Thursday, November 15, 2007

Violence and policing: some thoughts (Updated)

[In the wake of Dana's recent posts on the death of Mr. Dzeikanski at police hands, I'm posting a updated version of something I drafted in the wake of the video of the Meyer tazering in the US.]

“It may be that the invention of gunfire and powerful weapons turned what, in the age of the sword, would have just been tense conditions [in Lebanon] into a spiral of uncontrollable tit-for-tat warfare.” (NN Taleb in “The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable”, p. 7)

My father was a policeman during the 1960s and would often go out on patrol without his service revolver. Never once did he have to draw his weapon or beat someone to make an arrest. Indeed, he once, unarmed and alone, successfully disarmed and arrested a man with a shotgun who’d just blown a hole in his wife’s leg. He did this with a calm voice and discussion.

Somewhere between his day, and now, there seems to have been something lost in the human side of policing.

I wonder if the invention and provision of the Tazer has created the incentive and standard procedural justification – an “immediate action” - to use it, when in the past a politiely worded request, a soothing voice, would’ve sufficed. I wonder if violent arrest technique has become increasingly official procedure, regardless of context, among some police forces.

In my father’s day, there were no ballistic nylon assault boots, 15 round magazine 9mm automatics, Kevlar, or bloused cargo pants, and riot cuffs. Words and phrases, like “stopping power” (.38 vs. 9mm, 9mm vs. .45 or 10mm?) were not part of the lexicon. Tasering someone was not an option. Shooting someone even less so. Firepower and officer protection were not priorities. Somewhere in the past 10 or 15 or 40 years, I suspect something changed in North American policing. Police stopped wearing light-blue linen shirts, and began to appear in monotone navy or black outfits, with armour, looking much closer to a infanteer than someone who is meant to professionally and courteously interact with the public. I say North American because of experience. I have reported personal property thefts to major city police in the UK and Canada and been interviewed as a witness to a brutal assault in Australia. In the UK, the police were polite, courteous, friendly and even called to say they'd be a a bit late in arriving on the same day, within hours of my phoning them. In Canada, they showed up three days later, and gave me the equivalent of a "sucks to be you; don't live in the inner city if you don't want your stuff stolen."

Ironically, it seems to me, as words like “community” and “service” began to replace “force”’ in local department names, “force” became a more apt physical descriptor of the uniformed officer with all his or her tactical cop-kit (there is a whole industry producing this stuff for police/military). Perhaps this engendered a cultural change in policing. In my dad’s day, holsters were leather with a large flap and button method of securing the revolver. Contrast this to cops I have heard whinge about the class – ease of draw - of holster they are allowed to carry. Offensive gadgetry from taser and mace to firearms replaces politeness, brains, and communication skills. The cruiser replaces the footpatrol. I think it’s a trickle down effect of military-industrial complex. We have air-support so we’ll bomb the hut.

The two stun gun videos that have come out recently – Mr. Meyer in the US, and Mr. Dziekanski in Vancouver – have some common themes. The police in the Meyer video did not seem to have an appreciation for the nuances of the situation they found themselves in. They did not appear to hear Kerry offer to answer Meyer's questions, nor did they seem to consider that the questioner had done little more than rant. I mean he clearly didn’t advance toward the stage or threaten anyone. Mr. Dzienkanski did throw a few things, and was clearly upset, but really did not threaten anyone physically. He was clearly upset. And clearly unarmed, posing little danger to anyone as long as they kept away. Any normal, concerned human being might have sought to calm him down, or just waited. Cops went straight for violence. In both instances, there is a precious little time lapse between when the police initially approached the victim, and when swarming and violence were used. To me, that looks procedural and really makes me wonder if police must now formally resort to violence in all situations. If a stun gun is meant as a substitute for bullets, are we then to conclude that police would have shot all unarmed electrocution victims?
A sociologist out there might make do well to see if there is a chronological correlation between increased standard procedural/sanctioned violence, and technical advances/militarisation of law enforcement equipment. Can an attitude change towards using violence on the part of cops be historically traced? How were people arrested before potentially lethal electrocution?

Heather Mallick’s column on the Meyer video has comments from people suggesting that the student should not have resisted arrest and the police, “ who risk their lives” were merely doing their job. I wonder if these commentators feel the same way about our pony soldiers in the airport.
That is also easy for someone to say who has not been surrounded by armed people threatening to do them harm. I have. My reaction was not unlike the men in the videos. I was afraid and angry. No, I was fucking livid. Even as I ran in real terror for my life, my thoughts were “who the fuck are you to threaten my life!” And when I was cornered and bleeding from lacerations and puncture wounds on my chest, arms and legs, clothing shredded, wrapped-up and immobilised in a barbed wire fence, I yelled back because the fuckers were robbing me at the business end of automatic rifles. You want to see me blow-up? Hurt me in some way. Mass yourselves around me and cut down my options. Provoke me. Like the late Mr. Dziekanski, I did not speak the language of the uniformed men threatening me, and I did vocalise my distress. Unlike the RCMP, this corrupt third world police force did not shoot me, even when I when yelled and raged.

What the police appear to miss is that not everyone cowers when confronted with power and threats. Some people push back. Even innocent, unarmed ones. Granted, the police should be able to protect themselves, but not at the expense of the public. Ultimately, this harms the police as public trust is eroded, and the public begins to fear the people meant to protect them. Policing then becomes a version of a protection racket.

I was in the Northwest Territories when Cst. Douglas Scott was murdered in his vehicle. The Territorial North has a population of around 100 000. It is in many ways a small city with an intimate social network. People I spoke to up there were very concerned that the normal and less formal police-public relationship in the North would change because the recent shootings would mean the RCMP would begin to take a more aggressive posture when dealing with the public.

Some told me they were afraid police in the North would begin to act like police in southern Canada.

UPDATE: A thank you of sorts goes out to Billy in the comments section of over here for providing something of an example to the point I make in this post.

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