22 December 2014

The police state: in union there is strength

Here we go again. In Milwaukee last April a cop fired 14 times to kill a homeless man after the man fought with him and seized his club. This brief account doesn't tell how may bullets hit the man, but it informs us that this time, too, the policeman won't be prosecuted, even though he was thrown off the force after an internal review determined that he had had subjected his victim to an "improper pat-down." The fact that he let a bum take his club probably didn't help his job security, but while that means this victim wasn't exactly unarmed, people are still bound to think that 14 bullets vs. a baton, even when wielded by a mentally ill person, is a disproportionate use of force. We'll see what becomes of this in the aftermath of the assassination of the two policemen in Brooklyn last Saturday. Meanwhile, New York Times columnist David Brooks, one of the paper's house Republicans, challenges readers to do something about it all. Writing before the Milwaukee decision and the Brooklyn shootings, Brooks acknowledges a problem with police that's actually pretty similar to the problem many perceive in the public schools. He claims that the biggest obstacle to reforming police procedures and community relations is the entrenched power of police unions. Their arrogance in the face of protests this fall has been flagrant and offensive, climaxed by the NYPD's attempts to shame the mayor of New York following the Brooklyn killings by turning their back on him and ranting about blood on his hands because he had tolerated and even sympathized with protests against police excesses. Even Rudy Giuliani thinks the "blood on his hands" bit goes too far, and he's no fan of Mayor DeBlasio nor a sympathizer with the protests. Brooks suggests that nothing will change until people and politicians confront the police unions. It seems to him, however that "the left doesn't want to go after police unions, because they're unions." I doubt that matters much to the black protesters, who presumably count as part of the left, but it probably is fair to say that protesters haven't clearly addressed how to deal with union resistance to whatever reforms the protesters desire. Of course, Brooks realizes that the right will be of little help because police still embody "law and order" for most of them, though he might have mentioned that libertarians of the Rand Paul sort might prove more useful allies to the left on this particular issue. Most people seem to agree that "reform" of some sort is necessary, but from the long perspective reform got us here in the first place. The problem with police, to some extent, is less about union power than it is about professionalization. We wanted police who weren't just puppets of the politicians who ran a town, who had qualifications for protecting people and property besides their political connections. We don't want to go back to the Keystone Kops today, but we probably do want police to be more mindful of their dependence upon political will. On some level our police represent us as much as our elected representatives, and on some level they should be answerable to us. If we can have that along with the protections unions can provide against unreasonable treatment, fine. But it has to be the people, not the police, who decide ultimately what reasonable treatment is. Otherwise the police are a law unto themselves in a way no other unionized workforce is.

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