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“A Scary Culture Change”: What New Law Enforcement Rhetoric Reveals About America

For those who’ve been following the ups and downs (mostly downs) of Bill de Blasio’s relationship with the NYPD, there was little about the officers’ response to the murder of two of their colleagues that was surprising. For a number of reasons, including his vocal opposition to stop-and-frisk and his public alliance with Rev. Al Sharpton, de Blasio was never popular among the force’s rank and file. Even before Officers Liu and Ramos were killed, the head of the cops’ union, the bombastic Patrick Lynch, was urging members to sign a petition asking the mayor not to attend their hypothetical funeral. He also accused de Blasio of foregoing responsible governance in favor of leading “a fucking revolution.” So when he said de Blasio had Liu and Romas’ blood on his hands, it was both heinous and more or less expected.

For many of those less attuned to the city’s politics, however, the patent animosity some officers sent de Blasio’s way was disturbing. New York’s a representative democracy, after all, and de Blasio is the mayor. Don’t the police ultimately work for him? Technically, yes. But the reality is more complicated (a lesson all of de Blasio’s recent predecessors have learned, none more so than David Dinkins). Judging by recent history, and according to the dictates of today’s conventional wisdom, any politician who wants to run New York City not only has to win the most votes, but also has to earn the city polices’ at least grudging acceptance. And by gently criticizing some NYPD practices — as well as revealing that he’s told his African-American son, Dante, to be cautious around law enforcement — de Blasio has seemingly lost the cops’ assent. He may never get it back.

I’d imagine that many people watching the drama unfold from afar are consoling themselves with the thought that, like so much else about the city, the hyper-sensitivity of New York’s police force is unique. They’d be right, at least to a degree; the NYPD stands alone in scale and ambition. But if you listen to some of the rhetoric that’s recently come from police unions and their most loyal politicians, you’ll realize that the problem currently engulfing de Blasio doesn’t end at the Hudson. It extends all across the country, influencing communities large and small, black and (less often) white. The problem isn’t the unions themselves or “bad apples” among the rank and file. The problem is that the culture of law enforcement in America has gone badly off-course; too many officers — and, for that matter, too many citizens — forget that law enforcement’s mandate is to preserve justice as well as maintaining the peace.

You’d think it would be impossible to offer a better illustration of the mentality than Rudy Giuliani’s remarkable 1994 speech on why freedom is about obeying authority. Unfortunately, recent public statements from representatives of powerful police unions in two major American cities indicate that many officers’ privileging of order over justice has only gotten worse. The day after news of Liu and Romas’ murder first broke, the Fraternal Order of Police in Baltimore (where the killer shot an ex-girlfriend before heading to New York) released a statement that made Giuliani’s rhetoric from two decades ago sound positively libertarian. “Once again, we need to be reminded that the men and women of law enforcement are absolutely the only entity standing between a civilized society and one of anarchy and chaos,” the statement said before laying blame for the shooting at the feet of President Obama, Attorney General Holder, Mayor de Blasio and Rev. Al Sharpton (all of whom are either black or have black people in their immediate family). “Sadly,” the union continued, “the bloodshed will most likely continue until those in positions of power realize that the unequivocal support of law enforcement is required to preserve our nation.”

At no point in the press release did the union acknowledge its members’ duty to protect Americans’ rights as well as their persons. There wasn’t even a perfunctory gesture to that effect. Instead, the union statement spoke of “the dangerous political climate in which all members of law enforcement, nationwide, now find themselves” (the rate of officers being killed is at a 50-year low) and how being a member of American law enforcement hadn’t been so bad since the civil rights movement (or, as the union puts it, “the political unrest of the 1960’s”). At the end of the statement, the union reiterated why it believed support for cops must be “unequivocal,” saying that Baltimore citizens must help “to restore the order necessary for their own safety and for ours.” In sum, the union was arguing that American citizens — including politicians — must do what they’re told, lest we fail to “preserve our nation.” The enemies of civilization, apparently, had already broken through the gates.

While the Baltimore union’s statement could hardly be described as subtle, it still paled in comparison to the comments of Jeffrey Follmer, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, whose unvarnished authoritarianism made headlines just last week. Appearing on MSNBC in order to defend his claim that Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins should be forced to apologize for political speech, Follmer told host Ari Melber that the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice was “justified” because the child refused to “listen to police officers’ commands.” Never mind the fact that Rice was shot almost immediately, and that the cop who shot him had a history of rank incompetence; according to Follmer, if “the nation” would simply obey when officers “tell you to do something,” everything would be all right. And if the officers commands are unconstitutional or in any way objectionable? Be quiet and let “the courts … figure it out.” Not content to simply issue commands to those engaged with officers on-duty, Follmer also ordered Hawkins and other athletes like him to “stick to what they know best on the field” because their voicing opinions on police behavior was “pathetic.”

As I said before, these two examples of rabid authoritarianism are striking but far from unique. If you were so inclined, you could spend nearly all day, every day, reading stories in the local and national news of law enforcement agents behaving as if they were exempt from the social contract and the law. And although the reasons why are too various and complicated to untangle in this column, the philosophy of “broken windows” policing — developed initially by followers of neoconservatism, an ideology comfortable with authoritarianism, to say the least — is undoubtedly at least partially to blame. When the emphasis of law enforcement shifts from upholding law to upholding order, it’s inevitable that officers will begin to envision themselves as the only thing standing between “the nation” and the abyss. With the stakes raised to such existential levels, it’s hardly surprising that officers from Baltimore to Cleveland to Ferguson to New York see themselves as beyond the control of a mere politician, not to mention the citizenry itself.

Bill de Blasio and his millions of supporters may think the mayor’s in charge. But it seems that in the minds of a frighteningly large number of police officers, both he and the Constitution are simply getting in the way.


By: Elias Isquith, Salon, December 23, 2014

December 26, 2014 Posted by | Bill de Blasio, Law Enforcement, NYPD | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Tidings Of Comfort”: On Multiple Fronts, Government Wasn’t The Problem; It Was The Solution

Maybe I’m just projecting, but Christmas seemed unusually subdued this year. The malls seemed less crowded than usual, the people glummer. There was even less Muzak in the air. And, in a way, that’s not surprising: All year Americans have been bombarded with dire news reports portraying a world out of control and a clueless government with no idea what to do.

Yet if you look back at what actually happened over the past year, you see something completely different. Amid all the derision, a number of major government policies worked just fine — and the biggest successes involved the most derided policies. You’ll never hear this on Fox News, but 2014 was a year in which the federal government, in particular, showed that it can do some important things very well if it wants to.

Start with Ebola, a subject that has vanished from the headlines so fast it’s hard to remember how pervasive the panic was just a few weeks ago. Judging from news media coverage, especially but not only on cable TV, America was on the verge of turning into a real-life version of “The Walking Dead.” And many politicians dismissed the efforts of public health officials to deal with the disease using conventional methods. Instead, they insisted, we needed to ban all travel to and from West Africa, imprison anyone who arrived from the wrong place, and close the border with Mexico. No, I have no idea why anyone thought that last item made sense.

As it turned out, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, despite some early missteps, knew what they were doing, which shouldn’t be surprising: The Centers have a lot of experience in, well, controlling disease, epidemics in particular. And while the Ebola virus continues to kill many people in parts of Africa, there was no outbreak here.

Consider next the state of the economy. There’s no question that recovery from the 2008 crisis has been painfully slow and should have been much faster. In particular, the economy has been held back by unprecedented cuts in public spending and employment.

But the story you hear all the time portrays economic policy as an unmitigated disaster, with President Obama’s alleged hostility to business holding back investment and job creation. So it comes as something of a shock when you look at the actual record and discover that growth and job creation have been substantially faster during the Obama recovery than they were during the Bush recovery last decade (even ignoring the crisis at the end), and that while housing is still depressed, business investment has been quite strong.

What’s more, recent data suggest that the economy is gathering strength — 5 percent growth in the last quarter! Oh, and not that it matters very much, but there are some people who like to claim that economic success should be judged by the performance of the stock market. And stock prices, which hit a low point in March 2009, accompanied by declarations from prominent Republican economists that Mr. Obama was killing the market economy, have tripled since then. Maybe economic management hasn’t been that bad, after all.

Finally, there’s the hidden-in-plain-sight triumph of Obamacare, which is just finishing up its first year of full implementation. It’s a tribute to the effectiveness of the propaganda campaign against health reform — which has played up every glitch, without ever mentioning that the problem has been solved, and invented failures that never happened — that I fairly often encounter people, some of them liberals, who ask me whether the administration will ever be able to get the program to work. Apparently nobody told them that it is working, and very well.

In fact, Year 1 surpassed expectations on every front. Remember claims that more people would lose insurance than gained it? Well, the number of Americans without insurance fell by around 10 million; members of the elite who have never been uninsured have no idea just how much positive difference that makes to people’s lives. Remember claims that reform would break the budget? In reality, premiums were far less than predicted, overall health spending is moderating, and specific cost-control measures are doing very well. And all indications suggest that year two will be marked by further success.

And there’s more. For example, at the end of 2014, the Obama administration’s foreign policy, which tries to contain threats like Vladimir Putin’s Russia or the Islamic State rather than rushing into military confrontation, is looking pretty good.

The common theme here is that, over the past year, a U.S. government subjected to constant bad-mouthing, constantly accused of being ineffectual or worse, has, in fact, managed to accomplish a lot. On multiple fronts, government wasn’t the problem; it was the solution. Nobody knows it, but 2014 was the year of “Yes, we can.”


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 25, 2014

December 26, 2014 Posted by | Christmas, Federal Government, Public Safety | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Unworthy Of Attention”: Why Is No One Talking About The NYPD Shooter’s Other Target?

New York City’s police commissioner is laying blame for the Saturday shooting of two of the city’s police officers at the feet of protesters participating in #BlackLivesMatter actions. Patrick Lynch, the head of the police union, claimed there’s “blood on the hands” of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who, Lynch has said, didn’t do enough to disavow and put an end to local protests.

None of this is surprising, unfortunately. The tragic killing of two officers by an emotionally and psychologically unstable shooter is being used to further the political goals of an establishment that’s been challenged through effective, largely nonviolent protest. Despite that movement’s focus on the criminal justice system as a whole, from policing to the role of district attorneys and the grand jury system, police leadership and rank and file are using this moment to claim victim status, ramping up rhetoric and participating in symbolic moves such as officers and union leaders turning their backs on de Blasio during a public appearance over the weekend.

What’s equally predictable and disappointing is the near-erasure of Shaneka Thompson from the story of Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s shooting spree. Thompson is the 29-year-old ex-girlfriend whose Maryland apartment Brinsley entered before shooting her in the stomach and leaving her to scream for help. “I can’t die like this. Please, please help me,” she is reported to have shouted as she banged on a neighbor’s door. According to news reports, Thompson is a health insurance specialist with the Veterans Administration and an Air Force reservist. Brinsley took her phone with him as he headed north to New York, using it to post self-incriminating rants to Instagram before killing Officers Ramos and Liu and, finally, himself.

Thompson is hospitalized and was, as of Sunday, in critical but stable condition. She is also the latest in a series of women who have been brutalized by men whose violence only became notable when they took on targets deemed more important, more relevant to a national or international debate already in play. On Monday Muna Mire, a former Nation intern, noted on Facebook similarities between Thompson and Noleen Hayson Pal, slain ex-wife of Man Haron Monis. Monis is the gunman behind the sixteen-hour standoff in an Australian café that earlier this month left three people (including him) dead. He had a history of violence against women and at the time of the café attack was out on bail on charges including dozens of counts of sexual assault. He had also been charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, with whom he had a custody dispute. He allegedly conspired with a girlfriend, who then set Pal on fire and stabbed her eighteen times. To frame that hostage crisis as one simply driven by religious fanaticism leaves out a key element: Monis seems to have been quite sick and is alleged to have used women’s bodies as a place to target that sickness.

Monis had been charged with these crimes recently, but he wasn’t due back in court until February. This past weekend, Baltimore police started tracking Shaneka Thompson’s phone, which Brinsley had in his possession, around 6:30 am, less than an hour after she was shot. According to The New York Times, they knew Brinsley’s whereabouts, but didn’t contact New York police until after noon. They faxed a wanted poster to a Brooklyn precinct just after 2 pm.

There may well be legitimate reasons why law enforcement could not have apprehended Brinsley earlier, even though they knew his whereabouts as he traveled north from Baltimore to New York. But in both this case and the Sydney incident, there seem to have been assumptions that public safety was not at risk despite the allegations and evidence of violence against women. Why does the threat level and stoking of public fear skyrocket when a madman is thought to be tied to an ideology that’s generally hated in the mainstream—anti-police sentiment or Islamic fundamentalism—but not when that madness has threatened a woman’s life or safety?

Salamishah Tillett raised a similar question during the trial of George Zimmerman, who had been accused of molesting a cousin as a child and of abusing a former fiancée before killing Trayvon Martin. As Tillett wrote, “Zimmerman’s attorneys successfully argued that those acts were inadmissible or irrelevant. But these accusations offer us other truths: that violence against girls and women is often an overlooked and unchecked indicator of future violence.”

It’s predictable that some opponents of police reform want to use Brinsley’s shooting spree to discredit and mischaracterize the #BlackLivesMatter movement and any politician who hasn’t tried to stamp it out. Let’s not go an equally predictable route and ignore that a woman bore the brunt of Brinsley’s instability first, before he went on to commit the type of crime that media and law enforcement consider worthy of their full attention.


By: Dani McClain, The Nation, December 23, 2014

December 26, 2014 Posted by | NYPD, Violence Against Women | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Uh Oh”: With GDP Growing Strongly, Republicans’ Economic Dilemma Gets More Complicated

We got the latest quarterly economic growth numbers today, and they’re pretty striking:

The U.S. economy grew at its fastest rate in more than a decade between the months of July and October, helped by a surge in consumer spending, according to government data released Tuesday morning.

The Commerce Department said gross domestic product growth hit an annualized rate of 5 percent in the third quarter, revised upward from the previous estimate of 3.9 percent. Not since 2003 has the economy expanded so quickly.

The third quarter performance, coupled with 4.6 percent growth in the second quarter, amounts to the best sign since the Great Recession that the U.S. recovery has hit its stride.

The simple way to look at the political implications of these numbers is to say that it’s good for Democrats, since there’s a Democrat in the White House. And though it’s extremely unlikely for growth to stay over 5 percent for any length of time — it’s been 30 years since we had more than two consecutive quarters at that level — if both growth and job creation remain strong for the next two years, it’ll be somewhere between difficult and impossible for a Republican to win the White House in 2016, since the state of the economy swamps every other issue in presidential campaigns.

That’s the simple way to look at it, and it’s not wrong. But there’s another layer to the state of the country’s economy that could make things more complicated for both parties. It has to do with the difference between the two numbers that get the most attention — job creation and GDP growth — and the rest of how Americans experience their economic and working lives.

If you listen to the way President Obama talks about the economy these days, you’ll notice that he always says both that things are going well and that “we have more work to do.” It’s a way to assure people that he understands that they don’t feel secure and that many may not have gotten back to where they were before the Great Recession. On the other side, for a long time Republicans would say, “Where are the jobs, Mr. President?” But they can’t say that anymore, nor can they complain about growth being weak.

The economic debate of 2016 will start in about a year from now. While there could certainly be a downturn between now and then, let’s assume for the moment that the momentum continues. How could Republicans make a case that although growth and job creation are strong, all is still not well? Even if that’s what Americans feel, it would be a difficult case for Republicans to make, because those top-line figures are what they generally point to when they discuss the economy. What else can they build their case on? They aren’t going to talk about the stock market or corporate profits, not only because those have both performed spectacularly during the Obama presidency, but because they know that ordinary people don’t much care.

And they aren’t going to talk about the things that really make people worried. The most important fact of the American economy in the past few decades may be its failure to produce rising wages, but that’s not something Republicans are particularly concerned with. Their economic focus is usually on business owners — the taxes they pay, the regulations they have to abide by, and so on. Even if you believe that helping those owners is the best way to help the people who work for them, you’re going to have a hard time finding Republicans who want to talk about something like wage stagnation.

And the arguments Republicans always make against Democratic proposals aimed directly at workers, like increasing the minimum wage or expanding health coverage, are that the proposals will cost jobs and hinder growth. So they can’t turn around and say, “OK, so growth and job creation may look good, but the real problem is what people earn and how they’re treated on the job.” That’s just not in the Republican DNA.

If there’s an accompanying problem for Democrats, it’s that voters could look at the Obama years and say that yes, it’s now a lot easier to find a job, but the jobs don’t pay what they should or offer the same security and dignity they used to. The American economy is a much crueler place than it once was, and two terms of a Democratic administration haven’t done enough to reverse that evolution.

That could be a genuinely biting critique. But fortunately for Hillary Clinton (or whoever the 2016 Democratic nominee is), Republicans are the last ones who are going to make it.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, December 23, 2014

December 26, 2014 Posted by | Economic Recovery, Economy, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Tribal America”: How Do We Bridge the Gap Between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’?

Within hours of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island, protests erupted across America. Sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, they brought the issue of race and policing to the front burner once again. The heat has now ignited a man who assassinated two New York police officers in a fit of calculated retaliation. The peaceful protesters condemned those murders. The police condemned the protesters, and both condemn politicians. Welcome to tribal America.

In his provocative book, Moral Tribes, Joshua Greene argues that morality evolved to solve the problem of fighting among those who had to cooperate in order to survive. Shared moral rules were evolution’s way of keeping “you” and “me” from mutual destructiveness. “You” and “me” became “we” in service to our shared needs. But when other groups showed up, “we” became “us,” a tribe opposed to “them.” Violence and destruction too often followed, and we still search for a shared morality that works across tribes.

Tribes today can be close geographically as well as virtually, aided in both cases by social media. Common values, customs and ways of thinking bind each “us” and separate it from “them.” Widely dispersed Americans angry at racial injustice form a tribe, as do strong supporters of law enforcement – no matter where any of them live.

Tribes can be helpful or harmful, depending on whether their members work to bridge the “us-them” divide or deepen it. Unfortunately, what we are seeing as police and protesters square off is unproductive.

Ferguson and New York are brush strokes on a wider canvass of tribal behavior in America. On a host of social, political, economic, environmental, and educational issues, tribes abound. Like-minded people find each other and push their agendas. To a point, that is both appropriate and useful as well as consistent with American republican government. But when it goes too far, as it does on many issues, it frays the fabric of the very society it aims to fix. When protestors loot and burn, when an angry man kills police officers, when a mayor tries to distance himself from the police, when police officers turn their back on the mayor, when a former mayor blames the president, and when the chief of police tells the mayor he has blood on his hands, what good is served?

We rightly condemn destructive tribal behavior in places as far flung as the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Why don’t we recognize and restrain it at home? If we want to cure our country, it’s time for tribes – and those who wish to lead them – to have the courage to act differently.

Tribes need to listen. This means managing their emotions and practicing the art of dialogue. Listening (not talking) and understanding (not necessarily accepting) the values and views of others helps set angry advocacy aside. Such a respectful, open stance humanizes “them” as well as “us.” When people listen to “them,” it tells them that they have been heard. Until this happens in Ferguson and New York, where most people in both tribes still claim they have not been heard, collaborative solutions will be elusive.

Tribes need to learn. Their tendency is insular – to see from the vantage point of their own biases. They defend and rationalize rather than explore their core assumptions. They get information by cherry picking from sources that are “trusted” because they agree with tribal views. They have an ax to grind, but axes cut things down rather than build them up. Protesters need to learn what the police fear and understand how many are killed or injured in the line of duty. Police need to understand what a black man feels when a police officer approaches and how to alter their own behavior during those encounters. When tribes embrace learning, their views (and then their actions) will change.

Tribes need to focus on the purposes they share with other tribes. Citizens and police both want safe streets and communities. But right now, they are dug in around their positions – what they demand from others, not what they can do for each other and by working together.

Tribes need leadership – from within and without – that does not seek personal gain by showing how much anger they share but seeks to bridge the chasm between them and other tribes. Where is the protest leadership that asks its tribe to calm down, respect the great bulk of police who are doing their best under trying circumstances, and offers solutions that demonstrate not only their own needs but the rightful demands of others? Where are the police chiefs and mayors who are willing to acknowledge and admit that they sometimes make terrible mistakes, that they can and must do better, and that they are asking their communities for constructive suggestions?

Tribes also need supportive politicians and media. The former have been too quick to take sides and inflame. The latter have been too willing to hype the conflict. What percentage of news stories on the events since Michael Brown’s death have focused on those seeking to foster better police-citizen cooperation and understanding? How much coverage have the media given to quiet healers as opposed to those whose anger makes a more enticing sound bite?

We will soon celebrate the birthday and life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribal behavior was rampant in his day as well, but King was a “crossover” figure. He urged his followers to love their opponents, and his goal went beyond desegregation to a universal brotherhood. Police and protestors today could learn a lot from this man, for whom there was only one tribe, the tribe of humanity.


By: Terry Newell, Founder, Leadership for a Responsible Society; The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 24, 2014

December 26, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement, Politicians | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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