Technology Cannot Fix Bad Policing

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By Dianne Post, Attorney, Central Phoenix National Lawyers Guild

I had not read “The Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High-Tech Policing”, by Matt Stroud until after I wrote about the National Police Foundation (NPF) investigation of the Phoenix Police shooting “spike” in 2018. When I read the book, I was astounded at how our paths tracked.

For at least a 100 years, the police have had the wrong ideas about policing, that brute force and militarization was the best path, and those ideas continue today in the Phoenix PD as witnessed by their statements to the NPF investigator calling for more officers with fierce command and tactical abilities rather than community embedding.

The community has been telling the police what is wrong for the entire 40 years I have lived here and still they have learned nothing.

After the Watts uprising in 1965, then President Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned a study that culminated in a report in 1967 called, “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society.” When it was given to Congress, Johnson said:

“When public order breaks down, when men and women are afraid to use the public streets, their confidence is seriously shaken…When hundreds of thousands of young people enter adulthood carrying the burden of police records, when contempt and mistrust too often characterize public attitudes toward lawful authority, all – – young and old, private citizens and public officials – suffer the consequences.”

Sound like today?

That report suggested more than 200 hundred specific policy changes for Department of Justice (DOJ), state governments, civic organizations, religious institutions, and business groups.

It called for “a revolution in the way America thinks about crime.” We are still waiting for that revolution.

The report discussed what caused the problem in the first place: poverty; degraded social services; widespread distrust of the police – just like today.

Among other suggestions it proposed:

  • improving options for affordable housing,
  • establish citizen advisory commission to help improve relationships;
  • police be intimate within the community;
  • police receive training in handling “intricate, intimate human situations;”
  • training focused on peace keeping and service not arrests.

The 1967 report recommended specific steps for police departments:

  • More engaged and visible in the community;
  • Attend local meetings;
  • Participate in local discussions;
  • Deal more openly with complaints;
  • Train new hires to use force only when absolutely necessary;
  • Recruit minority group officers and deploy and promote them fairly;
  • Address citizen grievances fairly;
  • Explain what police can and cannot do under the law;
  • Hire people with college degrees;
  • Stress abilities over seniority for promotions;
  • Every department should have a comprehensive program to identify and weed out bad cops.

These sound very like the ones made by the NPF in 2019.

We don’t need to waste time and money to have new recommendations every couple of years. The ones from 1967 will do just fine, but they were ignored.

At the time, officials complained it would be too expensive. In 1967 they were spending $21 billion in today’s dollars on policing every year. From 1981 to 2012 tax money spent on policing went from $16.8 billion to $126.4 billion, a 200% increase adjusted for inflation. In 2017, the U.S. spent $100 billion a year on policing and a further $80 billion on incarceration.

After LBJ came a recession and then the Republican “law and order” mantra and then wrong-headed Democratic policies based on bad science and fear mongering.

The need today is the same need in 1967 – a profound change of thinking. But look at what the Phoenix officers said to the NPF investigators.

The people should respect us – Respect is earned not the right of a cop.

The people should do what we tell them – Law enforcement is supposed to protect the people not bully them.

Those attitudes were on full display in the May 27th incident where both unhinged police officers repeatedly screamed, “When I tell you to do something, you f___ing do it…”

Vollmer, a well known sheriff in Berkeley in 1923, said if we use enough force, they’ll respect us. In the 1960s, Los Angeles police chief William Parker repeated this attitude that if police were more rigid and aggressive with even petty offenders, people would respect them. In fact the opposite is true. Fear is not respect.

Both Chief Williams and Mayor Gallego repeat over and over that this is not us.

It is us.

Phoenix Police scandals, including use of force, including discrimination, go back decades.

The community has engaged in continuous efforts to get a citizen review board with teeth, to get rules of engagement that don’t threaten citizens, to demilitarize. All met with futility.

The department has internal rules for other officers to report officers who violate the use of force rules. Did any of those other 10 officers at the scene on May 27 report the two lunatics? I doubt that because it IS us.

The Phoenix Police Department has proven that over and over again.

Police developed from slave patrols that were privately hired gangsters who hunted down escaped persons that the plantation owners thought they “owned.” From this profoundly racist beginning, law enforcement, especially in the South, has been filled with Klan members and those who embody the racism burrowed into our society.

This is evident from the Facebook posts by 75 Phoenix Police officers new and old that exhibited incredible racism and hatred of the “other.” There were 282 posts from 97 officers, 4 of whom had been accused in killings. Phoenix has approximately 2,900 officers so those 97 represent only 3% but the use of fear and intimidation by a few officers is exactly the point.

Bullying behaviors are used deliberately to instill fear in the target population.

Not every Black person has to be shot for them to know they are much more likely to be shot and therefore to be in fear every time they are stopped.

Not every woman needs to be raped to know women are far more likely to be raped and take precautions the rest of our lives.

That is how systematic use of violence works – it’s for social control. So the excuse that it’s only a small number is no excuse at all. One is too many and that cancer has to be removed.

One of the suggestions of the 1967 commission was to develop non-lethal weapons. From there came the Tazer. But Tazers did not reduce officer’s use of weapons – it just gave them another one.

Police have used Tasers for torture and to exhort confessions because it leaves no marks.

Since Tasers were expensive, the company trained officers to use them early and often for “offenses” such as refusing to sit on the curb or challenging the authority of the officer.

The officers learned it well. Soon police around the country had Tased a 9-year-old in handcuffs, a 75-year-old in a nursing home, a 66-year-old because she honked at a police car blocking her driveway, a 6-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl. 37% of the time the reason given was “verbal non-compliance” – they didn’t obey.

There was no “offense”. The only “offense” was to the officers’ macho image. Phoenix PD expressed that same attitude in the investigation by NPF.

They claimed that the public challenges their authority and the public needs to learn to obey the police no matter how stupid or wrong or dangerous their commands might be.

After the influx of Tasers, two reporters became interested, one in Phoenix. “The Arizona Republic found that the Phoenix Police Department’s overall use of force increased by 22 percent after it began using Tasers, despite a sharp reduction in officers’ use of batons and pepper spray.” So officers were following the company line to tase early and often.

A University of Chicago study in 2018 found that Tasers do not in any significant way reduce police use of firearms. The 1991 Christopher Commission report after the Rodney King beating illustrated the failure of the Taser on King who was not on any drug other than alcohol. The Republic published front page stories on the investigations highlighting the flaws of Tasers, the lies told to justify them, the paucity of testing, and the dangerousness.

The Phoenix reporter Anglen exposed the company’s deceptions, design flaws, and manufacturing problems with up to 70% of the weapons being defective. Field studies in 2015 showed they failed 47% of the time. That stopped no law enforcement agency – they just kept spending taxpayer dollars for worthless and harmful weapons.

A more recent study found that police experience 76% fewer injuries when they have the Taser. There is no evidence it has led to a reduction of lethal weapons or in use of force. In fact, it may lead to abandonment of de-escalation attempts. (Body cameras and tasers rake in billions for Axon, but they’re no panacea for police violence)

And then the taxpayers pay as the lawsuits rolled in. In spite of the company’s promise that they were safe, Tasers killed more than 1,000 people. Taxpayers paid $172 million in settlements to now over the use of Tasers.

Taser then shifted their business model to storage of body cam footage and facial recognition technology. They changed their name to Axon Enterprise and now they are trying to put facial recognition technology on their cameras. Again this would be to help the police spy on the public not to diminish police wrongful use of force.

Additional privacy concerns arise if facial recognition technology is used. It is notoriously unreliable (like the lie detector) and the further the person is from the “norm” (read white male) the more erroneous will be the response.

San Francisco just banned the use of it and other places are looking at that as well.

Body cameras are not a panacea. They were developed to help the police not citizens. Originally cameras were sold to prove the officer’s innocence of use of force complaints.

When the cameras began to document police wrong doing, departments then moved to keep the footage secret. In one body camera study of 2,000 officers, no reduction in use of force or number of citizen complaints was found. Half the departments in the country now have body cameras.

Officers who wear them have fewer complaints but there is no decline in use of force, ticketing, or arrest. If they can turn them off, it leads to more use of force.

Departments for their part often withhold the video evidence. Legal observers for the NLG are cautioned about using cameras at demonstrations because in fact 93% of prosecutors offices use video footage to prosecute citizens and only 8.3% use it to prosecute officers.

Several of the same recommendations from the 1967 report surfaced in the report after Ferguson. DOJ had tens of millions of dollars to fix policing but rather than follow any of the known recommendations, they opted to buy body cameras and rely on weapons, software and covert surveillance in spite of opposition from the community and even some chiefs.

Private companies raked in astounding profits while the public was harmed.

It should come as no surprise that communities of color don’t trust the police. They have no reason to trust them.

The police in communities of color are not Barney Fife. In 1943, Thurgood Marshall, a young lawyer with the NAACP, said that the police “persuaded” white rioters in Detroit but beat Black ones.

Today we have the videotape of the Georgia cop who assured the white woman along the side of the freeway that she did not need to fear, the police only shoot Black people.

Since Bill Bratton, Commissioner of Police in New York completely repudiated the 1967 report that to end crime one must end poverty and institutionalized racism, he instituted a war on the poor. He started the broken windows style of policing that resulted in the “stop and frisk” program finally found unconstitutional.

He started the “hot spots” theory and Compstat for which departments are now paying private companies a fortune.

But in the 1990s when crime went down, it was economic and sociological factors that caused it, not any actions taken by law enforcement or technology.

CCTV, another surveillance device, has proven not to prevent crime or help catch criminals.

The Sting Ray to capture cell phone locations was next. A private company produced the device and in their contracts with police, they made them sign an agreement that they would keep the existence of the technology secret.

How is this a democracy when a private company can tell a publicly funded law enforcement agency they must keep secret a device they are using to spy on citizens? Eventually it was found out and the ACLU sued to put a stop to it.

The protests against the police are not about technology but about the behavior of the officers on the street; leniency given to officers who use violence; disparity of arrest rates between blacks and whites; over policing of the poor; and lack of transparency.

Yet another public forum is not going to resolve these issues. The city and the Chief and the good police officers have to be serious about dealing with the underlying problems.

Let’s fund public transportation and mental health services.

Let’s have tough use-of-force policies.

When I went to law school, you couldn’t shoot a fleeing felon because most felonies do not carry the death penalty and the cop should not be the judge, jury, and executor. Now they shoot people, even children, standing still who have committed no offense!

With all the problems of police behavior, a plethora of TV shows has surfaced to rehabilitate their image. But TV glorification of police departments is totally the wrong message. The shows portray constant drama where guns are blazing against bad guys when in reality, that is not the case. This portrayal attracts the adrenaline junkies, the violent, the thugs, Neo-Nazi’s, white supremacists, and racists.

The failed “broken windows” theory that claimed that if the police stop the “low level offenses” the community will become crime free has resulted in a war on the poor. Offenses such as standing on corners, sleeping in public, riding public transit 8 without paying, and panhandling have resulted in criminalizing being poor.

Many of the offenses that result in killings start with these low level offenses. The targeted communities are 400 years tired of being targeted for walking, driving, standing, looking, cycling, shopping, or even getting a library book.

Campaign Zero has a “Use of Force Project” and they have found several proven actions that reduce killings in police departments.

One is comprehensive reporting of use of force and requiring officers to exhaust all other methods of conflict resolution first.

The NPF recommendations also included this recommendation that officers should report every time they pull their gun, not just when they use it. Chief Williams said – we’ll see. Any parent knows that means no.

As Stroud said in his book, “… police aren’t warriors. They are public servants hired to make communities livable and safe. Instilling and encouraging a sense of empathy and inquisitiveness and compassion among cops should therefore be the focus of police leaders’ attention, rather than which technologies they might use to make law enforcement simpler and more convenient.” That would be leadership.

Rather than do the hard work of institutional reform, law enforcement has opted for electroshock, statistical analysis, CCTV, cell-site simulators, body cameras, and facial recognition software. Technology cannot solve the disconnect between the police and the public. We have to do the hard work of repairing our society’s body fabric that has been ripped to shreds by centuries of racism and white supremacy

1 COMMENT

  1. About tasers…

    Brian Encinia to Sandra Bland: “I’m gonna light you up.” For failure to give a turn signal.

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