Newark, New Jersey recently reached an agreement with the Justice Department (JD) to reform its police department. The Justice Department says the Newark police department “has engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests, [and] use of excessive force and theft by officers” that has “had a disparate impact on minorities” in the community.
Once a judge formalizes the consent decree to enact the reforms, Newark will join Cleveland, Ferguson, New Orleans, Albuquerque, Portland, and numerous other cities in having their police monitored by the Justice Department.
While Justice Department oversight of local police is expanding under public pressure — Chicago and Baltimore are next on the reform deck — there is little evidence that these reform efforts are effective.
Public officials both within the city government and the Justice Department frequently work to undermine any effort at reform while the institutional culture of American policing has shown itself to be particularly impervious to change. Reform efforts reveal themselves to be all style and no substance. They play at change while leaving the fundamental tenets of American policing and its role in protecting American capitalism intact.
Rot to the Top
The case of Seattle exemplifies the challenge to reform the police. In 2010 the JD began an investigation of the Seattle Police Department. The investigation was prompted by an escalating series of events. Video of SPD officers beating a Latino man in the streets while one of the officers yelled, “I’m going to beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you, homey” went viral in May.
A month later another video made national news, this time of a white officer punching a seventeen-year-old black girl in the face for arguing over a friend’s alleged jaywalking violation. When Officer Ian Birk shot and killed a Native American wood carver named John T. Williams on a downtown sidewalk in the middle of the day in August, community anger around the SPD reached a tipping point — though, predictably, charges were never filed against Birk.
A yearlong investigation of the SPD revealed “a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force that result from structural problems, as well as serious concerns about biased policing.” The report notes that 56 percent of black residents believe racial profiling is a problem in the city.
More astounding is the fact that while making up less than 8 percent of the city’s population black people account for 51 percent of obstruction-only arrests, frequently known as being charged with “contempt of cop.”
Armed with this report the JD and the City of Seattle entered into a five-year consent decree in which the police department was to be radically reformed. But, as a feature exposé by Dominic Holden in the local paper the Stranger revealed, radical reform proved elusive.
Mayor Mike McGinn took promising early steps by removing people openly critical of the reform process from leadership positions within SPD and appointing Jim Pugel as the interim chief. Pugel resisted efforts by the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) to overturn several misconduct rulings against SPD officers — a first in Seattle — and encouraged a shift from punitive to public health-oriented policing around drug offenses.
But overall McGinn’s term was marked by superficial reforms like changing the SPD motto from “Preventing crime, enforcing laws, supporting public safety” to “Excellence, justice, humility, harm reduction.”
SPOG, the police officers’ union, also dug in its heels. In its union newspaper, the Guardian, it denounced a Race and Social Justice Initiative — a program designed to curb racial profiling — as a “socialist policy” and “an assault on traditional and constitutional American values.”
McGinn and Pugel’s weak acknowledgement of the need for police reform prompted a hysterical response from the SPOG leadership, which insisted that police were “under siege from City Hall” and a mayor who was “trying to fundamentally transform the deep-rooted culture of our beloved police department.”
McGinn was ousted in the 2013 Seattle mayoral election by Ed Murray with the help of $15,000 from the SPOG.
In turn, Murray rewarded SPOG by demoting Pugel and promoting Harry Bailey, the former vice president of SPOG, to the position of interim chief. Pugel, along with Assistant Chief Michael Sanford (also deemed too reform-oriented), were quietly encouraged to retire while the upper ranks of the SPD were stacked with those opposed to reform.
Bailey overturned the misconduct rulings that Pugel refused to, much to the ire of the city council, while Murray provided cover for the department in the press. US Attorney Jenny Durkan — the person assigned by the JD to oversee police reform in Seattle — happened to be a longtime ally of Ed Murray and sent several well-timed letters to the city council and press to cover for Murray while throwing his predecessor under the bus. As Holden puts it:
In other words, when there is misconduct, the union protects bad cops, the chief protects the union, the mayor and his consultant protect the chief, and the US attorney protects the mayor. The rot goes all the way to the top.
By sandbagging reform, Seattle police operated unimpeded. Throughout the McGinn and Murray administrations mass sweeps of homeless encampments — frequently at the request of local businesses — were a regular occurrence. The Occupy protest in downtown Seattle was repeatedly harassed by police throughout 2011 including an October raid of the campsite that resulted in twenty-five arrests.
And the targeting of people of color by police continued as evidenced by the 2014 arrest of William Wingate by Seattle PD for “walking in Seattle while black,” to quote Wingate. The arresting officer, Cynthia Whitlatch, had a history of racist screeds on the internet and was one of 123 SPD officers to sign on to a lawsuit against the city and JD to overturn the consent decree.
After Wingate’s story went viral protests from the local Black Lives Matter movement forced the city’s hand in firing Whitlatch, though SPOG is still pushing to have her reinstated. Writing last year, Anne Levinson, a former judge who audits the SPD’s accountability system, wrote that reform of the Seattle Police Department “remained an aspirational goal.”
The Seattle case highlights an important point. One of the major barriers to police reform is the institutional culture of the police themselves. A culture of paranoia and a siege mentality permeates American police departments.
During the initial JD investigation of the Seattle PD the police union repeatedly asserted that they were “under siege” by “the enemy,” and compared the investigation to the standoffs in Waco and Ruby Ridge. More recently SPOG president Ron Smith asserted that President Barack Obama is waging a “war on cops” while SPOG’s Facebook page asserts that police “are in fact under attack” by Black Lives Matter.
This attitude is hardly unique to Seattle. In a 2015 editorial in the New York Post, former cop and frequent contributor to police trade journals Randy Sutton warned, “The police are under siege in the streets, in the media and often by their own administrations and political leadership.” He goes on to claim that non-compliance and even violence against police officers is encouraged by “political leaders, negative media coverage, civic ‘activists’ hungering for their fifteen minutes of fame.”
An editorial for Police — a trade magazine and website for police — by David Griffith extends the war metaphor: “The war on police is primarily a propaganda war built on big lies. And the biggest lie in contemporary America is ‘hands up, don’t shoot.’”
This is a common theme when looking through police magazines or blogs. Any accusation that race or racism might play a factor in police violence toward black people is immediately dismissed as a media manipulation. Griffith calls the idea that police could be guilty of using excessive force the “most hateful” big lie of the “enemies’ propaganda” that is used to imply police “don’t have a legal right to defend” themselves. “Your enemies trot out this tactic after you use clearly justified force.”
The view that police are under attack by a left-leaning media out to get them is common among police circles despite copious evidence that the media is extraordinarily deferential to law enforcement. Law Officer (another police journal) reminds its readers that “the antagonistic relationship that law enforcement has with the news media is nothing new” though in 2015 “the 24 hour news cycle combined with viral videos and an agenda that cares nothing for the safety of cops should have everyone in the profession on edge.”
Ron Martinelli, a retired police officer, editorializes in Police that the “false message” that police are “inherently racist and violent” is perpetuated by the “uber liberal news media,” black politicians, and “the anti-law enforcement Black Lives Matter movement.” Martinelli continues, “Make no mistake about it. The law enforcement community is under attack.”
The us-versus-them mentality is compounded by a growing fear about the dangers of the job. Travis Yates, editor of Law Officer, cautions that “one has to look no further than the nightly news to see that hatred and attacks against law enforcement has become common.”
“The blood of police officers and sheriff’s deputies is running in the streets,” Sutton states in another editorial, “the War on Cops in America is claiming the lives of law enforcement officers as unprovoked vicious attacks against the police are instigated and celebrated by movements like Black Lives Matter, the Nation of Islam, and others.” He goes on to demand that Black Lives Matter be designated a terrorist organization. Of course, the government already uses anti-terrorism task forces to monitor Black Lives Matter so what Sutton is asking for is redundant.
The problem with this paranoid assessment is that the “blood of police” is not “running in the streets.” When it comes to on-the-job fatalities in the United States, policing doesn’t even crack the top ten.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is more dangerous to be a groundskeeper than a police officer. Garbage collectors experienced twice as many fatalities as police. Roofers? Three times. Policing is not only a relatively safe job compared to many other blue-collar occupations, it is getting safer every year. In fact, 2013 was the safest year for police in the past quarter-century.
Bringing the War Home
The paranoid world police inhabit — where they tell one another to “keep your heads on a swivel and make sure you back each other up” — is by institutional design. Policing in America has always been infected with a dangerous machismo, but the war rhetoric comes directly out of the Civil Rights Movement and the protest movements of the 1960s.
This mentality increased during Reagan’s War on Drugs when under the auspices of drug enforcement the police played at war in the streets of American cities. In 1985 Philadelphia police bombed the house of the black nationalist MOVE organization, killing eleven and burning down sixty-five homes.
In Los Angeles, inventor of the SWAT team Daryl Gates had his anti-narcotics units driving tanks through the homes of suspected drug dealers while the head of the DA’s drug unit declared “This is Vietnam here.”
Close cooperation between SWAT and the military also encouraged police to see themselves as soldiers. While attending an informal “training” session for police officers put on by two members of the military the instructors confided in criminologist Peter Kraska, “Most of these guys just like to play war; they get a rush out of search-and-destroy missions instead of the bullshit they do normally.” A provision in the 1997 National Defense Security Authorization Act flooded police departments with discount military equipment to make playing war even easier.
American police are doing more than playing at war. As activist and researcher Kristian Williams outlines in a 2011 article, police have moved to a counterinsurgency model as “the state has ceased to view subversives in isolation from the society surrounding them.” As forty years of revanchist policies deepened economic and racial inequality in the United States, the capitalist class used the police to guard the thin line between the haves and the ever-growing number of have-nots. In this sense the police, as the defenders of capitalist inequality, are in fact surrounded.
This is why police reform failed in Seattle and will fail in Newark; no one among the economic elite, the political elite, or, most of all, among the police themselves wants these reforms to succeed.
As Christian Parenti notes in his book Lockdown America, the growing ranks of the poor and disenfranchised become “social dynamite” which threatens the “class and racial hierarchies upon which the private enterprise system depends.” This group must be “constantly undermined, divided, intimidated, attacked, discredited, and ultimately kept in check with what [Franz] Fanon called the ‘language of naked force.’” That is the true role of the police. No reform will be allowed to change that.