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Opinion: Against Policing


Published May 20, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.


When Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed a former state representative to investigate allegations that Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell violated campaign finance laws — by, for instance, rewarding donors with state contracts — the AG allowed that it was the proper thing to do.

"I can't investigate myself," he told local media.

The attorney general has not applied the same standard of independence to police violence. His office investigates claims of excessive force, and his office invariably finds the use of force justified. This is not surprising, since the state's prosecutor-in-chief and the police are on the same team.

The roster of injurious or fatal tasings and shootings by Vermont cops and state troopers has steadily lengthened since Sorrell took office in 1997: Robert "Woody" Woodward gunned down in a Brattleboro church in 2001; Joseph Fortunat, a paranoid schizophrenic man, killed by police in Corinth in 2006; Macadam Mason, tased to death in 2012 by a trooper called to his Thetford home in the aftermath of a seizure episode; the mentally unstable Wayne Brunette, fatally shot by a Burlington police officer in 2013.

The shocks, beatings, wall slamming, suffocation, pepper spraying, gunshots and sundry other demonstrations of police authority, often as not against unarmed civilians, are too many to enumerate.

Yet the attorney general has indicted no killer cop as a criminal. By his lights, every one was just doing his job.

On the rare occasions in which Sorrell has found a police officer guilty of criminal wrongdoing — for example, the sexual molestation of a 14-year-old girl — his negotiations have resulted in negligible fines, short prison sentences or probation.

In 2012, VTDigger.org asked Sorrell if such sentences were appropriate. He replied that officers who are prosecuted are likely to lose their jobs, and "Vermont's jails are already overcrowded."

For a prosecutor, this was a rare, if oblique, acknowledgment of the costs of being a defendant, innocent or guilty, and of the futility of sending everyone to prison.

Or perhaps Sorrell's comment expressed nothing more than indifference and hypocrisy. Vermont's police are getting away with murder. For many of the victims' loved ones — as for many now protesting and mourning the deaths of Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and thousands of others brought down by law enforcers' brutality across the country — the only justice for killer cops is hard time.

I admit: That's my emotional response, too.

But then my better, more rational and political angels tap me on the shoulder. They remind me that policing and incarceration not only fail to stop violence but are forms of violence themselves. In an ideal world, the criminal legal system would be replaced with transformative justice (TJ) — practices that hold harm-doers accountable in ways worked out between the individuals and community members, without state-imposed retribution. Those ways might include service, changed behavior or money.

TJ is part of a bigger movement against racial and economic injustice that would, among other things, ultimately abolish prisons and reinvest resources in schools, health care, housing, parks and jobs.

What would a transformative response be to the trooper who sent 50,000 volts into Macadam Mason's undefended chest? How does a prison abolitionist think about the six Baltimore officers who allegedly fractured Freddie Gray's spine and threw him in a paddy wagon, which resulted in his death?

I called a few activists — all in California, where TJ got its start — who have been thinking about such questions for a long time. Each one kept bringing the conversation back to that bigger movement and the structural injustices it is fighting. But I also wanted to know: What do we do about these guys, today?

"Yeah, 'jail killer cops' — it's a demand for some sort of accountability or some end to the horrendous violence," said Isaac Ontiveros, a former staffer of Critical Resistance. One of the pioneers of transformative justice, that organization opposes expansion of what it calls the "prison industrial complex."

"It's totally understandable," Ontiveros added, "particularly in black communities, where the entire history of policing has been a history of murder, since the first police forces were constituted to catch and kill runaway slaves."

No prison abolitionist is going to tell grieving families not to want what they want. They must be embraced, and the community's rage validated, Ontiveros stressed. But the desire for retribution does not have to be embraced — and the call for prosecution need not be the end of the conversation. "The emotions are valid, but emotions are not the same as politics," he told me. "Policing is a political problem. It has to be engaged politically."

What is to be said or done? First, let's stop talking about killer cops as bad actors in a good system — or even a "broken" system. "The system is flawed by design, politically, economically, socially," said Hamid Khan, coordinator of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition in Los Angeles. "The police are doing their job, and their job is to manage and control — to enforce — economic and social relationships. To enforce, they have to use force. Within that force are several layers of force — justifiable, questionably justifiable, not justifiable," he said. "But the authority of force is unquestioned."

In other words, when Vermont's AG Sorrell looks at a fatal shooting of an unarmed person and finds that the officer was doing his job according to protocol, he is not making excuses or misreading the situation.

The properly functioning system is dysfunctional. The job of policing, which requires violence as a matter of course, is dehumanizing. A principle of TJ is that people who harm have often been harmed; the community "holds close" both the harm-doer and the harmed. Does this apply to police?

Not entirely, said Rachel Herzing, an Oakland, Calif., anti-violence organizer. "A cop acting as a cop is not a community member. He is an agent of the state. In that role, he ceases to have the same relationship to the community."

For an individual officer, Herzing said, some TJ practices might apply — say, officer-to-victim service and money. "But the state has to be accountable for its person," she said. City Hall might pay a settlement to the family. Funds might be rerouted from weaponry to youth centers.

In fact, even if state accountability enacted through prosecution feels righteous, say Ontiveros and Herzing, it's rarely satisfactory. When San Francisco transit cop Johannes Mehserle shot the unarmed Oscar Grant in the back in 2009 — the case that inspired the film Fruitvale Station — the community erupted. Protesters demanded his extradition from Nevada, where he'd fled; he was extradited. The public wanted him charged, tried and convicted. He was.

Then the judge sentenced Mehserle to two years, including time served, which meant he'd be back on the street in about three months. Public rage was as hot as the day of the killing — but once the demands were met, the protests' energy died.

"The state could say, 'We listened to you; we did what you said you wanted,'" explained Herzing. "The legitimizing of that system strips away our ability to ask for bigger things." A bigger thing? "End the culture of policing," she said. According to Ontiveros, Mehserle "now works in the private sector, armed and dangerous still."

You may be wondering: Don't we need cops to keep us safe from bad people? Well, even in white or well-off communities, where police do protect life and property, they don't do it much. On Gawker, David Graeber of the London School of Economics cited sociologists' estimates that "only about 10 percent of the average police officer's time is devoted to criminal matters of any kind." The rest is taken up in "dealing with infractions of various administrative codes and regulations: all those rules about how and where one can eat, drink, smoke, sell, sit, walk and drive."

The police are "bureaucrats with weapons," Graeber said. "Their main role in society is to bring the threat of physical force — even death — into situations where it would never have been otherwise invoked." Broken taillights and untaxed cigarette sales become fatal infractions.

Do we really have to call the police when the neighbors are noisy? When a kid sasses a teacher? When someone, like Woodward of Brattleboro, is threatening to kill himself?

In 2013, in Troy, Vt., an elderly demented man went missing one night. The worried family called the police, who found the man in his car, disoriented. He didn't comply with their orders to get out, so they handcuffed and tased him. The family vowed never to call 911 for help again. That's the conclusion many residents of poor communities of color reached a long time ago.

Herzing and others around the country are trying some radical alternatives. In Oakland, she's building community networks to enable people to take care of each other and work out differences without involving the police. The goal, as she puts it, is "to make calling 911 the last response, not the first response."

So back to Bill Sorrell. Let's say he convicted a cop of homicide and locked him up for life. Would we be any closer to justice or peace?

"The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," wrote the late poet Audre Lorde.

Said Herzing: "We should disabuse ourselves of the idea that policing can work in the service of our own health and well-being."