Monday, June 22, 2020

On Policing: Maintaining Institutions

Victoria's Secret
I'm just kicking around the idea of defunding the police and trying to picture how it all works and how we get from here to there to explore if it's necessarily the best route to obliterate the police force or just to de-militarize it. Police take up a huge part of municipal budgets, and seeing cops in riot gear or with armoured trucks (worth a third of a million each) when people are struggling to access mental health facilities or find basic shelter or even get enough food is baffling in its excess. But, when cops had little more than billy clubs and rope, the threatening aura didn't disappear.  There were reports of cops being racist and cruel and barbaric before all the equipment; the armour just makes them faster. So, while much of that money could definitely be better used elsewhere, changing the budget doesn't touch the heart of the issue.

One key problem with any powerful institution that needs to be dismantled is the subtle peer pressure to turn a blind eye in order to maintain the illusion of perfection in the institution. The machine convinces us to save it at the expense of the individuals it was made to serve.

An innocuous example from twenty years ago: My oldest was being bullied by a group of girls in her grade one class; they actually whipped her with sticks! When I went in to talk with the principal of what is considered, by many, to be the best grade school in the region, she assured me my child must be mistaken since children at this school don't do such things. I took matters in my own hands, had my kid point out the offenders, all of 3' high, and told them sweetly, "I bet you girls could find a better game to play at recess." They looked sheepish and cowered. Busted!! And they never bothered my kid again.

It's amazing the strength of the psychological mechanisms at play that provoke someone, a leader, to neglect responsibility for a child's wellbeing for the sake of preserving a building's image. Bad things don't happen here. You must be mistaken about that gymnastic coach or Father Michael or that pain in your side or Judge Thomas or the president. We'll gaslight people for the sake of keeping up appearances and maintaining a system that is familiar and stable to avoid the chaos and unknown of stepping up.

It's so obviously dangerous when this type of negligence happens in policing, as we're seeing every day in the news. But, here's my concern, it's also dangerous in social work, in psychiatry, in nursing, in oncology (as I wrote about previously), in the church and courthouse, and in teaching. Shifting money from one institution to another might just shift the entire power dynamic. It may be an Animal Farm solution that kicks out the police only to put the social workers in the farmhouse.

On Fathers Day, Maureen Dowd wrote about coming to terms with her father career as a police detective. She says,
"Once I would have tried to blame bad apples. But the grotesque spectacle of blacks being regularly executed for living their lives is completely indefensible. I grew up in the shadow of two powerful patriarchies, the Catholic Church and the police. Both institutions attracted an element of warped, sadistic people. Instead of rooting out those dark forces, the institutions protected them, moving bad priests to another parish and bad cops to another precinct. The police and the church are arbiters of right and wrong, yet they let a poisonous culture grow and conspired to shield those doing wrong and hurting innocents."
Why do we allow this poisonous culture to grow?

Once we join a group, we forge a bond with the identity that the group projects. Any flaws in that foundation, and it doesn't just harm the affiliation, it harms our own concept of selfhood. So we can be intensely protective of it in order to preserve what may be a significant portion of our identification. Falling into the sunk cost fallacy, we've invested too much of ourselves in the job to be willing to see any potential deficiencies with our career. Some people clarify this enmeshment with, "This job is who I am." If your self is bound to an institution, then it's a basic survival instinct to fight any attack on it.

And there are subtle social pressures that add to that. If we have a problem with our work or with an idea we have pointed out to us, it's always a faster route to escape any negative feelings of guilt or shame by discounting our critics than by actually exploring and addressing the concern. Similarly, pointing out a problem within an organization provokes a group dynamic that would far rather ostracize the condemning party than take the arduous path towards improvement.

Change is hard, and we've been on this particular road forever. I think there are two big things that need to shift, one at the bottom and one at the top.

We need a basic, down to the roots, change in how we see each other. We have to increase our capacity to care about people who don't have enough instead of falling into the trap of writing them off as lazy or stupid or otherwise useless. We have to stop scrutinizing people for class affiliation, subtly disparaging the untouchables in our midst. Like the saying, "only look at your neighbour's bowl to make sure they have enough," we should only look at our neighbours to make sure they're safe, not to make sure they fit a narrowly defined collection of attributes that we deem acceptable. It's about stopping the rat race, getting over competition. When people give more than they get, we currently see them as weak or easily taken, duped, a loser. That's nuts! It's all part of that same combative, us against them, mindset. Things won't shift, I believe, until we are at a point of praising people who put themselves second in order to help others have a chance, and stop seeing people and animals and "resources" in the ground for what we can get from them, for how best we can use them in order to at least diminish viewing people as valuable on some sort of messed up hierarchy. We need these kinds of messages taught everywhere: by parents, teachers, ministers, and in kids shows and sitcoms.

And we need to turn that judgmental gaze, instead, towards the top tiers of power in every institution. Stephanie Pappas collected stats on what actually works to reduce police officers' likelihood of using force, and much of it works for other powerful organizations as well: Track any problems in a database with full transparency to be able to watch for patterns of abuse, and then help people to improve where possible. Train people in procedural justice that focuses on fairness. Teach people how to de-escalate encounters. And install oversights - outside groups that monitor the effectiveness of these institutions - since we seem to be so hard-wired to protect them from the inside.

But, while we're working on all that happening, it wouldn't hurt to take away the military equipment.

ETA: Canada's military gave over 2,000 assault rifles to 68 police forces in 2016, and continues to donate equipment. Nice of them.

ETA: Now that Norman Finkelstein's in the news, here's what Princeton did to him for not getting with the program!


Anonymous said...

I like your stuff. The piece on the homeless woman the other day was very well-written. I got glommed onto by a young female drug addict in a London Tube station lo these 50 years ago. Couldn't shake her till I got on a Southern Railways train at Waterloo where the platform ticker collector prevented her entry. You stop to talk and if you're not dismissive, well you've become the anointed one. Have several other stories in a similar vein. You have to be hard-hearted or you end up being personally responsible for people that the poor organization of society allows to be forgotten and uncared for, which is an unfair burden even for a progressive.

So far as the police are concerned, you hit the nail on the head. They pick the wrong people to "serve", not just a few "bad apples". Then it becomes a fraternity, hardly with a minority sorority even these days. The catholic church seems beyond redemption as an organization to me. Back in the '70s in Halifax when I ran a local office in Halifax for a national engineering products company, every year the Police Association rep in uniform would turn up rattling a tin cup and essentially holding all the small business and national reps in that office building to ransom for an ad in their "magazine". Mostly all ads as printed. Now as Halifax Regional PA, they agitate that the new police chief doesn't understand carding, blah, blah, blah.

Well, at least regional council cut out their new play-toy, pictured above. And a CBC Radio report the other day showed that police budgets nationwide had ballooned since 2005. In Halifax, over 50%. It's essentially a protection racket that plays to our "fears" and adds the one that unless you agree, well, you might not get service. Since George Floyd, we've had at least 3 police shootings to death in Canada, two in NB and that one in the GTA of an old guy who couldn't walk. All mentally ill people. Out of control is how I see it. Public beatings of First Nations people by RCMP in Kelowna and Alberta, whose injuries weren't deemed enough to "warrant further investigation". So assault is legal if our cops do it.

Trudeau natters on about the "rule of law" in the Chinese/Huawei situation. China sees right through that crap. Assault by cops is not deemed a crime in Canada, but we climb up on a high horse when it comes to arresting foreigners for the US. Not saying the Chinese are any better, but they know a line of BS when they see it, because that's how they conduct business themselves.

As your post shows, even little girls get together and bully kids - it must be human nature, and not a nice side of our make-up as biologic beings. Everyone looks for an angle that benefits themselves. Wars used to provide a reset every now and then, but nuking the other side is committing suicide yourself these days, so now we have dysfunctional societies as "compensation". Not that this country ever treated minorities properly, ever. And our overseas policies supporting business are as racist and anti-socialist as they come and never reported on by our media. Instead we send intrepid reporters to interview the merchant class in those countries, and say, see? Those "dictators" like Maduro and Morales supported by indigenous populations and who somehow rigged elections, need to be removed from power. We shall rescue those poor downtrodden folk. Double talk.


Owen Gray said...

What you say about turning our gaze to the top tiers of power, is very important, Marie. There's a feeling that, if you make it to the top, you've achieved some kind of immunity.

Marie Snyder said...

Sorry guys - all comments were going to my spam folder for a while!

@BM - I think there is an element of bullying that's human nature in any power structure, no matter how small and innocuous. So we have to monitor power in ourselves and in others to reign it in before it becomes abusive. Over and over.

@Owen - Absolutely. People at the top need to know they are held responsible by everyone beneath them. After all, we put them there to serve the people!