Thursday, June 04, 2015

A Very Disgruntled Crew

New York PBA President Patrick Lynch
Clearly many members of law enforcement in America are just not feeling the love these days.

Just ask Patrick Lynch (pictured left), the perpetually disgruntled and opinionated President of the New York Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, whose highly public divisive tirades against Mayor Bill DeBlasio have begun to rankle members of the NYPD, who believe his partisan petty feuds with everyone from the mayor to local activists reflect a tendency to place his own interests ahead of a membership that is growing tired of his confrontation-driven autocratic leadership style.

In all fairness to the many dedicated police officers in communities around the nation who take their oath to protect and serve seriously (and sometimes risk their lives to do so) we as a society too often place them in impossible situations that are not always "law enforcement issues"; thrusting them into the difficult position of having to balance the role of sociologist, psychologist, babysitter, mediator, savior, protector or soldier. 

In light of the many high-profile cases of excessive use of force or unjustified killings by police spotlighted in mainstream and social media, it begs the question: do we ask too much of police?

Are the politicians and government officials responsible for appropriating funds and approving budgets placing too much of the burden to solve society's problems on police forces?

The palpable deterioration of race relations, civil rights and voting rights, coupled with the growing income gap, stagnant wages for the 99% and chronic under-employment / unemployment that has negatively impacted the US since 1980 (and worsened since the Republican party allowed itself to be hijacked by maniacally partisan extremist ideologues in the early 1990's) are issues that are far too complex to be simply laid at the feet of police.

But far too often, the socioeconomic byproducts of these issues, like poverty, shrinking social services, under-serving public schools and a dysfunctional justice system, end up on the plates of local law enforcement when something (or someone) finally gives; and someone dials 911.

In some cases, the all-too human police officer(s) responding to emergencies don't have the time, patience, experience, training, or emotional control to deescalate a tense situation; or determine whether someone is a danger to themselves, the public, or the officer.

If you read this blog you know I'm one of those citizens who holds police officers to a much higher standard, but in all honesty if we pull up to a curb at night and there's a crazy-looking shirtless guy holding a knife who's yelling to himself; how do you know he's schizophrenic and off his meds, or on a three-day meth bender?

In all fairness to police officers, it is really a cop's responsibility because someone is off his meds and not getting adequate treatment for mental illness? Is it a cop's responsibility that someone has a meth addiction? Where does society's responsibility lie in this age of shrinking social services and Republican politicians in Washington who rail against unions (including police unions) and "Big Government"?

12 year-old Tamir Rice, shot dead in a park last November
Let's imagine the perfect world for a minute.

In that scenario maybe the city of Cleveland has more tax revenue coming in from a workforce that's more gainfully employed, earning wages that are actually pegged to the cost of living, resulting in sufficient municipal funding for an adequate number of properly staffed rec enters and adult-supervised after-school programs for children so 12 year-old Tamir Rice might've had a different option than pacing aimlessly around the park area outside of the Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland on a cold snowy day on November, 22, 2014 playing with a plastic toy gun.

In that perfect world a poorly-trained 26 year-old Cleveland police officer like Timothy Loehmann with a sketchy record who'd already been dismissed from a municipal police force for being incompetent (and hadn't been properly vetted by CPD's underfunded human resource department) doesn't have cause to drive up and shoot 12 year-old Rice in the torso for doing what 12 year-old American boys have been doing since the 19th century; hanging around outside playing with a fake gun - because maybe Rice would instead be inside a well-funded community recreation center under the supervision of an adult teaching him something productive. 

In a perfect world maybe the economy in Staten Island is better and Eric Garner has a decent job that pays him a living wage so that he doesn't have to wander around the streets selling "loosie" cigarettes for a buck apiece to help support his family; so a group of NYPD cops charged with enforcing a "broken windows" policy don't have to roll up on Garner and arrest him for a minor "quality of life" infraction so he doesn't end up in an illegal choke hold that suffocates the life out of him on the street.

But obviously we're not in a perfect world and lately it seems like there a lot of former police officers appearing on television to complain about the shrinking stature of the American police officer.

Case in point: last Monday evening when I was on the treadmill at the gym watching a debate during a segment on Out Front with Erin Burnett on the recent spike in gun violence in New York and some other major US cities.

The opposing guests were former White House nominee and social activist Van Jones, and a former member of the NYPD who seems to be CNN's latest go-to-guy "Contributor" when they need an outspoken beefy-looking ex-NYPD cop with a New York accent who will pretty much defend anything any cop does and vilify people who peacefully protest excessive use of force by cops.

I can't recall his name but he's got dark hair, says everything with an annoying ingratiating smirk on his face and looks like a character out of 'Goodfellas' or 'The Sopranos'.

It's not Thomas Verni (pictured left), the former NYPD officer who's also a frequent "Contributor" on CNN who caused a stir recently
when he posted a tragic story on his Facebook page about a 14 year-old kid / gang member who was shot and killed on his way to school.

Not long after that, three former members of the NYPD began posting comments on Verni's Facebook page that basically trashed the kid's reputation and blamed him for his own death. (No mention of lax American gun control laws of course.)

Ex-NYPD cop Brian Charles, who in response to the story on Verni's Facebook page about the 14 year-old wrote: "Fuck him. He would have wound up killing someone eventually or wound up in jail. Saved taxpayers a lot of money."

Too bad officer Charles still isn't driving around urban neighborhoods with his gun, badge and that massive chip on his shoulder; I'm sure we'd be so much safer.

At least Verni's a bit more measured and informative than ex-NYPD detective (and yes, CNN "Contributor") Harry Houck (pictured left) who recently got into an on-air shouting match with Marc Lamont Hill back in April over the staggering number of deaths of black men and boys at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department.

Anyway, back to the Van Jones and the other CNN contributor "ex-NYPD guy-whose-name-I-can't-remember" debate on Erin Burnett on Monday afternoon.

Even though the CNN producers probably told him to express the "police officer's perspective" for the segment, the ex-NYPD guy's simplistic Fox News-like approach irked me.

Van Jones is a lawyer (Yale Law School) who was appointed as Special Adviser for Green Jobs to the White House Council on Environmental Quality in 2009 before a Republican smear campaign forced him to resign his position.

He's intelligent, articulate and used reason and facts to make his point that the statistics showing increases in gun violence were being taken out of context by some people and that such increases alone do not invalidate the peaceful nationwide movements calling for police reform, more comprehensive reviews of excessive use of violence by some police; and calls for independent prosecutors to be assigned in cases of police brutality.  

The ex-NYPD guy kept trying to use the statistics showing a rise in gun violence to prove that cops are now "hesitant" to do their jobs in high-crime areas because of the nation-wide backlash against the unchecked use of excessive police force.

As if peaceful protests, demands for better policing and reforms of America's dysfunctional justice system are in themselves, causing increased violence. It was a weak argument considering that more balanced analysis shows that the bulk of the gun violence increases in New York for instance are taking place between gang members in very specific neighborhoods.

CNN's 'Out Front' host Erin Burnett
What irked me about Erin Burnett's questions, which were obviously intended to throw some gas on this debate, was how she asked Van Jones to comment on one of ex-NYPD guy's points then played a short video clip of a small group of black protesters walking down a street yelling some hard to discern anti-cop slogans.

She offered no context to the video clip, no date of when it shot, where it was taken, or what specific incident had sparked the comments.

It was as if she'd offered up the clip as "proof" that all black people are "anti-cop" and that such protests are a direct cause of the spike in gun violence around the nation.

I don't mean to belabor the point, I guess it just got under my skin because the issue of deteriorating police relationships and mistrust with the communities they serve warranted a more rational and balanced response from law enforcement than the ex-NYPD guy she brought on to spar with Jones.

Her interview style can at times be annoyingly chirpy and urgent. As a former television reporter, I sometimes feel like she's staring at a ticking clock behind the camera and is waiting to tick off her points rather than engage in more thoughtful questions.

I have nothing against her but personally I've never been a real big Erin Burnett fan; and I've always been sort of mystified as to why she got the time slot and the show in the first place.

I certainly don't want to come off as dismissively sexist and suggest it's her model-like looks, because she's obviously intelligent and has a quick mind; I guess it's just her style and personae that doesn't click with me.

Besides, CNN has a lot of intelligent female anchors I respect and go out of my way to watch; including Candy Crowley and Dana Bash for their excellent coverage and analysis of politics.

As far as CNN goes, personally I think Brooke Baldwin is a far superior interviewer who's much more natural and instinctual with guests. To me Erin Burnett always seems like she's taking a test that she's determined not to fail.

That said, I'm making an effort to try and understand what police officers are so upset about; particularly all these ex-NYPD guys serving as contributors on CNN.

I lived in New York City during 911 and I remember how people heaped adulation, affection and sympathy upon NYPD officers for months after the Towers came down; even though it was the tail end of the Giuliani era when relations between black New Yorkers and the NYPD were at an all-time low. Any cop in a bar back then could not buy a drink because everyone wanted to buy them one; or several - I know, I was a bartender in an Irish bar on Amsterdam Avenue & 80th street on the Upper West Side and I served plenty of them myself.

When I first moved to Manhattan in the late 90's the papers were full of horrific stories of innocent African-Americans and black New Yorker's killed (Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond) or sadistically abused (Abner Louima) by members of the NYPD.

When 911 happened on September 11, 2001, it sort of had the affect of rehabilitating their public image in the city to a degree. Watching some of these ex-NYPD guys on CNN, I wonder if some of them are having a hard time wrapping their minds around the level of national opposition and outrage at some of the tactics and incidents that have garnered global headlines and tarnished the reputation of the NYPD and other municipal police forces in Ferguson, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland and elsewhere.

Listening to some of these guys on television, they seem genuinely confused at the level of public outrage over the killings of completely innocent people who are unarmed; as if such things are simply part of "the job" and not to be scrutinized by the public police are sworn to protect.

The prevalence and instantaneous nature of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram along with the reality that almost everyone is now armed with a functioning video camera in their cell phone has forever altered that ability of police to simply slip behind the Blue Wall of silence to avoid public scrutiny of actions that are illegal - or mistakes that turn deadly.

Police have operated that way for a long time in this nation but now technology is altering that faster than their policy and training can keep up with.

The uncomfortable reality is that if it weren't for cell phone video, Eric Garner's death in Staten Island or Freddie Gray's death in police custody in Baltimore would never even have resulted in an indictment of an officer let alone a trial.

Technology and the Internet have had the effect of making policing in America almost like professional sports in the sense that now almost everything they do is seen on some kind of camera; whether it's a dashboard camera mounted in the police vehicle, a CCTV mounted on the street, a bystander on the street with a cell phone, or increasingly, cameras mounted on officers themselves.

The Blue Wall of Silence can no longer shield the actions of police officers as it once did in this country and technology is having the partial effect of eroding the sense of invincibility that so many cops talk about having.

They are being forced to come to grips with the reality that they are not simply licensed to kill like James Bond.

Citizens, journalists and activists are no longer waiting for the Federal Government to create a comprehensive database of police killings in the United States; as I mentioned in my blog about the Oklahoma Highway Patrol's killing of Pastor Nehemiah Fischer on Monday, multiple organizations are now keeping and gathering much more detailed statistics on police killings, leaving American law enforcement under greater public scrutiny than they've ever been before.

To borrow a phrase from writer Flannery O'Connor's December 9, 1956 letter to J.F. Powers, these days American police are "a very disgruntled crew" indeed.

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