Our Crime Problem: We Make Everything a Crime

Ta-Nehisi CoatesLast week, Francis Pusok was badly beaten by ten sheriff’s deputies in San Bernardino. I’m sure the deputies will claim that they were very, very afraid. It seems that police officers spend their entire lives in great fear. There is apparently no more cowardly group of people than police officers. Now it seems that just about every group that can investigate this beating is. Of course, that’s only because there was video of it. If there hadn’t been, it would be ten sheriff’s deputies’ word against a known horse thief. We’ve seen this play out before — in fact, we see it every day.

This incident is an interesting companion to Michael Slager’s killing of Walter Scott. What most struck me in that video was how calm Slager was. There was no emotion. Even putting down a rabid dog would elicit more emotion in most people. I’m sure that it never occurred to Slager that anyone would question what he was doing. And I doubt that Slager saw what he was doing as outside his job description. Scott ran from Slager. How dare he?! What disrespect! And if Scott had gotten away, he might have gone on to miss another child support payment! Slager was just doing his job.

But in an important sense, that’s true. Slager was just doing his job. He was doing what we Americans seem to think is right and fitting. Sure, we don’t like to be reminded of it so graphically. But this is what we want. I am still haunted by a segment I saw on The Last Word. (If anyone has the link to it, please let me know.) It was after one of the many highly publicized police shootings. But this was video of a couple of police officers trying to deal with a clearly mentally disturbed man who had a knife. Eventually, the officers killed the man. And Lawrence O’Donnell presented it as the police doing a good job.

You see, the officers did try to reason with the man. And they spent a fair amount of time before killing the man. But the whole thing shocked me. That was good police work? That is what we owe to the mentally disabled? I don’t think so. There are actually a lot of ways that a crazy man with a knife could be dealt with. Of course, that isn’t the job the police. They are trained to deal with normal criminals. It’s not surprising that they saw that their only choice was to kill this man.

The question is why it is that the police were called to deal with this situation. Everyone else in the area was gone. The only potential victims were the police officers. Why police officers? Why not, I don’t know, mental health professionals? I am not a mental health professional myself, but I imagine two guys dressed in white with a big net like something out of cartoon. That would have been a more effective response to that situation. I’m sure there are much better still.

Ta-Nehisi Coates dealt with this issue in an article yesterday, The Myth of Police Reform. He noted that we spend too much time talking about what exactly a police officer did and was thinking rather than asking the more profound question, “Why was the officer even there?” Walter Scott is dead because we have the criminal justice system deal with child support issues instead of the more reasonable choice of social workers.

Police officers fight crime. Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors. One of the great hallmarks of the past forty years of American domestic policy is a broad disinterest in that difference. The problem of restoring police authority is not really a problem of police authority, but a problem of democratic authority. It is what happens when you decide to solve all your problems with a hammer. To ask, at this late date, why the police seem to have lost their minds is to ask why our hammers are so bad at installing air-conditioners. More it is to ignore the state of the house all around us. A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all. It’s avoidance. It’s a continuance of the American preference for considering the actions of bad individuals, as opposed to the function and intention of systems.

So we have three layers. We have the officers themselves — the focus of our concern, but actually the least important aspect of our problems. We have the police agencies themselves, which really are a major problem all by themselves. But the overriding problem is our wish to make all problems about criminal justice. I doubt we will do anything about it, however. We Americans are a very fearful and simplistic people.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Our Crime Problem: We Make Everything a Crime

  1. I worked in Santa Barbara for a facility that housed disabled people, right next to the UCSB campus. (Some of my co-workers dealt drugs to UCSB students, quite openly.) One day I was leaving the graveyard shift and walking through Greek housing to the bus stop — about a mile walk, but the weather was usually nice.

    Cops showed up and cuffed me. Apparently someone had been Peeping Tom into the rooms of passed-out sorority girls with spooky masturbation stuff. I was on my stomach for about 15 minutes while they brought the latest victim. She said I wasn’t the guy. (I thought you did lineups for this sort of thing, so a stressed-out victim wouldn’t ID the first face they saw, but whatever, they let me go.)

    Because I’m white, a cop offered me a ride the rest of the way to my bus stop. He asked if I ever dealt with physical aggression at work; I told him I did, we were trained how to restrain people having dangerous mental episodes.

    “That’s gotta suck, ” the cop said. “You can’t beat them up, can you?”

    We couldn’t, but workers did use force more than they had to; some would provoke situations where they could restrain residents. It wasn’t just that facility, I worked at others with the same problem. I eventually stopped working at places where anyone had a disorder involving physical aggression. I liked the peacekeeping aspect of talking people down without force, but there were always others who jumped at the chance to put someone in a hold. I’ve met people who worked at similar sites and became disgusted with the same issues.

    Anytime you authorize physical force, it’s going to be abused. Anytime. In my line of work, I was pretty damn good at defusing escalating situations — about 80%, maybe. Still, that meant I got smacked around a little (nothing serious, once I learned to bring my crappy taped-up old glasses and shabby clothes to work, maybe the same attire that had those SB cops peg me for “peeping Tom.”) And getting smacked around a little made me a “pussy” in the eyes of those who never “let the residents get the upper hand.”

    As I said, a few despised this mucho-macho attitude. But it really rubbed off on the new hires. It’s a way of playing at bravery and getting an adrenaline rush.

    There are some similarities with what cops do. Both working with the mentally unstable and policing poor neighborhoods, you can be fairly certain your side of the story will get more weight. And similar violent tendencies emerge. One big difference, as that SB cop noted — we couldn’t beat them up. Injuries requiring medical attention were a huge red flag, there was considerable oversight. (Probably because the SB facility had mostly children of rich parents, it was expensive to send them there instead of a place covered by Medicaid/Social Security. I’ve read that it’s much worse in many places.)

    And we didn’t have weapons. Or syringes with sedatives, beds with straps, any of that horror.

    We have to acknowledge that giving people power over others is always going to bring out the worst in some. There’s no way around this. Deep-sixing our “Beowulf”-era notions of “heroism” and “bravery” might help. Are there situations where that power is justified? Sure. We can’t pretend, though, that the power itself is a good thing — we need to see it as a necessary evil.

    I could go on about this all night (I had a recent experience with firefighting adrenaline junkies) but I think I’ll stop myself and watch baseball clips!

    • Wow. That’s all really interesting. I’m sorry I overlooked the comment. I thought I was all caught up. I only noticed it because I was noodling with user avatars. I think this would make a great blog post. You could even work it into a film piece with Shock Corridor — a film I’ve been meaning to get around to writing about. Let me know.

      I assume the woman who reported the peeping Tom was white. Imagine if you had been any other race. Most white people can’t tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese. So distinguishing one person from another would be totally out of the question. And that’s not to mention someone with dark skin viewed at night. But such things doubtless wouldn’t even occur to the police officers.

      • Didn’t feel overlooked at all, I know you’re busy! It’s perfectly allowed, I believe, to not respond in depth to EVERY blog comment by consistent time moochers. Maybe not; maybe the NSA will add more sad-face stickers to your profile if you don’t. Consult legal opinion, that’s my advice.

        I will get “Shock Corridor” from the library — I’ve never seen it. I know it’s quite influential, so that’ll be fun to watch. I’ll let you know if there’s an idea an there, but I suspect it would be too long. Good movie suggestion, though.

        Of course the unfortunate young lady was white — this was UCSB. It was said at the time, and I don’t know if this is true, that UCSB had the richest student body of any public university. They certainly looked rich. I didn’t interact with them much.

        With all the videoed police racism lately, I keep thinking about every time I’ve not been arrested/beaten/killed by cops. It hasn’t happened in over 15 years but I used to run into cops fairly regularly as a young man, often pretty loaded. I congratulated myself on my skill at talking my way out of (usually) suspicious behavior and (occasionally) outright lawbreaking. It was skin color, and the lack of a record. Cops don’t want to put you “in the system” if you seem like a future upstanding citizen (shows their predictive ability, ha!) So you can get away with fuckup after fuckup since, every time, when they run your record, you have no priors.

        Twice I even showed up in court, dead damn guilty, to find the case had been dropped — no prior record, let the kid off on his “first” offense!

        After Trayvon Martin got killed there was a brief online thing, it didn’t take off, for white people to share experiences of stealing candy or whatever where they weren’t busted or killed. It should have taken off.

        AAARGH! I will shut up now and request an angry Sam Fuller movie from the library.

        • When I was very young and “true blue,” I was quite sassy to the police. And because I was white (and also doubtless skinny and short), I think they found it kind of charming. If I had been black, I would have been in so much trouble. As for my later more “colorful” experiences, if I had been black, I’d be the pen somewhere doing 20 to life. That’s not an overstatement. Of course, I might have done earlier what I actually did do, which is to go into hiding and become “true blue” (I don’t even jaywalk).

          I can’t recommend Samuel Fuller enough. He was a great filmmaker — really under appreciated. And his politics (or at least social instincts) were right on. Surprisingly, I’ve never written about him (just a biography for his birthday). I think I was going to write an article about The Naked Kiss. But I didn’t find a hook into it. He’s an interesting guy because he combines a real pulp sensibility with great intelligence and thoughtfulness.

          Here’s an idea for you that you might be able to get published someplace real. You could combine your experiences with Shock Corridor and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Throw in a little The Myth of Mental Illness and you might have a classic!

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