Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Of Compliance

I'm too young to remember May 4, 1970 at Kent State. But I am old enough to remember Rodney King. The acquittal of Stacey Koon, Laurence Michael Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno occurred near the end of April 1992, leading to a nearly week-long riot in El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula. Whatever your age, it's likely that you're familiar with some sort of miscarriage of criminal justice.

Something interesting is happening. In 1970, armed agents of state violence could risk getting away with murdering four college students in cold blood because the probability of detection was low: maybe someone had a Polaroid handy, or even a lovely old SLR. But these things were bulky and expensive, and few students had room in their thigh-hugger bell bottom dungarees to tote around something as cumbersome as a camera. In 1992, cameras had shrunk, but personal video still required the Volvo of digital storage media: the boxy (but good) VHS or super 8 tape. If you're under 30, have you ever used an old VHS recorder? If you're under 20, have you ever seen one? They aren't what you might call inconspicuous. But today? Today everyone has a phone roughly the size of a gentleman's wallet that comes fully equipped with the ability to discreetly record events at the swipe of a finger. The glorious future we dreamed for is here.

But this also implies that the costs of detecting police misconduct have dropped.

Think strategically on this for a moment (if you're so inclined, write the game out formally and solve for the first derivative of the probability of detection). The blue code of silence that protects officers against civilian oversight is an institution that serves an important organizational function: officers that cannot trust each other in the precinct cannot trust each other in the field, and trust, once lost, is not easily regained. If constituents wish to employ a professional police force to maintain law and order in the community, making them second-guess their fellow officers erodes their capacity to respond to incidents in a timely and effective manner.

However, the tacit conspiracy that serves a useful purpose for unit cohesion carries with it the risk of harboring rogue cops like North Charleston, SC officer Michael T. Slager who shot Walter Scott in the back eight times then planted evidence at the scene and filed a false report that Scott had attempted to take his taser.

Oops, Allegedly. That's what he allegedly did. Allegedly. Dead men tell no tales, but this time there's video. You can find it elsewhere. This is (mostly) a family blog, so I won't include it here, but if you haven't already seen it, know that it's pretty graphic. Fair warning.

The ubiquity of video is the slow knife piercing the cone of silence. You know, like wtih Jean Luc Picard and Dale Cooper.

If you're a sex worker, stories of rapist cops will come as no great surprise. If you live in a predominantly minority neighborhood, stories of lethal no-knock 3 AM SWAT drug raids will be old hat. If you've ever had the wrong complexion or the wrong clothes in the wrong part of town at the wrong time of day, you won't be shocked to discover that "to protect and serve" often carries with it an unspoken clause of "the interests of police first, favored constituents second." However, disfavored minorities speak with weak voices, so I can easily forgive you if the increased frequency of reports of police abuse startle you. You might think, if like me you are a NORP, that there is some sort of rash of police misconduct happening, that the shocking footage of Eric Garner or the stories of Justus Howell, or Michael Brown, or... well, pick your poison; it's not like there's any shortage these days, that these incidents are something new under the weird sun in America. But I urge you to consider that the parameters of the game have changed. The probability that there will be a camera on a police encounter in 2015 are far greater than they were in 1992. The problem isn't with the footage that you've seen. The problem is with the footage that was never recorded.

From the point of view of police unions, it might be time to reconsider the costs and benefits of institutional silence. If the public wishes to deter unconscionable police brutality, and is stymied by the collusion within and between law enforcement and criminal justice organizations, there is a final resort that includes the liberal application of fire and gallows-rope. Justice slumbers only so long.

Fortunately, institutions can indeed be reformed. I mentioned above that I'm old enough to remember the Rodney King beating verdict clearly. 1992 was the year I joined the Navy. It was also around the time the Tailhook scandal broke, and the Navy scrapped the old core values that included a nod to tradition and instead adopted "honor, commitment, and courage" as the Sailors' motto. I can't speak for the rest of the fleet, but in each of the commands I served under, involuntary hazing, to include sexual harassment, was absolutely no longer a part of the Navy experience. Reform is possible. 

I shall leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide whether or not such reform is likely.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?