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Internet Answers, Unsocial Media, and Blood Shed

I don’t write as much as some other bloggers. Sometimes, I think it’s because I’m not as smart; I don’t see things as clearly. Other times, I think it’s just because having been a lawyer for only about 10 years, I don’t have enough experience. (Don’t take that as meaning I’m not a good enough lawyer. You’ll want to see what others have to say about that.)

And, although I’m not above it, I don’t like to write about things that are unconnected from the law—I think that’s what personal, or political, blogs like my old Unspun™ blog are for.

But, when it comes down to it, the things I think about most, and want to write about most are very complicated, and a blog post seems inadequate to explain something, and then wrap it up with a solution, or at least a suggestion, in around about 2,000 words, which is the length of my average blog post, it seems.[1] I sit down at the keyboard to write about what concerns me, and I can’t figure out the best way to explain it, or, sometimes, even what I think about it.

Meanwhile, so many other people seem—wrongly, in my estimation—to think the answers are simple. ISIS? just bomb the shit out of them; keep Muslims out of the United States; eject the ones who are already here. Constitution schmonstitution. Police killing black people? Just obey. Because nobody ever gets shot if they just do what they’re told, even if video of black men being shot while reaching for their identification when told by police to get it does exist. Now police officers are being shot and killed in what appear to be responses to the killing of black people? Quit protesting the killing of black people.

At least, that’s how it looks when I look at the Internet.

Add to the mix of simplistic answers on the Internet the fact that it is increasingly difficult to know when the “news” you’re reading is actually real news. It might be a spoof, a hoax, or just a lazy reporter from a mainstream media outlet who did not do any real investigation before reporting, and thereby passed off a spoof, or hoax, or someone else’s speculation about how horribly awry something has gone. Kind of like too many police officers who do not take the time to investigate before deciding someone needs arresting, or beating, or shooting. Or like those who jump to the conclusion that those of us who call for police reform hate all cops.

But I digress.

The truth about the Internet is that not only do we not know if someone is a dog, we don’t know if half of what we read anymore is true. There is no media outlet which objectively reports veridical accounts of what is happening anymore. Every story is rife and rotten with opinion; opinion is no longer limited to “opinion pieces.”

Walter Cronkite is dead.

And even Walter was a leftist who hated America.

Moreover, it seems that few people read to learn things anymore. Instead, we collect—not even really reading[2] —stories that we think will shore up a position to which we already subscribe. We read, to the extent we read at all, for ammunition; not information. This is why, lately, I find myself repeatedly unplugging from social media. “Friendships” suffer as I come to realize that most of them weren’t friendships to start with—this time not just stories, but people I’d collected, or who had collected me, because we supported one another’s views often enough.

Some friendships were (are?) real; that is, they began without the aid of social media. People were met in a way that used to be referred to in Internet lingo as IRL: in real life. We began to get to know one another, and then one of us made the potentially fatal mistake of “friending” the other on social media. I used to deliberately keep my Facebook “Friend” list as small as possible for just this reason, rejecting requests from people I did not think I knew well enough to share my online thoughts. Then I came to learn that’s considered rude, so I tried creating small groups like “Close Friends,” who could see most of my posts, protecting those who knew me less well from the vicissitudes of my complicated thinking—or occasional lack thereof.[3]

And now the world feels almost like it’s coming unraveled “IRL,” and not just online.

For decades police have used force beyond what the Constitution allows, and most people have ignored it, tacitly sanctioning it. Very little, except from “radicals” like me—or the even more radical, because more intelligent, and more capable of marshaling proof, Radley Balko—has been said about the process of militarizing our police forces. But you can’t have an army without eventually having a war. For a long time, it’s been largely one-sided: cops against handfuls (at most) of criminals.

But…

…you can’t have an army without a war.

Increasingly,[4] police officers have killed civilians. Sure, not every death has been an unnecessary murder. But this is where our tendency to collect stories that shore up what we already want to believe really hurts us. Because too many deaths have appeared unnecessary.

Too often, it has looked like the police are at war with the People. Or at least black people. But just as it has been since before the founding of the United States of America, too many of us refuse to believe that we have this problem. Sure, we used to pretend to count unfree black people as only three-fifths of a person, when in actuality, they did not count as people at all. But we fixed that, right? And it only took about a hundred years.

Unless you count Jim Crow. In which case it was almost 200 years.

Unless you count the new Jim Crow. In which case it hasn’t ended.

My social media feed has been filled lately with friends in that more distant group who say this isn’t true, despite the fact that your chances of being killed by a police officer if you are black are only two-and-a-half times greater than if you are white. According to the Guardian,

Police killed almost five black people per every million black residents of the U.S., compared with about 2 per million for both white and hispanic victims.

BUT, more white people than black people are killed by police each year. It’s true.

Internet Answers. You can prove anything you want with them.

That’s what my social media feed has been all about for as long as I can remember, and lately, it’s been heating up. In fact, it’s heated up to the point that I decided to stop using social media much. I go on Twitter at most for anywhere from one-to-three minutes per day. If that. Because of the way conversations—and “Friends”— work on Facebook, I’ve visited there more often. Too often, it turns out, because I’m starting to really feel like bashing some heads. One side wants to talk about the racist black people who say “black lives matter.” They somehow hear it as “only black lives matter.” I’ve always heard it as “it’s about time to start saying that black lives matter, too.”

Because, clearly, they don’t.

But what about the white boy killed because police thought the Wii controller he was holding was a gun?

Social media has the answer. The answer is, “See? It’s okay to kill black people, because white people get killed by police for doing nothing wrong, too.”

Let’s call this what it is, people: it’s a refusal to face the problem. When a scientist decides that he is going to work on a cure for cancer, the proper response is, “That’s great!” An improper response is, “But what about heart attacks? Heart disease kills more people every year than cancer!”

Besides, Internet Answers.

And you know what? In the end, it doesn’t matter if you disbelieve the studies that show black men are either 2.5 times, or 3.5 times, more likely to be killed by police than white men. It doesn’t matter if you say, more white people are killed than blacks—a statement that is true only if you look at the raw numbers, and forget that blacks make up a fraction of the population compared to whites.

What matters is that blood is being shed by police in indefensible—and preventable—numbers. It’s a matter of training.

Knife violence is a big problem in England, yet British police have fatally shot only one person wielding a knife since 2008 – a hostage-taker. By comparison, my calculations based on data compiled by fatalencounters.org and the Washington Post show that US police have fatally shot more than 575 people allegedly wielding blades and other such weapons just in the years since 2013.

In the first 24 days of 2015, police in the United States killed more people than police in England and Wales combined had killed in 24 years. And this isn’t just an Internet Answer.

Historic rates of fatal police shootings in Europe suggest that American police in 2014 were 18 times more lethal than Danish police and 100 times more lethal than Finnish police, plus they killed significantly more frequently than police in France, Sweden and other European countries.

Why? Training.

Not only do centralized standards in Europe make it easier to restrict police behavior, but centralized training centers efficiently teach police officers how to avoid using deadly weapons.

The Netherlands, Norway and Finland, for example, require police to attend a national academy – a college for cops – for three years. In Norway, over 5,000 applicants recently competed for the 700 annual spots.

Three years affords police ample time to learn to better understand, communicate with and calm distraught individuals. By contrast, in 2006, US police academies provided an average of 19 weeks of classroom instruction.

Under such constraints, the average recruit in the US spends almost 20 times as many hours of training in using force than in conflict de-escalation. Most states require fewer than eight hours of crisis intervention training.

All sixteen states in Germany usually require three years of training for their police officers, including training in not reacting in stressful situations without first making an assessment.

If an officer has practiced again and again not to act immediately but to get a handle on the situation first, to speak calmly to a suspect – he stands a good chance to fall back on that pattern when the situation arises.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other reasons why American police officers might kill more people. More Americans confronted by police than Germans confronted by police are armed, for example.

But the fact remains that police officers in the United States typically receive an average of 19 weeks of training. Less than 5 months. Not even halfof a year, compared to the three years in many other First World nations. (Some, like Philadelphia, require “as much” as 8 months of training.) Most American police training is in how to use a gun, self-defense—pretty much everything except training in how to de-escalate stressful situations.

But when such training is given, it works. Ironically, given what recently happened in Dallas,

Dallas Police Chief David Brown says his agency’s de-escalation training, which is taught through reality-based scenarios has yielded extremely impressive results. The Dallas Police Department reported 147 complaints of excessive force by officers in 2009. Last year only 13 such complaints had been lodged against Dallas officers from January to the middle of November.

Sadly, Dallas—and now Baton Rouge—show what can, and will, happen if something isn’t done.

My recognition that it will happen isn’t to condone what has happened. As I’ve spent the last few days, often sitting at my desk, staring into space, and thinking, I recognize that deep down, I agree with what President Obama said after Baton Rouge:

Attacks on police are an attack on all of us and the rule of law that makes society possible.

On the other hand—no Internet Answers here—the never-ending stream of police shootings of American citizens is also an attack on all of us, and the rule of law that makes society possible. There is no due process in a street execution.

As I’ve struggled to formulate a new mindset for myself—and that is what I’m struggling with lately, and what has been driving my reading—I’ve seen that an Australian newspaper said what has been on my mind:

In the wake of the Dallas shootings, it would be a normal human reaction for US police to get even tougher, to avenge their fallen comrades. Yet what’s needed is a de-escalation. There will still be crazed criminals who kill cops – but perhaps in time a less violent culture will develop as a basis for strengthened law-enforcement legitimacy.

Ultimately, here’s the thing, whether you say blue lives matter, or black lives matter, or all lives matter—regardless of whether that constitutes, as some of us think, a failure in recognizing that it’s okay to fight cancer, even if heart attacks cause more deaths, that you don’t have to say “All Holidays Matter” just because someone says “Merry Christmas”—one side in this equation, and one side only, is organized enough to do something about stopping the bloodshed.

And that, my social media and RL friends, is the police.



Footnotes
  1. And I’m working on trying—so far unsuccessfully, as the current post proves yet again—to get down closer to 1,000 words per post. [↩]
  2. Disclaimer: I didn’t read the story I just linked before posting it. See what I mean? [↩]
  3. Shit. I just gave it away, didn’t I? Most of you never see most of my social media posts, even if we’re Friends. [↩]
  4. And this word actually means something when the numbers are rising. See the chart in this story. [↩]
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