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Militarized Police: Reform or Abolish?

By Stephen McNeil
MRAPs and child in Ferguson

It looks like a lot of reform is happening in the wake of much publicized police killings and widespread protest. Yet public confidence and trust continue to be eroded by illegal behavior, such as alleged sex with an underage girl by seven agencies and 30 officers in the Bay Area, and by bad behavior, such as racist and homophobic emails by San Francisco police officers.

This year the San Francisco Bay Area has seen the resignations or ousters of four police chiefs in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. After 18 months of study , the Department of Justice COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) issued a report on the San Francisco Police Department with 272 recommendations. A Blue Ribbon Panel of the city’s District Attorney’s Office issued its own report, with 84 recommendations. The June 2016 San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report Into the Open: Opportunities for More Timely and Transparent Investigations of Fatal SFPD Officer-Involved Shootings called for independent investigations of police killings.

In Oakland, as federal oversight of the Oakland Police Department reaches its 14th year, voters will act on Measure LL, which calls for a charter amendment creating a civilian police oversight commission with limited authority.

And yet I question if these changes will lead to significant reforms. Fourteen years of federal oversight in Oakland and three police chiefs within eight days? Existing use of force policies not followed in San Francisco? Political will to reform blocked by police unions, weak oversight bodies and fearmongering.

Should abolition of highly militarized police forces be the goal?

Reform: Accountability

The stumbling block to change is true accountability. Within police cultures, the code of silence prevents mutual accountability. The combination of a fear of “snitching” and the widespread failure to discipline abuses permit bad apples to continue to work.

Campaign Zero notes that police union contracts block accountability in several ways:

Christoph Niemann, The New Yorker

  1. Disqualifying misconduct complaints that are submitted too many days after an incident occurs or if an investigation takes too long to complete
  2. Preventing police officers from being interrogated immediately after being involved in an incident or otherwise restricting how, when, or where they can be interrogated
  3. Giving officers access to information that civilians do not get prior to being interrogated
  4. Requiring cities to pay costs related to police misconduct including by giving officers paid leave while under investigation, paying legal fees, and/or the cost of settlements
  5. Preventing information on past misconduct investigations from being recorded or retained in an officer's personnel file
  6. Limiting disciplinary consequences for officers or limiting the capacity of civilian oversight structures and/or the media to hold police accountable.

James Surowiecki in The New Yorker notes that “union control over police working conditions necessarily entails less control for the public, and that means less transparency and less accountability in cases of police violence. It’s long past time we watched the watchmen.”

The national Fraternal Order of Police has campaigned successfully in 11 states (with 14 more in line) to adopt a Police Bill of Rights that preempts transparency and accountability under the cloak of privacy for personnel records. There is a national campaign to fight adoption of or repeal existing police bills of rights.

“Of at least 4,024 people killed by police since 2013," according to a Campaign Zero analysis, "only 85 of these cases have led to an officer being charged with a crime.” And of those 85 charged, there were only six convictions.

An attempt at creating transparency over use of force incidents recently failed in the California State Legislature. California Senator Mark Leno’s SB 1286 bill that would have shone light on how departments handle confirmed instances of officer misconduct and serious uses of force died in committee.  “[It was] a sad day for transparency, accountability, and justice in California,” said Peter Bibring, police practices director for the ACLU of California. “Last year, 211 people were killed by police in California – more than in any other state – yet state law will continue to shield from public view the full findings of investigations into each and every one of these and all future killings.”

The California Peace Officers Police Bill of Rights California Code also severely limits transparency. The online activist group CREDO has a petition campaign calling for the repeal of the bill of rights.

Civilian oversight of the police in the Bay Area is weak at best. The San Francisco Office of Civilian Complaints, under the Police Commission, has little authority and ability to ensure discipline occurs.

Reform: Training

SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) Team actions began as “exceptional” actions against heavily armed criminals but SWAT team actions have grown from 50 a year in the 1980s to around 100 a day today. An ACLU study estimates that “nearly 80% of the SWAT raids the ACLU studied were conducted to serve search warrants, usually in drug cases. With public support for the War on Drugs at an all-time low, police are using hyper-aggressive, wartime tools and tactics to fight a war that has lost its public mandate.”

California SWAT promotionAFSC’s San Francisco Wage Peace program has worked for several years to end the annual Homeland Security-funded Urban Shield SWAT team training exercise (see "Growing Opposition to Urban Shield"). The War Resisters League opposed the SWAT team exercises conducted around the Upstate New York meeting of the New York Tactical Officers Association (NYTOA). And in October, a coalition that included AFSC Chicago demonstrated against the Illinois Tactical Officer’s Association SWAT team exercises, Islamophobic speaker, and arms bazaar. There were 15 arrests.

In collaboration with Stop Urban Shield Coalition, AFSC Chicago and the War Resisters League, we are collecting personal accounts of SWAT raids in an effort to make real to others the damages that occur when militarized actions are aimed at civilians. You can hear SWAT stories here from two AFSC 67 Sueños youth participants.

Private companies such as Calibre Press and the Clarion Project provide Islamophobic trainings to local police and statewide SWAT associations. In August the California Association of Tactical Officers (CATO) hosted the anti-Islam conspiracy theorist Ryan Mauro of the Clarion Project as the top presenter at a symposium on Islamic terrorism. He had already presented at the NYTOA conference. Sebastian Gorka, Fox News pundit and a national security editor for the publication Breitbart, presented at the Illinois Tactical Officers Association in October in Chicago. Gorka has repeatedly called for the expansion of police powers to conduct spying without cause on Muslim communities. The most recent Calibre Press publication, The Truth Behind the Black Lives Matter Movement and the War on Police, calls the Black Lives Matter movement a “dangerous, destructive, radical organization.”

Peter Kraska, Professor and Chair of the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, and an expert on police militarization, called the Calibre company’s seminars “irresponsible” and “dangerous.” Kraska’s research focuses on the militarization of U.S. law enforcement, which he traces to the war on drugs. To Kraska, the training is a rarely explored factor in the deadly confrontations taking place across the United States between police and civilians. “It’s a huge missing explanatory part of what’s going on,” Kraska testified at Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee in September 2014.

Reform: Use of Force

Reporting use of force incidents seems to be headed in the right direction in both California and nationally. The British Guardian’s The Counted and The Washington Post should be credited with shaming the Department of Justice (DOJ) into a more robust collection of use of force data from the more than 18,000 police departments in the United States.. The ACLU and 89 other community groups, including AFSC, have called on the DOJ to “condition federal criminal justice grants” upon compliance with a requirement to submit data on use of force incidents. Data collection is helpful for analyses of trends as well as to discover what practices and tactics to avoid. The recommendation in federal guidelines not to shoot at moving vehicles came out of looking at the data of deaths and injuries resulting from that tactic.

The San Francisco Police Commission is deadlocked with the San Francisco Police Officers Association (SFPOA) over a revision of the use of force policy for the City. Despite recommendations against the use of choke holds and shooting at moving vehicles, the SFPOA is pushing for both practices, as well as for acquiring Tasers. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors have budgeted for 150 Tasers, even their use is currently prohibited by a San Francisco Police Commission vote in 2010. Since 2001 Amnesty International has documented at least 670 deaths following the use of a Taser. Akiva Friedlin, co-author of a Stanford study found that “there is little evidence that equipping cops with Tasers reduce the use of lethal force.”

Despite the recent killing of an unarmed woman in a car moving away from officers in San Francisco, the SFPOA wants no restrictions on this use of force tactic that federal guidelines recommend against using.

In 2015 President Obama’s Executive Order limited transfer of military equipment to local police departments, the so-called 1033 program that transferred those armored vehicles --MRAPS --and grenade launchers and much more. Many warmly welcomed this reform. But a recent study showed that the actual dollar amount of surplus military equipment transferred went up after the ban. Even the MRAPS continue to be transferred, because the ban is on armored vehicles with tracks not wheels. Another recent report, The Militarization of America, on non-military agencies purchases of weapons and other equipment, by the group Open the Books notes that “sixty-seven non-military federal agencies spent $1.48 billion on guns, ammunition, and military-style equipment” from 2006 to 2014. “One could argue the federal government itself has become a gun show that never adjourns,” the report says, “with dozens of agencies continually shopping for new firearms.” The Black Lives Matter Platform has several recommendations on curbing the 1033 program:

Abolition: Community Policing or “Full Social, Economic, and Political Equality”

Illustration by Jim Cooke,

Proponents of the abolition of police forces strongly feel that reforms and building trust between civilians and police simply will not work.  If you see police as originating from slave patrols and you have decades of experiencing police as an occupying force, reform seems unlikely. Some proponents of abolition envision supplanting police with increases in community services and building strong communities. In September Alicia Garcza, a founder of Black Lives Matter, said ““Quite frankly, many of our [Black Lives Matter] members are continuing to investigate what it would mean to have police-free communities. I think what we’ve continued to see over time is that no moral appeal is actually stopping the deaths of black people, whether they be armed or unarmed.”

Others, such as the Fellowship of Friends of African Descent, in August proposed the creation of a “peaceforce,” with the training, support and employment of a force consisting of police officers and community-based peacekeepers, none of whom are armed. The peacekeepers will be local residents who have the community relationships and street credibility (especially with young people) to cultivate the capacity and inclination for the use of non-violent methods for de-escalating conflict. Returning citizens are an important resource for this work.

Yet another proposal comes from abolitionist Mychal Denzel Smith, calling for working towards full social, economic, and political equality, who cited James Baldwin, writing for The Nation in 1966: "…the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function." Smith continues:

"This remains as true today as it was in 1966, only now we have bought into the myth of police ‘serving and protecting’ wholesale. What do you do with an institution whose core function is the control and elimination of black people specifically, and people of color and the poor more broadly? You abolish it. In 1964, Malcolm X told the students of Oxford Union: “You’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it and now there has to be change and a better world has to be built. And the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods. ”Abolishing the police is an extreme measure, but as a measure of justice, it should be our ultimate goal.”

Given the history and the resistance of police unions and elected officials, at this point I, too, lean towards abolition as the goal.  We invite your thoughts and reflections on reform or abolition.

Stephen McNeil is the AFSC Wage Peace Director in San Francisco.

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