Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Your Narrative Matters, or If I Ruled the World

Too many people have died by the hands of policeman.

And, the media narrative does seem to favor images that display the worst, scariest qualities of the people involved.

And, it wouldn't matter if the people involved were hardened criminals, with decades of murder and mayhem and bad behavior behind them, who were verbally threatening the police and trying to do harm (by all accounts, the young man recently killed had his hands up and the videos of Eric Garner's death do not show any sign of meaningful intimidation to warrant the amount of force done to him). It doesn't matter if the scariest of the scary, Anton Chigurh, is glaring down the police with the cattle gun in one hand, wearing a bomb strapped to his back, and carrying an M-16 in the other. Absolutely no one, not a single human being, should ever - ever - die because of police.

That's sort of the difference between a policeman and a soldier. They are not the same thing. The goal of the soldier is different than the goal of the police. The police should be about non-lethal and escalating levels of force to ensure that no harm comes to the community, the laws are obeyed, and people who break the law are brought to justice. The criminals should always be taken alive, and handed over to the appropriate judicial situation for what society deems is appropriate for the laws that are broken.

I cannot state this enough: Police should not kill anyone. Ever. It is the failure of our police force that so many people are killed by them. This should not be such a long list. It shouldn't be a list, at all.

Now, regarding the narrative that is created, when media reports these deaths, all too often we see images that feed into the "good guy versus bad guy" mentality by presenting young people as some kind of thug or criminal. Firstly, it doesn't matter if that young person who is killed is actually a thug or not, because ABSOLUTELY NO ONE SHOULD BE DEAD BY THE HANDS OF A POLICE OFFICER. Secondly, by creating the narrative that this person was a tough or intimidating or thuggish person, the narrative feeds into the mythic, cowboy, old west notion that good guys (the police) can and should shoot the bad guys (a.k.a. our neighbors and community members).

This is why we need to stop posting that image of the young tough or thug or intimidating person, as a national media. We should always post the images of fathers holding children, young people who graduated from school, or attended prom. We must never forget that even being a criminal does not mean you aren't a human, and does not mean a policeman should kill you if things get tough. We need to create the media narrative that everyone is a human deserving of life, and the failure of the police officer to keep someone alive is a true tragedy, and always a tragedy, and forever and ever a tragedy, regardless of any alleged crime.

One of the most successful rehabilitation systems in the criminal justice system is the witness protection program. The recidivism rate is lower than the national average. Individuals who enter this program do so with their families, and are given support to locate a new life, both inside prison and out of it, and receive training in how to survive with a normal job, a normal life. They are mentored by the US Marshalls. They do better than the young people who are just revolved through the prison system and kicked back into the same situation they came out of without support.

The percentage of people who will be criminals is exactly the same regardless of socio-economic or racial background. It doesn't matter if you are in a suburb, or an exurb, or a dense, urban downtown. Most people aren't criminals, period.

Militarizing the police, then, is responding asymmetrically and inappropriately to the problem of crime. It tends to overly punish the people with the least social power, in our impoverished areas, and does not create an increase in safety for people anywhere. What it does, though, is create an "us versus them" mindset, where people do not feel like they belong in their own society.

My proposals are simple.

1) Cops should not carry guns on their hips. Let 'em have guns in the trunk of the car, sure. Shotguns, only, and maybe long guns for the rare situation where they are up against long guns. On his physical person, cops should only be carrying non-lethal force weapons. If someone pulls a gun, the response shouldn't be a gun right then. The response should be backing off, clearing the area, and getting backup to come in and address the situation. Everyone should know that pulling a gun on a cop means the cop will leave you alone long enough for you try to get away. (And good luck with that. Cops know where you live. They know where your momma lives. They know where your friends live. They have a very long memory. They are very good at finding people that they want to find. Seriously, good luck. You're gonna need it.) The cops have numbers and data access, and that's the thing that should be used against people who pull guns. If you don't have ten to one, and bullet-proof shields and all that non-lethal defensive technology, don't take on the guy with the gun. (And, in case you didn't know, give cops about 8 minutes, and they can swarm you 10-to-1 with bullet-proof gear. Seriously, these guys are awesome, tough, brave, and very smart and very organized.)

2) People shouldn't carry guns, either. We need meaningful and deep legislative solutions about the overabundance of dangerous deadly weapons in our society. Urban and suburban communities have no need for weaponry, except as it relates to doing the job of the police. Which they shouldn't be doing. Guns should not be outside of the home, or beyond special circumstances where a special permission slip is needed for concealed carry. If you are woman trying to escape an abusive partner, you get to concealed carry. If you are a man concerned about your personal freedoms being diminished, you do not ever get to carry, ever. There are circumstances where we can discuss this. The default should never be that we get to do whatever we want with deadly and dangerous things that can kill us, and everyone around us. Bullets are generally the worst thing to bring to a crowded city street.

3) The number of bullets someone has in their guns needs to go down. No one should have magazines with hundreds of bullets. How many bullets do you need to hunt deer? How many bullets do you need to defend yourself in case a stalker is coming to get you? Certainly not the number of bullets you need to storm an elementary school and slaughter innocent children. Less bullets means less death. Even in the guns we do allow, we need less bullets. Imagine a situation of a shoot-out, which is a horrible situation, and imagine what it's like if the only guns available have small magazines that take time to reload. Our guns have way too many bullets, and it is simply too fast and easy to refill those bullets in the chamber with new bullets. Manufacturers need better regulations to slow down the flow of bullets, and reduce their number. Less bullets means less death.

4) If someone dies by the police, that police officer is done. They are no longer police. They may or may not face criminal charges, but they are no longer allowed to be a policeman. Plenty of excellent cops manage their whole careers without accidentally or intentionally killing anyone. Those are the ones who ought to stay on the force. If you cause someone's death, you are no longer permitted to wear the badge. It should be a privilege to serve the public, and that privilege needs to be revoked when the public is harmed. Again, it doesn't matter if it's Anton Chigurh, or Dylan Klebold, or Timothy McVeigh, or Osama Bin Laden. It doesn't matter who is killed, or for whatever reason. Killing someone while doing the job of the police force ought to mean that you lose your job. That should be the basest baseline of consequences upon someone's death. Creating that consequence will definitely encourage cops to try not to kill anyone a little harder than they currently do.

Now, I love seeing the police patrol my neighborhood. I feel safer because of it. I have had nothing but professional and courteous interactions with policeman. I have never felt endangered by police. I, in fact, am very appreciative and awed by what they do every day. I believe taking away the military mindset in the police force, a little bit, would only bring out the best in the officers I've encountered. I believe it will make our communities safer, and I believe it will make the job of policing safer for these dedicated men and women.

Just yesterday, I read about a family that was killed because a suspect was fleeing the police in Houston, and the suspect hit their car on the road. In many communities, police do not make chase because the accidents and danger that result are higher risk than letting the criminals run. And, again, the police know where you live. They know where your momma lives. They know where all your friends live. They know where you work. They don't need to chase you to get you. They just need to think it's worth their time, and receive the funding to do it. I'm all for that.

Public safety is more important than "catching the bad guy" and we need, as a nation, to rethink the narratives we tell about the police. We are so busy painting this as a good guy versus bad guy situation, with the pictures we choose for the victims, and the attitudes we promulgate as content creators of narratives. It is such an easy narrative.

Let's be clear: If a policeman causes someone's death, regardless of the circumstances, that policeman has done a bad thing. No one should die at the hands of the police.  It is always a tragedy. Sometimes it is even a crime done by the police.

That should be the baseline of our narrative, where reporting and story-telling begin. 

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