Tag Archives: Ferguson

The Talking Policeman

The drama of Ferguson subsides. The US Department of Justice promises an “investigation” of the Ferguson police department. President Obama begins a “review” of the federal military weapons pipeline to police departments. The serious people try to suffocate the fires of righteous outrage with airless bureaucracy. In reality, the fire only burns hotter.

Investigations and reviews are great if we are talking about “a few bad apples”. Cancelling the police militarization policy would be a step forward if one policy stood in the way of good governance. The problem is not just Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police department, or mine-resistant vehicles. The problem is trying to achieve conformity to the law by having armed untouchable men roam the streets. The threat of force does not instill the population with respect for the law.

It is reason, not force, which grants the state its legitimacy. People obey just laws, not forced laws. If we hope to see law respected, then we need less force and more reason. We need a new model of policing.

What would such police look like? We will train our new model police in superior reason, not superior arms. Our new police would not carry weapons or have any sort of legal immunity from prosecution, at least without a warrant. Police officers would have no more authority than the ordinary citizen would. Such police would have the same power of arrest as an ordinary citizen would (in jurisdictions with traditional citizen’s arrest). The authority of the police officer would derive from their ability to persuade citizens of the justice of the laws. Firearms would be available only when words fail.

The Cure Violence experiments provide an example of such policing. Cure Violence takes its name for the fact that the program method applies an epidemiological model to violence. Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin noticed that patterns of violence resembled patterns of contagion in epidemics. A person is most likely to have tuberculosis after exposure to tuberculosis. By analogy, a person is most likely to be violent after exposure to violence. Slutkin’s research bore this analogy out. The solution to violence, then, is to treat it like an epidemic. In an epidemic, doctors seek existing carriers and interrupt the transmission of the disease. Thus, Cure Violence seeks places of conflict in communities and interrupts patterns of violence.

The program recruits community members to identify the sources of violence in their community. These “interrupters” receive training in persuasion and communication by the program. Interrupters then use their credibility to dissuade their clients from committing acts of violence. The program then “cures” the client by teaching them how to resolve conflicts, get a job, or further their education.

The Cure Violence method works. Twenty-two cities across the United States, and in many other countries, are experimenting with the Cure Violence program. Independent researchers have examined the results in three cities: Chicago (the original site), New York City, and Baltimore. All three sites have excellent results, but I will look at the data from Baltimore, land of my birth. In 2007, Baltimore community organizations implemented the Safe Streets program in four city districts. By 2010, Safe Streets outreach workers mediated 276 conflicts. In 176 of those conflicts, weapons were present, but the outreach workers were unarmed. Both fatal and non-fatal shootings declined in the neighborhoods implementing the program. Public safety improved despite funding cuts that reduced staff and caused one neighborhood to lose its Safe Streets service altogether. In both cases, the disappearance of these nonviolent community “police” resulted in the reappearance of gun violence. Even in the absence of the Safe Streets personnel, the attitudes of the local culture towards the use of guns had changed. Far fewer gang members saw gun violence as an effective or appropriate means of settling disputes.

Violence, whether of the criminal or the police, only gives its practitioners short-term gains. In the long-term, though, resentment breeds vendetta. The truth of the matter is that violence is only satisfying to our primate brains. Violence is appealing because we get to hurt the objects of our scorn. Police violence appeals to some because they get to hurt the imaginary objects of our society’s scorn. Yet violence does not achieve lasting peace, justice, or safety. The antidote to violence, as always, is reason.


Cure Violence

Beyond Police Demilitarization

First, there was Eric Garner. Moments after Garner had made his neighborhood safer by breaking up a fight, the police made it less safe by choking him to death. Less than a week after Garner’s death, police in Brooklyn dragged Denise Stewart naked out of her home after knocking on her door. The officers were responding to a call for a domestic disturbance. Yet they didn’t have an apartment number, so they decided to ruin someone’s life at random. The police then arrested her children and grandchildren. That way, the police were sure their existence caused pain across generations. Then came the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, on August 9th. Dorian Johnson, Brown’s friend, survived the shooting. He reported that Officer Wilson began shooting after Brown questioned his demand that they not walk in the street. The people involved in each of these cases were African-American. Uncounted cases of unjustifiable homicides of African-Americans by police precede these three incidents. Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Oscar Grant are only a few of the names that prick the conscience of our nation.

Ferguson is now in a state of perpetual police riot. Now, we have no doubt that the criminal justice system in the United States is in a state of permanent psychosis. There is no other word for people who see threats that do not exist. Ferguson police react to peaceful protests with body armor, tear gas, and military-grade weapons. The Ferguson police have destroyed dignity, lives, and property with impunity. They have arrested journalists and even threatened to kill them on live television. Ferguson police conceal their identity because they know that their behavior is illegal. Police stormed a church where protesters had taken shelter to clean their eyes of the tear gas, and seized the antacid used to do so. Even the worst kings respected the sanctuary of churches!

The Ferguson police are a threat to public safety. The insanity may appear in individual police officers, and there is plenty of blame to go around. But the structure of social institutions is the source of the disease. read more »