Is the Issue of Police Militarization a Distraction from Understanding Ferguson?
LEAP executive director Neill Franklin and Rev. Heber Brown III discuss how issues such as the war on drugs and poverty remain moot in the mainstream media coverage of Ferguson, Missouri
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
In the next chapter of the Ferguson protests, police have named Officer Davis [Darren] Wilson as the officer that killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown. And now police authorities are claiming that Michael Brown was a suspect in a robbery of a box of cigars. These series of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, is bringing widespread criticism to the nation’s increasingly militarized police departments and evoking images of civil rights battles of the past. And even politicians like Senator Rand Paul are calling for the demilitarization of police forces. And House Democrat Hank Johnson from Georgia has announced plans to draft a bill that would do just that for local police forces.
But the question remains: what happens next? So with one of the demands of the protesters met, is this where the conversation should end? We certainly don’t think so here at The Real News, and our guests joining us in-studio certainly don’t think so either.
Now joining us is Rev. Heber Brown. Rev. Heber Brown is a clergy activist and pastor at the Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore.
And also joining us in-studio is Neill Franklin. He is the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. And he was also a lieutenant colonel for the Baltimore Police Department.
Thank you both, gentlemen, for joining us.
REV. DR. HEBER BROWN III, PASTOR, PLEASANT HOPE BAPTIST CHURCH, BALTIMORE: Thank you.
NEILL FRANKLIN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, LEAP: Thanks for having us.
DESVARIEUX: So, Neill, you recently wrote a piece in The New York Times, and it’s called “It’s Not About Police Equipment; It’s About Trust”, this whole issue that we’re seeing unravel there in Ferguson, Missouri. What do you mean by that, “it’s about trust”?
FRANKLIN: Well, I mean a couple of things. For this particular incident, the issue here is what occurred between a police officer and Michael Brown. But when you open up the newspaper today, you turn on the TV, Twitter, Facebook, it’s all about the response to what happened to Michael Brown, the militarization of the police department, the tactics and the equipment that they’re using. It’s distracting from what the real issue here is, and it was that interaction with Michael Brown.
We over-police in our communities. Why do we over-police in our communities? And we’re not peeling back that onion, we’re not getting to the root and pulling that root out. We’re not solving the root issue of this problem, of the separation and conflict between police and community. And this has been going on for decades. Obviously, we’re not making any headway.
And don’t get me wrong. The militarization of our police departments is an issue–and let me say the over-militarization of our police departments, because there is a need for some of this equipment to be maintained by some police departments but used at the proper time for the right incidents. This was not one of those times they should have used what they did use.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And, Heber, I want to get you into this conversation as well. What do you make of what Neill just said? And where does this distrust stem from?
BROWN: Well, I would agree that it certainly starts with Michael Brown, and, as I said recently, keeping a human face on the situation is important. And I agree as well that there are layers to the situation that need to be considered.
What it stems from? My point of view is it stems from not just decades but hundreds of years. I mean, the relationship between black people in this country and law enforcement goes back to slavery. You can draw a line from the 1600s, you could draw a line through the–you can draw a line of the controlling black bodies, controlling, defining, owning, selling, describing, having full power over black bodies. That goes back for as long as we been here.
And even more recently, out of slavery, some people were surprised recently when they found out that there was two police officers in Florida who were recently fired because they were found to be members of the KKK. That’s not 1960. I was talking about this year, 2014. But that shouldn’t be surprising, because many of those who were charged to be law enforcement officers in our communities were members of the KKK, were members of the White Citizens’ Council and so many other racist and terrorist groups, domestic terrorist groups that waged war on our communities for a long time.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. But I feel like in the media you’re only kind of seeing the police and the militarization of the police, and people are just pointing to the police brutality, which Neill pointed is sort of a symptom, though, and there are deeper issues there. What are those issues that we need to be talking about?
FRANKLIN: Well, first of all, I agree with Pr. Brown. I agree with Heber. You know, this does go back hundreds of years. And it’s something that hasn’t been resolved. We’ve made what appears to be some progress here and there along the way. And even when you look at some of our police departments, we have many police departments in this country that have a high number of black police officers in it. Baltimore is one of them. Okay? We even have black leadership. But we still have those problems. We still have those problems.
So it also deals with the policies that we put in place under which these police officers operate. And when I say policies, I’m not just talking about the internal policies and workings of the police department and the culture; I’m talking about the laws, that we have them in force, such as our drug laws. It continues the problem. Okay? It continues to prevent police and community coming together.
DESVARIEUX: Give me a specific example, Neill, ’cause you were actually on the police force here in Baltimore.
FRANKLIN: Yeah. I mean, well, look at the numbers. First of all, I think about when I was here in Baltimore, I think about the two commissioners that came in from New York, Ed Norris and Clark, and they identified the illegal drug trade as the main problem for the crime that’s being–you know, most of the crime that we have the city, the shootings and the murders and so on, and the gangs fighting the gangs, and shootouts on the corners. So we’re going to go after those who partake in the drug trade.
We’ve got hundreds, if not thousands of black men on these corners selling drugs, and that’s who we’re going to target. We use–blacks use and sell drugs at relatively the same rates. We may use different methods, but we use at the same rates as whites. But we’re not up in Roland Park with drug-sniffing dogs going car to car, knocking on doors to see if we can smell marijuana burning, maybe from a party or something like that. But we say, well, it’s because of the violence in the black community and the citizens are calling us in, so we’re going to come in there and we’re going to police and police and police.
So, basically what I’m saying is we know these laws of prohibition don’t work. They never did work. They didn’t work back during the alcohol prohibition. So why are we still using them today? The reason we’re still using them today is because when these laws were implemented, going back 100 years from now, it was about social control. It was about controlling the Mexicans in this country. It was about controlling blacks in this country. It was about dealing with the protesters that Richard Nixon didn’t like who were protesting the Vietnam War. And it was also about money. It was about corporate America. And it’s still about corporate America making money off of the drug war., a lot of money, from mass incarceration to privatized prisons, and the list is long. You know, even the police department makes money off the drug war with civil asset forfeiture, seizures, and federal grant money coming in by the millions of dollars every year.
You know, when we have these issues like with Michael Brown and we see how the police treat our young black boys and black girls–and we’ve got to really continue to peel that onion and find what those three causes are. But later I think we should–I know we’re going to talk about some solutions and–.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah, let’s talk about them now. I mean, we mentioned the war on drugs, we have to look at our laws and how we can reform them. And what else should we be talking about, Rev. Heber?
BROWN: Well, let me say real quick, I agree when you asked about the root–just real quick–that it’s interesting, because I think, as was–it was implied that race is a factor in all this. And we need to just put that on the table and say it real plain that racism, institutional racism as well, so not just an individual who is spouting discriminatory beliefs about another individual, institutions are set up to enforce a particular social arrangement that keeps black, brown, and poor people in a place of subservience to the power structure. Right?
And it’s interesting that even you mentioned Michael Brown–and we could really take his name and insert so many other names–black people are not permitted humanity even when they’re dead, even when they’re laying dead in the street. There are efforts to dehumanize them even further. And it’s interesting that we can have white boys going to movie theaters, shoot up everybody and come out, and you don’t see the same reporting. You see “He was a good science student,” “Oh, his parents were good people in the community.” So we’ve got to put that squarely on the table. I know that might make some people uncomfortable. But if a dead teenager in the street don’t make you uncomfortable, I don’t know what is. We’ve got to get to the point where we get to that point. So the dehumanization of black people, the historic dehumanization of black people in this country is something that is essential to all of this.
Now, going forward, I know that there are a number of reforms the need to happen and that the institutions that are responsible for our law enforcement and the like have a lot of work to do. And I put that there. But I think the community also has to do its own work, that we cannot rely and/or wait on these systems that have proven to have a shoddy record of policing themselves, we can’t wait on them to come up with all the solutions. They’ll do their thing, but the community has to take some measures, I believe, in and of itself, because we don’t have the luxury nor the margin of error with this thing. I’m not waiting until it’s my son. I have two boys. I’m not waiting until it’s my son who’s on the news or somebody’s granddaughter or somebody. We’ve got to take some action now as a community. And for me–.
DESVARIEUX: What specific actions are we talking about?
BROWN: For me that means–some actions mean just neighborhood watches that are two-way streets, right? So we have these neighborhood watch programs. Many people know about them. And we’re watching out for the burglars and the bad guys in our community. I think–and historically that’s been a one-way street. I think it now needs to be a two-way street. So we’re watching everybody. So we’re watching if madman on the corner’s selling, bro, you’re going to get off this corner or I’m going to call that number. Or if it’s officers coming in.
Now, let’s be clear, in local neighborhoods, the people who are on the street, or even kids that’s playing and growing up in the neighborhood, people know who the problematic officers are. After a while, you get to know who they are, right? Names and everything. That’s a known on the street. And I believe even the police departments, they know who the–that guy’s a little sketchy, or that sister right there, you’ve got to watch out for her, in the same way as a pastor I know the jackleg preachers. I know the ones who I wouldn’t want heathens going to ask prayer for–don’t go nowhere near this preacher right here; something wrong with him. Right?
FRANKLIN: That’s a good point.
[crosstalk] No, no, no, no, no! This is good. That’s one thing I did like about Ed Norris when he was here. He identified those officers. We looked at their internal affairs histories and we started counting the numbers. Wow–this guy has been involved in ten incidents in the past six months. Okay, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. So we went through the list, and we identified a number, a large number of police officers who fit those categories, and we brought them in, just like we do on the street with those people we know are causing the trouble in the streets, we bring them inute and we say, look, man, we’re watching you. And that’s what we did. And we brought them in, and we put them through remedial training, and we talked about their issues. You know, you could look at their internal affairs record and see this person has a communication problem, you know, or this person is very aggressive. And we designed that remedial training to deal with that. I don’t know if they’re still doing that. Every police department should have a system like that. It’s very easy to point out the problem police officers. And the officers on the street know who they are.
But, Heber, what you said about us watching not just the potential criminals but the police when they come in to deal with things, I do not understand why every major police department in this country does not have an effective civilian review board. And here’s what I mean by effective: one with subpoena power, one that’s working directly with the internal affairs unit for citizens’ complaints, and one when the decisions are made, they’re binding decisions.
DESVARIEUX: So they have some real teeth.
Now, see, the police are supposed to be the public, and the public are supposed to be the police. You know, the father of modern-day policing, Robert Peel, over in the United Kingdom, 1829, is when he and his commissioners came up with nine basic policing principles. And one of them is just that: the police are the community and the community are the police. How many of these police officers really come from the community? You know? And the community has to be able to police its own department, and very seldom does that happen in this country. I’m not saying–there are some departments with leadership, and that’s what they work towards, and that’s what they do, but it’s too few.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. I mean, but, that seems like something that could be done in the immediate future, I mean, short-term, at least. But what about some long-term goals here? Because we mentioned the war on drugs. We haven’t discussed poverty and what the role of poverty is in all of this. But would you both agree that essentially communities have to be activated, they need to be more participatory in City Hall, in getting folks that represent them? What’s your take on all this?
BROWN: Yeah, I would say–and that’s a part of the majority narrative. But I would push back a little bit against it, because I believe the people want to be involved, and I’m not so sure all the time that the systems of power want people to be as involved as they say they do.
Let me give you a case in point. City Council meetings happen on Monday nights around five o’clock. Now, most everyday citizens of Baltimore, black, white, or indifferent, at five o’clock you don’t have the luxury, you don’t have the wherewithal to get down here to City Hall where there’s no parking, where there’s a small room. You don’t have all that. You’ve childcare and family issues. If you really wanted people involved in the City Council, perhaps you might want to move your meetings to a different day or time or make them mobile and take your City Council meetings to communities, move them around the different neighborhoods and allow people to come in and see you conduct your same in meeting, but where we live, as opposed to making us come to where you are. The same could go for the Board of Estimates meetings, which happened crack of dawn it feels like sometimes or that used to happen on Wednesday mornings. I don’t know if it still happens. But if they want the community to be involved, then act like it. Come to our communities and bring your meetings and all that where we can really get involved on a deeper level. And the other thing–and I know that the mayor has done something around that. She brings her cabinet out to the community and a little bit of that happens. But it needs to happen to a greater degree, I believe.
And then, I agree with brother Neill, frankly, in terms of the civilian review boards. People have been complaining about those boards for years in this town. No teeth. It’s a toothless tiger. Give them the power, subpoena power, give them access, so that the community can trust that if they call the civilian review board, that something’s really going to happen. Now people say, man, there’s nothing going to happen at that civilian review board. Even the members of the Civilian Review Board are expressing a complaint about this board is wasting my time.
FRANKLIN: And it doesn’t have to be that way–
FRANKLIN: –if they have the authority to do what they’re charged to do. And that’s City Hall’s responsibility, to make sure that they do. I know that we may get some pushback, probably will get some pushback from the union, police union or whatever, but the police department works for the citizens. Yeah, I mean, not just works for the citizens; they’re supposed to be the citizens. It’s supposed to be the citizens who are charged with the responsibility to serve and protect. You know, they get paid as full-time employees to do that. But they’re supposed to be the community. So why shouldn’t the community have authority over how they do their job? It doesn’t make sense that they don’t.
BROWN: [incompr.] another long-term solution, as you asked, I’m interested to hear about Franklin’s–his idea on this. As you said, the community should be the police, the police should be the community. I’m curious as to how the community might have input, have a say, be at the table when officers or candidates are being considered to be an officer and before they’re deployed to certain neighborhoods, right?
And so, for example, before you come in my house, I’m going to do an assessment as to whether or not I want you in my house, number one, and number two, if you’re safe for my family. If I determin that you’re not coming into my house, I close the door in your face because, no, you’re not safe for me and mine; I’ve got to protect people here. But when it comes to police officers, it does not seem like community has any kind of say as to which officers come in the community, or let me meet you before you start hitting my streets. We’re going to have a sit-down. Here’s pastor so-and-so. Here’s teacher so-and-so. Here’s grandmother such-and-such, and she’s been here for 30 years. Before your first day in the neighborhood, you’re going to have to get an orientation to who we are and then have the community have some type of say as to whether or not we think he’s a good candidate for our community.
DESVARIEUX: And, Heber, isn’t it true that in Baltimore that police officers don’t actually even have to live in Baltimore? I mean, some cities require that.
FRANKLIN: They don’t have to live in the state.
BROWN: You’re right. There are a lot of officers that come down 83 from Pennsylvania. And there were some City Council members who were trying to put forward legislation to make it so that a certain percentage–I forgot the percentage, but a certain percentage of officers had to come from Baltimore City. But that’s been a part–people have been raising that as well. But you don’t even have to live in this state to be an officer in our communities? That’s a problem.
FRANKLIN: Let me just add something to that, why it’s very, very difficult to hire police officers, citizens from Baltimore. Again, it goes back to the drug war. You know how many citizens, young men and women in the city have tried marijuana, or maybe even cocaine or heroin, but don’t use it, but they’ve tried it? You know, they’re kids. We do crazy things as kids, okay? And because of the laws and because of the police and correctional training commission that has these standards that if you do this, this, this regarding drugs, you can’t be a police officer. You know, so many of our young black boys and girls get knocked out of the application process right at the beginning, it’s very, very difficult to hire citizens to be police officers here in Baltimore City.
And the second problem is there’s such a disconnect and it’s such an adversarial relationship between citizens and police in Baltimore and other cities alike. They don’t want to be police officers, ’cause they’re like, what? Me be a part of that? No.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. Okay.
BROWN: So I can smoke weed and still be the president, but I can’t smoke weed and be an officer in Baltimore City. I think there might be a problem somewhere with that.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. We’re going to have to end our conversation there. Heber Brown, Neill Franklin, thank you both for joining us.
FRANKLIN: Thanks for having us.
BROWN: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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