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Let’s Start With Better Cops by Steve Davis
Let’s Start With Better Cops
It never stops, does it? Every few days there is news of yet another unjustified police killing of a person of color. Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo are merely the latest in an endless procession. What is to be done?
Well, the answer is not to spout absurdities like “all cops are bastards” or to push a truly preposterous proposal like police abolition. We leave that foolishness to the crew who composed the DSA’s draft platform which announces as an ultimate goal the replacement of professional law enforcement by neighborhood block committees which will preserve the peace. Yeah, that approach has worked so well in hellholes like Venezuela which have made a mockery of “socialism.” In contrast, I've been thinking a lot about real-world reforms that could make a difference. Malcolm Gladwell has recently said that there are about twenty needed changes that cumulatively could move us to a much better place in regard to police policy. Here are some essential ones.
A fundamental problem regards police hiring---a shortcoming that explains many of the outrages cops have perpetrated on our streets. There's a near-forgotten classic called The Authoritarian Personality, written by the German scholar, Theodore Adorno, and published in 1950. I first came across it in the book Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, which explained how German military police from working class backgrounds in social democratic Hamburg (a city historically resistant to the Nazis) could conduct mass slaughter of Jews in Poland and Ukraine during WW II. Adorno had conducted a series of tests right after the war to measure where individuals stood on the "f-scale," with "f" appropriately standing for fascist. F-scale personality types are submissive to orthodoxy and authority, intolerant of dissent and diversity, aggressive, "tough," etc. One might be tempted to put them onto an “a-scale” for "alpha machista." We all know the type. Doesn't it seem evident that too many of these f-types are attracted to police work and can't we now see the disastrous results of hiring them? Some kind of psychological screening should be implemented to make sure they are eliminated as quickly as possible from the application process or sacked once these destructive traits are uncovered.
It seems to me then that some of the boiler-plate reforms being proposed like banning choke holds, circumscribing use of deadly force, etc. are all too little, too late, given the types of human beings (largely, but not exclusively, white men) who are already wearing badges and carrying guns. Unlike some demanding change, I know we're going to need cops for the foreseeable future. I'm certainly glad that we have officers on my community college campus (especially given the fact that some of my students can legally carry concealed guns into classroom), though I've never come anywhere close to needing to call one in 37 years of teaching. But there's something different about campus cops. They don't seem at all to have the "my way or the highway" mentality that many of us have encountered among the street variety. Why so? Do college police hiring departments do some kind of personality screening to weed out the tough guys? Or is it that the kind of person who wants to rough people up and assert a toxic masculinity isn't going to be drawn to working on a college campus in the first place?
Another key need in regard to who becomes a cop is that we've got to up educational requirements. To get into a big-city police academy, I would require a minimum of an associate's degree with course work (with at least a grade of C) in not only criminal justice, but also history, psychology, literature, and sociology. Future pay upgrades and promotions could be tied to additional schooling beyond that. That would move us a long way toward having police who rate high on what we might term the "e-scale," with "e" standing for empathy. I read about one police department requiring a course on race and racism in the U.S. Well, if you teach college American history the right way, such a course would be superfluous, as the role of racism in our society since 1619 (and earlier, given treatment of native Americans) would be self-evident. I can already anticipate some wanting to waive such an educational requirement for veterans (indeed, this is true for HPD). That would be a disaster, given the warrior mentality many vets bring home and the psychological baggage so many of them carry.
One final reform could make a real difference. Police officers need to be rooted in the communities they serve. The cop who murdered George Floyd went home after every shift to the Minneapolis suburb of Oakdale, a city in 2010 that was 81.4% white and only 6% African American. Small wonder that a Derek Chauvin could be so clueless and heartless in his dealing with a person of color given the absence of diversity among his neighbors. For HPD, this would mean no more cops patrolling the 3rd or 5th Wards and then retreating back to the comforts of Sugar Land or The Woodlands. In Houston, every single cop should at least live within the city limits, giving them potentially more stake in the health of the municipality they support with their own taxes.
As always, our social democratic comrades in Europe have already blazed some trails. Portugal for example decriminalized both soft and hard drugs twenty years ago. That allowed a true “defunding” of the police in that resources were diverted to counseling and rehabilitation programs in the context of a health insurance system that covers the whole population. The result has been a reduction in overdoses, addicts, and related crime. Portuguese cops on the street do carry guns but rarely shoot and kill. I was in Lisbon in 2015 when a practical national scandal erupted because a cop punched an elderly man and aggressively handcuffed another in the middle of a raucous celebration of Benfica winning yet another football championship. The Portuguese papers headlined this story for the next week as authorities weighed how severely to punish this brutal cop. And check out Michael Moore’s segment on Portugal in his excellent documentary, Where to Invade Next. It closes with a group of Portuguese cops making a personal appeal to the American people to end capital punishment! It’s clear from these examples that Portugal has forged a different mentality in its police personnel. Years of governance by the Portuguese Socialist Party explain a lot of the progress that has taken place, along with the fact that the country lived for nearly half a century under a fascistic dictatorship that daily taught the consequences of the authoritarian mindset.
A certain politician promised to end the American carnage. Hopefully the ideas above could make an actual rather than a merely rhetorical contribution to that outcome.
April 17, 2021