“Better training”, “more oversight”, and other technical non-solutions to police brutality

In the aftermath of revelations of police brutality/corruption/violence/abuse/extortion/entrapment/[insert your choice of awful behaviour here], defenders of institutionalized oppression are often desperate to find some way of appeasing the angry masses without actually changing the deeply broken system which led to all the outrage to begin with.

These champions of the police, a group composed of politicians, police bureaucrats, P.R. flaks and pundits, as well as the arms dealers and prison operators who thrive on the criminalization of everyday life, are powerful but not very numerous. They therefore rely on arguments and policy changes which will appease and convince enough of the populace to either agree with them or at least stop actively resisting them, so that they can get away with not making meaningful changes.

There are many tried and tested strategies available to these people. One of the most effective is the appeal to prejudice, which is to say, fear.

This is closely tied up in victim-blaming. Invoking white fears of black “thugs” engaged in “senseless” “rioting” and “looting” is a brilliant strategy in this regard – it erases or obscures the rationale of protestors, it dehumanizes them by reducing them to a mob, it trivializes and distracts attention from their grievances, and it exploits the fears of white property- and business-owners by implying that a thin blue line is all that separates them from being viciously attacked, decreasing or destroying interracial solidarity.

(As a not-entirely-irrelevant aside, we can observe a similar dynamic in misogynist discourses surrounding sexual assault: the victim is robbed of her agency and humanity, she has her motivations and actions intensely scrutinized, she has her reputation slandered, and her ability to make false accusations is presented as a terrifying and ever-present threat to supposedly helpless and well-meaning dudebros.)

The idea that the (systemically oppressed) victim is somehow to blame for the brutality that has been visited upon them is such a pernicious and effective one because it assuages any vague feelings of guilt that the systemically privileged may have floating around their subconsciouses.

At times, though, the hideous wrongness of some cop or group of cops is so glaringly obvious and unavoidable that police apologists have to make some concession to an outraged public. Their aim in such cases is to avoid actually changing the way the police do their work. The criminal [in]justice system works perfectly well from the point of view of police apologists – which is to say, it does what it was designed to do. (See here and here and here for a few examples of the system being built to oppress and imprison marginalized people and communities.)

So the challenge becomes creating the illusion of change while maintaining the status quo. This is where the technical solution comes in. Hillary Clinton championed one such fix in a much-fêted speech a few days back:

Police body cameras might just represent a big talking point in next year’s US elections. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tells those at a policy forum that she wants “every department” to issue the wearables to their officers. While a White House taskforce has already recommended the technology, Clinton believes that the implementations should “go even further” in certain circumstances. As she argues, there’s a pattern of cops abusing their power across the country — body cameras should encourage accountability and transparency.

Which sounds all well and good.

Until you remember that from Rodney King in 1992 right up to Eric Garner last fall, the presence of clear and compelling video evidence of police brutality has consistently not led to actual charges being filed and actual officers being convicted.

Until you remember that the American surveillance state is always hungry for new sources of information on literally everybody, and recording every police encounter with the public sounds like a recipe for a real monster of a database.

Until you remember that countries like Germany and the United Kingdom have drastically lower rates of police-caused fatalities, a fact that was true long before body cameras were introduced in those countries.

Until you remember that tampering with evidence by police is a central part of the problem, and there’s no reason to believe that body camera footage won’t be similarly tampered with.

Until you remember that a main manufacturer of body cameras is Taser International – the company that cashed in big-time by persuading a previous generation that a portable electro-shock device was the solution to too many police shootings.

At which point the notion that we can deal with the ever-present threat of extrajudicial execution which exists in racialized communities across North America by forcing officers to wear cameras would be laughable if it weren’t so grimly terrible.

The thing is, though, the idea is at first glance plausible and credible. For a politician of Clinton’s stature to push it suggests to folks who aren’t paying close attention that the political classes are starting to get serious about the issue of police brutality. Obviously not everybody agrees that it goes far enough, but that’s all right – it reframes the terms of debate around a specific inadequate policy prescription, rather than allowing it to focus on the frequency and brutality of police abuse. And if implemented, it allows the power structure to claim that it’s addressing the issue and standing up for the people.

In the meanwhile, nothing substantial has changed, and the prison-weapons-industrial complex has added another revenue stream to its vast extractive parasitic network.

We can see a similar dynamic playing out here in Toronto around carding. Opponents to the practice have long complained about its arbitrary nature and the dubious legality of allowing the police to collect and store personal information on people who aren’t suspected of any crime, and statistics are widely available showing that people of colour, especially young black men, are massively overrepresented in police databases.

To destroy such a system, however, would radically undermine the (extremely lucrative) criminalization of marginalized populations, which is the unstated but clearly implicit priority of the Harper government’s “tough on crime” agenda and omnibus bills, the results of which are already becoming obvious. Therefore, defenders of the status quo have to offer up an illusory solution:

In comments to reporters after very brief remarks in the summit, [chief of police Mark] Saunders defended carding as being “very important” in the context of gathering vital intelligence to eliminate Toronto’s street gang culture, and said ending the controversial practice was not the way forward.

“Abolishing it is not the way in which we are going to say ‘everything is going to be better,’” Saunders said. “If we remove the ability of our officers to engage with the community, all I can tell you is that will put us in a situation where there will be an increase of crime.”

But what Saunders is open to abolishing, he said, was “random” stops by police, saying that improved training was among the changes he would make to ensure officers “know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”

Let’s unpack this slowly. Saunders starts out with some obfuscating and dust-kicking. A “very important” way that police in this city gather intelligence on gangs is by making stops of people who aren’t suspected of any crime and questioning them. Furthermore, it’s the only strategy police have to “eliminate” street gang culture (which is, apparently, caused by a shortage of police files on young black men). Moreover, this is literally the only way that officers can engage with the community. And finally (here’s where the fear-mongering comes in) if we stop letting cops hassle whoever they want whenever they want, crime will go up!

So after confusing the issue, Saunders acknowledges that, yes, there is a problem with carding. No, it’s not that it’s systemically racist! It’s that officers are stopping people at random. As in, by definition, there’s no pattern to whom they stop, no rhyme or reason whatsoever.

But don’t worry! TPS has the solution to all this – more training! That way officers “know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”

Because they didn’t before, apparently.

Saunders elaborated on his statements today:

Though he has not provided details about increased training, Saunders has stated he wants to boost officers’ knowledge about their role in the communities they are policing.

“I want my officers to be smarter, to be better trained, to have a better understanding of the community, to know who to talk to, and to know why to talk to them.”

Which is pretty transparently stupid, really. Does he think that officers are disproportionately targeting people of colour by accident? Or that they didn’t get the memo that it’s the twenty-first century and racism isn’t in anymore?

Well, no. Saunders is no fool. The strategy he’s pursuing is an old and reliable one. He’s saying enough of the right things to convince enough people that he’s serious about addressing some issues – but what he’s promising isn’t in any way actionable. Enough people – especially privileged conservative wealthy people, which is to say the folks to whom the local power structure is beholden – will be convinced that the matter is resolved, and if people of colour keep getting targeted, well, then they were probably criminals after all. And the rest of us are left arguing over which reforms to carding will best address the issues, instead of working to abolish the hideously racist program once and for all.

The introduction of technical non-solutions, such as more training or better oversight, to address problems of systemic inequality and oppression is so effective because it accomplishes several things at once:

  • It immediately sidelines discussions of the problem by transforming the conversation into a debate over a proposed (inadequate) solution. Even if people strongly disagree with the quick-fix, they need to expend time and energy on opposing it which they are then unable to devote to more constructive purposes.
  • It provides cover for extremely prejudiced people to denounce those protesting injustice without sounding overtly prejudiced.
  • It co-opts moderates who would possibly be open to more systemic proposals by offering them an easy solution which requires no action or sacrifice from them.
  • It allows politicians and police chiefs to position themselves as being reasonable and responsive to the public’s concerns
  • It perpetuates a cycle of victim-blaming by creating the false impression that the root causes of the problem have been addressed, and that therefore any future victims of police brutality were “asking for it”.
  • It often allows policy-makers to further entrench powerful interests, such as by strengthening arms dealer Taser’s relationship with police departments across the continent, or by allowing incoming police Chief Saunders to show the police union rank and file that he’s got their back if they have his

Once you’ve seen the pattern, it’s easy to see through in future iterations. In fact, it becomes depressingly difficult to avoid. As long as we allow these non-fixes to masquerade as solutions in popular discourse, this strategy will be pursued whenever police violence rears its ugly head. The movements opposed to police brutality face many challenges, but one of the most important is in educating the public in the ways their leaders mislead them on this pressing and vital issue.

(PS – I was going to get into this, but it’s a little off-topic, so I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to think about the “moderate” proposals by four former Prime Ministers for “more oversight” of intelligence agencies to be inserted into Bill C-51, and how that widely-repeated suggestion fits into this pattern of technical “solutions” to non-technical systemic issues.)

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