Back in 2017 Big Blue Door ran a project featuring local law enforcement called TrueVille: Police Stories. Several people remembering the project have asked my reaction to the protests this summer and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I’m not an expert on anything obviously and don’t claim to be, but it was a public project that many people donated money to, and gave their time to, so I’m happy to share my impressions.
I’m genuinely sorry if you come to Big Blue Door for escape from the troubles of the world and my writing about police issues ruins it for you. That certainly isn’t my intention. If that is the case please stop reading now! I’ll wait…
TrueVille: Police Stories began with oral histories collected from Charlottesville-area law enforcement (including city police, county police, and county sheriff’s department) which we’d planned to turn into a short play. I’ve included at the bottom a link to the story of the project and its history but the short version is the interviews were great but the project got derailed over the spring and summer, largely because the Alt-Right protests that year made fundraising more difficult than my meager abilities could overcome.
But we did conduct the interviews and I did do a lot of research before even starting the project, so I’ll share what I learned. I’ve tried to center this discussion around police departments themselves, since that’s who we interviewed. Obviously, there are lots of other perspectives!
1. The police officers were great. The police officers we interviewed were interesting people with interesting lives who wanted to contribute to their communities. This won’t be surprising to anyone familiar with oral history interviews. It’s a non-confrontational, open-ended format in which the interviewer is trained to help the subject find and share what is meaningful to them. People are great when you can listen to them, when you don’t need anything from them, when they have no power over you. In the real world we often aren’t able to interact with people in this way, but in a well-structured oral history project people really are fascinating. And not just the police. All human beings. Butchers, bakers, candlestick makers are complex and sympathetic, even people who do things they shouldn’t.
Several of the interview subjects also had that dry, worldly sense of humor found often among those, such as nurses, bartenders, and teachers, who deal with difficult human beings often at the worst moments of their lives.
I’ll add that I personally am a homeowner too, and whenever I’ve called police needing help with anything from a break-in to a car blocking my driveway, they’ve been friendly, competent, and professional. That’s my experience, so if I have a bias, that would be it. I certainly believe our law enforcement agencies have the people they need serve our communities well.
2. Everyone who studies American law enforcement knows how to make things better. When I was studying sociology in college in the 1980s, social scientists didn’t seem to agree on anything, certainly not the police. The Drug War was in its early stages, the high crime rates of the late 60s and early 70s were living memory, and no one agreed on what police should do and how they should do it. Since our country today feels far more divided than it was then (at least to me), and since opinions about the police are so heavily divided in the general public, I expected to find divided opinions among researchers. Instead I was shocked at how much agreement there was. Everyone not directly connected to law enforcement organizations (not police officers, police union leaders, writers for police magazines, etc) who really studied what U.S. law enforcement organizations were doing and how they were doing it, whether conservative, liberal, black, or white, seemed to broadly agree on what the police could be doing better. Don’t believe me? Read up yourself! If you’re conservative or libertarian, you might start with Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop. He worked for the conservative Cato Institute. If you’re a liberal or a leftist, you might try Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I don’t endorse every idea in either book, but both are well-researched and well-written.
I don’t mean that researchers agree on how we got here, or how the problem fits in a social or historical framework, but everyone agrees on what could make things better. One core principle is that the Drug War was (and is) a catastrophe, not just because it failed to reduce drug use and sent a lot of people to prison, but because it legitimized and institutionalized a lot of aggressive police procedures and habits.
- Unnecessary Raids. SWAT teams and SWAT tactics were developed for hostage and terrorist situations. Since the Drug War these tactics have expanded into drug raids and then spread into everything, up to and including serving warrants. Militarized raids, especially no-knock raids, in the middle of the night kill police, pets, suspects, and bystanders. These are mostly over low-level drug dealers. They’re almost entirely unnecessary. Police could wait till people leave their apartments and arrest them in parking lots and then search their apartments. Approaching policing with military-style tactics terrorizes neighborhoods, cost cities millions in lawsuits, and ruins lives.
- Escalation. Most American police have very little training in how to deescalate difficult people or difficult situations. Many citizens panic when in conflict. Many are taking psychotropic drugs (legal or illegal). Many are just plain crazy. But until they’re convicted by a court of law, they’re innocent citizens of a free country. Choke holds, pepper spray, tasers, and guns shouldn’t be the go-to solutions because these escalate violence.
- Unnecessary Traffic Stops. ‘Random’, ‘routine’, or ‘pretext’ traffic stops are where police stop a car not for the sake of public safety, but to search the car, question the driver, or issue a ticket to fulfill a department quota. These stops harass, frighten, and infuriate citizens. In the U.S. 50,000 cars are stopped daily. Almost 1 in 10 drivers who are stopped come away believing that the officer behaved inappropriately. Traffic stops are the number one complaint citizens have against law enforcement. Traffic stops are the number one cause of police getting shot. Traffic stops are the number one cause of citizens getting shot.
- Unnecessary Searches. One of the major causes and outcomes of pretext traffic stops is car searches. In New York ‘stop-and-frisk’ was the pedestrian version. There are situations when searches are important. If someone is being taken into custody, the officer has to search them. If a car is being impounded or left on the side of the road, the officer has to search it. These are safety issues. Otherwise, police officers should not search people or cars. Doing so is a blatant violation of the 4th Amendment which expressly prohibits searches without a written warrant stating the specific place being searched and what the search is attempting to find. Although U.S. police have little training in deescalating violent situations, they often have a lot of training in pressuring drivers to superficially consent to having their cars searched. This is how the Supreme Court has justified ignoring the 4th Amendment.
Traffic stops and searches get police in the business of looking for wrongdoing even where there are no complaints. This makes police feel hated and makes citizens feel persecuted. When you add the militarized policing (mentioned above) to the car searches you get a lot of conflict and suffering.
- (Un)qualified immunity. Qualified Immunity is the judicial interpretation of a Civil War-era law that shielded government workers from being held personally liable for actions undertaken while working for the government. The Supreme Court has expanded this by court cases (Especially Harlow v Fitzgerald 1982, Pearson v Callahan 2009) to cover any police officer doing anything that fits within a plausible interpretation of their department policies. Then police unions defend officers from being fired unless they are found guilty in court. Beyond this, the professionalizing of local government has often removed police departments completely from any oversight by elected officials or the public.
In sum, police departments require their officers to stop motorists, search cars and people, and break into homes in the middle of the night guns blazing. Rank-and-fire officers are following orders. And as bad as that sometimes is for the rest of us, it would probably be worse if they didn’t follow orders.
But again, don’t take my word for any of this. Read Blako’s book or Alexander’s book. Or dig into the research yourself. Or if you’re looking for a quick list of solid research-based reforms check out Campaign Zero.
3. One aspect of the interviews did surprise me. Several interview subjects, unprompted by any question, expressed genuine confusion as to why the public feared them. It didn’t surprise me how likeable the officers were, but it did surprise me that they didn’t know why they weren’t always liked. I once worked at a mental health facility for troubled teenagers and we had to physically restrain kids. I worked as a bartender and we sometimes had to throw people out. Of course people would hate us for that sort of thing. All of us working in those places understood it and didn’t take it personally. Police Departments do not use searches, raids, and violence only as a last resort, yet some officers (and judging by public responses to police shootings) and many police spokespeople do not seem to understand why unnecessary force makes police disliked and feared. Almost every riot in the last 25 years has been incited by police violence. (In other countries they riot over the price of bread.) Think about it. The organizations we have created to keep public peace are one of the chief causes of public chaos.
There was a protest on Belmont Bridge near my house the other night over the death of Breonna Taylor. You probably have heard about the case. Taylor was an ER technician in Louisville, KY never convicted of any crime. However the police believed that she might be helping an ex-boyfriend who they believed was selling drugs. Although they knew he did not live with her they thought there might still have some connection. So the police raided Taylor’s apartment complex in the middle of night, guns blazing, killing her and terrorizing the neighbors. To many police departments this was all standard practice. To many of the rest of us, this was insane. Even if Taylor had been guilty, aiding a minor drug dealer, while nothing to be proud of, is not international terrorism or child sex trafficking. Why wouldn’t you just knock on the door the next morning?
Taylor was black and black community leaders have been pointing out the devastating effects of many police practices for two decades. More recently social scientists, researchers, and legal experts have largely backed them up. But how do you bring about change when police departments–or at least those who decide the policies of police departments–believe the way they do things is the right way? Only about 15% of Americans are black while 74% identify as white, so winning through the ballot box is impossible without white support. Black Lives Matter has been successful in attracting the attention of the broader public, but the problems I described above (unnecessary raids, unnecessary stops, and unnecessary searches) rarely are aimed at middle-class or upper-class citizens, the people with the real political influence.
I wish I had a proper conclusion. To tell the truth, I’ve put off writing about TrueVille for two years because as the leader of a community organization (as small as Big Blue Door is) I desperately want to find the bright hope, the common ground where the police and the citizens of our communities will meet. (After all, that was the original point of TrueVille.) But this is the best I can come up with:
- Because police departments in the United States are highly localized, almost any department can reform even if others do not.
- Because the ideas for improving police departments are easy to understand (for those who want to understand them), I believe they will eventually win out.
- I believe reforms will not only improve communities but also the self-respect, happiness, and well-being of police officers.
Beyond that we’re in a tough place, and I don’t see us coming out of it soon. All we can do is care about one another, do our best to understand and be understood, and try to change things when we have an opportunity to do so. I’m sorry not to be more upbeat. Or funny.
I could write another 5000 words about all of this, but that’s probably enough of my opinions for anyone to stomach. I’m happy to answer questions, though I don’t expect to be back online till Sept 30th. I’ll post and reply to any comments then.