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A Slow Rolling Crisis”: ‘Don’t Just Pay Attention To These Communities When A CVS Burns’

As violence erupted in Baltimore last night, President Obama spoke directly with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and the White House issued a statement stressing “the administration’s commitment to provide assistance as needed.”

Today, however, the president had quite a bit more to say on the subject.

President Obama said there was “no excuse” for the violent rioting Monday on the streets of Baltimore, which saw looting and fires break out after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a severe spinal injury while in police custody a little over a week ago. At the same time, the president put the crisis in Maryland’s largest city into a national context, focusing on unemployment, poverty and the education gap that plagues some communities of color.

“We can’t just leave this to the police,” Obama said Tuesday in a White House press conference with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “There are some police departments that have to do some searching. There are some communities that have to do some soul searching. But our country needs to do some soul searching. This is not new. It’s been going on for decades.”

Obama, speaking without prepared remarks on the subject, acknowledged that he feels “pretty strongly” about the subject. It showed.

For those who can’t watch clips online, the president’s remarks are worth reading in detail. Note, for example, the way in which the president focuses initially on specific developments in Baltimore before transitioning to a much broader context:

First, obviously, our thoughts continue to be with the family of Freddie Gray. Understandably, they want answers.

And DOJ has opened an investigation. It is working with local law enforcement to find out exactly what happened, and I think there should be full transparency and accountability.

Second, my thoughts are with the police officers who were injured in last night’s disturbances. It underscores that that’s a tough job, and we have to keep that in mind. And my hope is that they can heal and get back to work as soon as possible.

Point number three, there’s no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive. When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting, they’re not making a statement, they’re stealing.

When they burn down a building, they’re committing arson. And they’re destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities that rob jobs and opportunity from people in that area.

So it is entirely appropriate that the mayor of Baltimore, who I spoke to yesterday, and the governor, who I spoke to yesterday, work to stop that kind of senseless violence and destruction. That is not a protest, that is not a statement, it’s people – a handful of people taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals.

Point number four, the violence that happened yesterday distracted from the fact that you had seen multiple days of peaceful protests that were focused on entirely legitimate concerns of these communities in Baltimore led by clergy and community leaders, and they were constructive and they were thoughtful. And frankly, didn’t get that much attention. And one burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again, and the thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way, I think, have been lost in the discussion.

The overwhelming majority of the community in Baltimore, I think, have handled this appropriately, expressing real concern and outrage over the possibility that our laws were not applied evenly in the case of Mr. Gray and that accountability needs to exist.

I think we have to give them credit. My understanding is you’ve got some of the same organizers now going back into these communities to try to clean up in the aftermath of a handful of protesters – a handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place.

What they were doing – what those community leaders and clergy and others were doing, that is a statement. That’s the kind of organizing that needs to take place if we’re going to tackle this problem. And they deserve credit for it and we should be lifting them up.

Point number five, and I’ve got six, because this is important. Since Ferguson and the task force that we put together, we have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions. And it comes up, it seems like, once a week now or once every couple of weeks.

And so I think it’s pretty understandable why the leaders of civil rights organizations, but more importantly moms and dads across the country might start saying this is a crisis. What I’d say is this has been a slow-rolling crisis. This has been going on for a long time. This is not new. And we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.

The good news is that perhaps there’s some newfound awareness because of social media and video cameras and so forth that there are – are problems and challenges when it comes to how policing and our laws are applied in certain communities, and we have to pay attention to it and respond.

What’s also good news is the task force that was made up of law enforcement and community activists that we brought together here in the White House had come up with very constructive, concrete proposals that if adopted by local communities and by states and by counties, by law enforcement generally, would make a difference. Wouldn’t solve every problem, but would make a concrete difference in rebuilding trust and making sure that the overwhelming majority of effective, honest and fair law enforcement officers, that they’re able to do their job better because it will weed out or retrain or put a stop to those handful who may be not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

Now, the challenge for us as the federal government is is that we don’t run these police forces. I can’t federalize every police force in the country and force them to retrain. But what I can do is to start working with them collaboratively so that they can begin this process of change themselves. And we – coming out of the task force that we put together, we’re now working with local communities. The Department of Justice has just announced a grant program for those jurisdiction that want to purchase body cameras. We are gonna be issuing grants for those jurisdictions that are prepared to start trying to implement some of the new training and data collection and other things that can make a difference. And we’re gonna keep on working with those local jurisdictions so that they can begin to make the changes that are necessary.

I think it’s gonna be important for organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police and other police unions and organizations to acknowledge that this is not good for police. We have to own up to the fact that occasionally there are gonna be problems here, just as there are in every other occupation.

There are – there are some bad politicians, who are corrupt. And there are folks in the business community or on Wall Street who don’t do the right thing. Well, there are some police who aren’t doing the right thing. And rather than close ranks, you know, what we’ve seen is a number of thoughtful police chiefs and commissioners and others recognize, they’ve got to get their arms around this thing and work together with the community to solve the problem.

And we’re committed to facilitating that process. So the heads of our COPS (ph) agency that helps with community policing, they’re already out in Baltimore. Our head – assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division is already out in Baltimore.

But we’re gonna be working systematically with every city and jurisdiction around the country to try to help them implement some solutions that we know work.

And I’ll make my final point – I’m sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, but this is a pretty important issue for us – we can’t just leave this to the police. I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching. I think there are some communities that have to do some soul searching.

But I think we, as a country, have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It’s been going on for decades. And without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities, what we also know is that if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty. They’ve got parents, often, because of substance abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves, can’t do right by their kids.

If it’s more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead than that they go to college. In communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men. Communities where there’s no investment and manufacturing’s been stripped away. And drugs have flooded the community, and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks.

In those environments, if we think that we’re just gonna send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there, without as a nation and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we’re not gonna solve this problem. And we’ll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets. And everybody will feign concern until it goes away and then we go about our business as usual.

If we are serious about solving this problem, then we’re going to not only have to help the police, we’re going to have to think about what can we do, the rest of us, to make sure that we’re providing early education to these kids; to make sure that we’re reforming our criminal justice system so it’s not just a pipeline from schools to prisons, so that we’re not rendering men in these communities unemployable because of a felony record for a non-violent drug offense; that we’re making investments so that they can get the training they need to find jobs.

That’s hard, that requires more than just the occasional news report or task force, and there’s a bunch of my agenda that would make a difference right now in that. Now, I’m under no illusion that out of this Congress we’re going to get massive investments in urban communities, and so we’ll try to find areas where we can make a difference around school reform and around job training and around some investments in infrastructure in these communities and trying to attract new businesses in.

But if we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant, and that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. We’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids and we think they’re important and they shouldn’t be living in poverty and violence.

That’s how I feel. I think they’re a lot of good-meaning people around the country that feel that way.

But that kind of political mobilization, I think we haven’t seen in quite some time. And what I’ve tried to do is to promote those ideas that would make a difference, but I think we all understand that the politics of that are tough, because it’s too easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law-and-order issue as opposed to a broader social issue.

That was a really long answer, but I felt pretty strongly about it.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 28, 2015

April 29, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore, Police Abuse, President Obama | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“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

“A Towel, Sunscreen And A Handgun”: Now, You Can’t Ban Guns At The Public Pool

If you feel unsafe at a public pool in Charleston, WV, you may soon have the right to lie there on a towel with a handgun at your side.

For 20 years, Charleston has been an island of modest gun restrictions in a very pro-gun-rights state. But its gun laws — including a ban on guns in city parks, pools and recreation centers — are now likely to be rolled back, the latest victory in a long-standing push to deny cities the power to regulate guns

Since the 1980s, the National Rifle Association and other groups have led a successful campaign to get state legislatures to limit local control over gun regulations. These “preemption” laws block cities from enacting their own gun policies, effectively requiring cities with higher rates of gun violence to have the same gun regulations as smaller towns.

Before 1981, when an Illinois town banned the possession of handguns, just a handful of states had preemption laws on the books. Today, 42 states block cities from making gun laws, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Even Illinois, which has long allowed its cities to pass gun control measures, is about to invalidate local restrictions on concealed handguns and ban any future local regulation of assault weapons.

Gun rights advocates argue that allowing cities to have their own gun laws creates an impossible situation for law-abiding gun owners, who cannot be expected to read ordinances for every town they might pass through.

The preemption campaign has racked up so many victories nationwide, it’s now focusing on holdouts like Charleston, population 51,000.

Charleston’s current gun restrictions include a three-day waiting period to buy a handgun, and a limit of one handgun purchase per month, as well as bans on guns on publicly owned property, such as parks and pools.

West Virginia Delegate Patrick Lane crafted an amendment to an unrelated state bill, now passed, that will likely force Charleston to erase those restrictions.

“Crime could happen anyplace. You obviously want to be able to defend yourself and your family if something happens,” Lane said, when asked why anyone would want to bring a gun to a public pool.

The NRA did not respond to requests for comment, but its website calls Charleston’s restrictions “misguided” and “unreasonable.” Its site has closely tracked the progress of the repeal of the ordinances, which it states “would have no negative impact whatsoever on Charleston.” The site has repeatedly criticized Charleston’s Republican mayor for “speaking out publicly against this pro-gun reform.”

It’s not clear what effect the spread of preemption has had on public safety. “It’s very hard to determine what causes crime to go up and down, because there are so many variables,” said Laura Cutilletta, a senior attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

But in Charleston, Police Chief Brent Webster says he’s worried about losing the city’s current restrictions, in particular the law banning guns at city pools, concerts and sporting events.

“You will have some citizens say, ‘I can do that now, so I’m going to do that,’” Webster said. “I am greatly concerned.”

“When they’re diving off the diving board, is that [gun] going to be in a book bag? Is that going to be lying under their towel and an eight-year-old kid is walking through the pool area and picks it up?”

Two of the city’s former police chiefs also say they’re worried about losing the ban on guns in public places that attract kids.

“That has nothing to do with the Second Amendment right. It has to do with public safety,” former Chief Dallas Staples said.

Charleston’s mayor, Danny Jones, who’s fought to keep the gun restrictions, said the city now has no choice but to do what the state legislature wants and roll them back. The state legislature packaged the rollback requirement with a popular measure giving Charleston more leeway in how it raises taxes.

“I’m still reeling from all this, because it’s going to affect us in a very negative way,” Jones told reporters after the law passed.

Keith Morgan, president of the West Virginia Citizen’s Defense League, a gun rights group, said the group has been pushing for an end to Charleston’s ordinances for years, and that the change would protect law-abiding gun owners from a “minefield” of conflicting local laws.

Lane, the West Virginia delegate, also said that gun-owning commuters were put at risk as they traveled through different cities with different rules.

But neither Lane nor Morgan could cite an example of a gun owner being prosecuted for accidentally breaking the law during their commute, or by accidentally wandering into a city park. When Morgan himself once showed up at the Charleston Civic Center with a gun, he said, he was simply asked to leave, and he did. In lawsuits the West Virginia Citizen’s Defense League filed against gun ordinances in Charleston and Martinsburg, the plaintiffs cited their fear of potential prosecution.

The main burden of Charleston’s laws for gun owners has been the inconvenience of waiting three days to purchase a handgun, and only being able to buy one handgun at a time — something that can be particularly troublesome “if you’re buying a present for your family and there happens to be a Christmas sale at the retailer,” Lane said.

Former Charleston law enforcement officers say the handgun restrictions, passed in 1993, helped the city tamp down on the drugs-for-guns trade that was rampant at the time. But since then, gun stores have sprung up right at the city’s borders, said Steve Walker, a former Charleston police officer and now president of the West Virginia branch of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“Honestly, I don’t know whether with them repealing it, it is going to help them or hurt them,” Walker said of the handgun restrictions.

State legislators said that city officials are overplaying their fears.

“I don’t see everyone with a concealed carry permit deciding to go to a pool and carry a gun,” said Democrat Mark Hunt, a state delegate, “So what if they do? They’re law-abiding citizens.”

Charleston’s mayor said he has a plan if somebody brings a gun poolside: “We’re going to close down the pool.”

By: Lois Beckett, Pro Publica, June 3, 2013

June 4, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control, Gun Violence | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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