than to be a cop. Way more construction workers get killed every year, including in Baltimore and all-around. In fact, it’s unusual for police to get shot, and certainly killed. And this is very unusual, what happened in New York.
SADANANDAN: That’s right, and not just a construction worker, but a landscaper is one of the most dangerous jobs, a logger, a truck driver. But you don’t see truck drivers running people off the road and killing them and saying, well, you made a furtive movement, I was scared. That would be wholly unacceptable. It is this warrior culture in policing. Our police department in D.C. regular refers to themselves as a paramilitary force. So this is the mentality of our policing. And now you have the federal government actively providing military grade equipment to police departments. And so, in this context the disenfranchisement and overpolicing, you’re bound to have this very negative interaction.
I think that what happened in New York was very sad, but it almost is irrelevant to what’s happening across the country. It was–in my opinion, it was a sort of freak incident of an individual person who’s going through mental health issues and is not getting the services that he needs from an appropriate place, and as a result is being violent. And you see the same thing when we had the NSA leaks about the type of surveillance that was happening across the country. Suddenly you see so many people with mental health issues thinking that the government is spying on them, and they might target that towards the government leaks. But the truth is, that’s just untreated mental health issues. And it’s important that we focus on the regular pattern of violence that black and brown communities are being subjected to every single day.
JAY: And this paramilitary force, it’s there because society doesn’t want to deal–and by society we mean mostly the elites, but not only. I would say even the majority of people right now, ’cause the majority of people have jobs, the majority of people have a place to live–you know, it’s not like–you know, there’s a sort of, maybe, a critical point where the majority don’t have these things, and then we’re going to be looking at a whole different kind of politics. But right now let’s say unemployment actually is–take unofficially, but maybe it’s really 20 percent. Well, then 80 percent of people have jobs. So, like, in Baltimore it seems to be politically considered valuable to have high arrest records, even though it never solves any of the problems. As long as he can show the numbers, you’re appealing to enough voters.
So while the elites, the paramilitary force certainly is defending the people who are in the top 20 percentile, who own 85 percent of the wealth in the United States, it’s not only them that seem to think, just keep hitting the hammer, because we don’t know what else there is.
So in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about what’s the alternative to just hitting the hammer, which we all know, if you keep hitting something and it doesn’t change, it’s a little bit insane to keep doing it. But that’s kind of where we are.
So please join us for the continuation of this discussion on The Real News Network in our part two. Thanks.
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