TODAY IN DECLINE: Policing Edition

I have a friend named Lee Faulkner who is a distant relative to William Faulkner. He used to be a movie producer, and before that, a stuntman, and before that, a Green Beret in the Army where he served in the Vietnam War. He had a lot of good stories from each period of his life, and one day, when we were driving through Alabama on our way to a meeting, he told me a story from an even earlier period during his childhood in Alabama.

When he was a child, he had to walk a long way to get to school in the mornings, and on more than one occasion, he saw a dead black man along the side of the road. This person was a murder victim from the previous night, presumably at the hands of another black man, and my friend said the weapon of choice in the black community at that time was an ice pick. An ice pick was portable and deadly but did not create a lot of blood spill. On more than one occasion, Lee would a dead black men on the side of the road who had been murdered with an ice pick the previous night.

Why were these bodies so late in being discovered or picked up? This gets to the practice of policing at that time, which could be described as a sort of benign neglect, or a racist refusal to give the black population police protection which was reserved for the white population. At that time, the police in Alabama were 100% male and mostly white and it was their attitude that the black population would “take care of their own” as it was phrased. This phrase was used to describe law enforcement attitudes towards the Latin and Asian populations in other part of the United States as well. 

This attitude, however, violated both the letter and the spirit of the law which was supposed to be equally enforced. Law enforcement was an equal right, and as the violence in the black community began to rise as it did in every other community in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a call, in the spirit of the era of Civil Rights, to provide equal enforcement of the law and the police were ordered to patrol black communities as they did anywhere else, which they did.

And so, over time, the concept of ‘proactive policing’ was developed as well as ‘data driven’ policing and even the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing. Police forces became ‘big data’ police units where maps would tell them, based on reported crimes, where to direct limited resources. By the 1980s, enforcing the new drug laws also began to direct police resources towards predominantly black neighborhoods, where the police now did not hesitate to go. Black leadership demanded equal police presence and they got it.

The results were entirely predictable. The police began to interact for more frequently with the black population and often, that interaction was very ugly. Further, the police expanded and hired more non-white and female officers, and this changed the way the police deployed weapons. One can watch any cop show from the 60s or 70s, shows like “Adam 12” and “Emergency”  and Chips” and see what police used to look like; tall, white, male, and armed with a night stick and a police revolver. By the mid-1980s, that era in policing was over and a much more diverse force with a much more sophisticated phalanx of weapons was the norm.

Which bring us to the officer in Minnesota who recently shot a black suspect with a Glock 9mm handgun while yelling “Taser!” This was the police work of 48 year old Kim Potter, a veteran police officer who was training a black officer when they and a third officer pulled over a black kid who had outstanding warrants for a weapons violation. Potter’s height and weight are not published, but it appears she was on the short side, and would need weapons to level the playing field with most men she would encounter. The suspect she shot was a wisp of a kid, could not have been over 150 pounds, and yet he wriggled out of the control of the black officer that was trying to cuff him, and Officer Potter did not see fit to just pounce on the kid and yank him back out of the car. Instead, she shot him with a handgun which she confused with a taser.

Potter is now charged with a serious crime and will no doubt be convicted as was the officer that was convicted of murder in the case of George Floyd. The body camera was deployed to show that officers were not racist and criminally negligent; now it is the primary evidence gathering mechanism that is used against them.

Shootings and murders of young black men is now rising in virtually every city in the United States, and the cause is not a mystery; the police are pulling back. The cost of policing predominantly black neighborhoods is just too great, and while it was once racism not to patrol those areas, it’s now racism to patrol them with the goal of enforcing the law based on data and behavior IF the enforcement results in some violent encounter or the police make a mistake.

Incidentally, Lee and I were on a way to meeting with Fred Gray when he told me his childhood story. We were discussing a possible movie project based on Gray’s very interesting life. Fred Gray is a prominent Civil Right attorney who represented Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and several others. Fred Gray was the 4th black man to get a license to practice law in the state of Alabama, and he set out to destroy everything segregated he could find. He was a real hero of the heroic era of Civil Rights.

The Civil Rights era as we have known it is ending. Apparently the idea of a ‘color blind society’ has failed. As time marches on, it seems that color is all we see now. There is as much raw naked tribalism now as there ever was, and so if there is to be public safety and law enforcement in the black population, it will have to be administered by black law enforcement and if the deadly encounters in Baltimore from a few years ago are any guide, even black cops won’t be able to enforce the law. If that is the case, there is no answer except a return to the days of Lee’s childhood where there is no police in black communities. Millions of benign interactions between black people and white police officer have not reduced the danger posed to society at large by one deadly interaction between white police and the black population, even if the suspect is question is literally in the process of committing murder.

The more likely outcome is that there will be less policing of any kind where there is a black majority because in the end, the law and law enforcement is only possible where the majority want it, even if it is flawed. It is my observation that black culture the United States values a certain kind of freedom that proliferates in a less restrictive environment and if the cost of that freedom is greater disorder, danger but less safety and commercial prosperity, they will accept it. If that is the cultural tide, it will not be stopped. The only solution is the withdrawal of the police from any area where they are not welcome, and the resulting re-segregation of law enforcement in portions of the United States based on race. The police are right now implementing that policy around the country.

Policing and so much else is quickly going back to the future.

Adam 12 which ran on TV from 1968 to 1975
Dragnet, another classic police drama from the 60s and 70s
CHiPs, about the California Highway Patrol
Body Cam footage from Kim Potter’s angle