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Film the Police (3)

A. D. Coleman selfie 1-17-16_sm[Over the years in which I have published this blog I have spent a fair amount of time looking at, thinking about, and commenting on citizen journalism and its implications. Not surprisingly, given that I live a mere ten minutes’ walk from the spot on Staten Island where homicidal police officer Daniel Pantaleo ended the life of Eric Garner, some of that attention and discussion have concerned the recording of the behavior (and misbehavior) of officers of the law.

Viewing the plethora of such material now available online, and bringing my critical bent thereto, has led me to start assembling clusters of these videos and reports on their consequences, grouped by specific infractions (murderous cops, rapist cops, extortionist cops, verbally abusive cops, etc.). I will post installments in this series periodically, starting in 2016; you can access them from this index page I’ve set up.

Meanwhile, since I began 2015 with my analysis of the killing of Eric Garner, I thought I’d kick off 2016 with the following missive, inspired by comments from the weasel who heads the nation’s primary federal law enforcement organization. — A. D. C.]

An Open Letter to FBI Director James B. Comey

January 27, 2016

James B. Comey, Director

Federal Bureau of Investigation

Washington, DC

Dear Mr. Comey:

I have read with great interest your recent comments on what you call the “Ferguson effect” — your recurrent claim that a purported nationwide spike in crime has resulted from police hesitancy to perform their sworn duties due to concern that recording of their actions by dashboard and body cameras, coupled with documentation by civilian witnesses, may get them in trouble.

FBI Director James B. Comey

FBI Director James B. Comey

In short, serving as the mouthpiece for police chiefs too cowardly to take a stand in public, you have proposed that the problem isn’t widespread and racially skewed abusive police behavior, but the creation and distribution of videos of police misconduct proving that pattern. (See Wesley Lowery’s October 26 Washington Post story, “FBI chief again says Ferguson having chilling effect on law enforcement”; the October 27, 2015 CNN report, “FBI chief tries to deal with the ‘Ferguson effect'”; and Tim Tolka’s November 6 op-ed for Truthout, “The Real Meaning of the FBI Director’s Comment on Viral Videos and Crime,” among other accounts of your unsolicited commentaries on these matters.)

As a longtime critic and historian of photography and, more broadly, what I have identified as “lens culture,” I take a professional interest, as well as a citizenly one, in the social impact of photographic images and the technologies that generate them. So I thought I would offer a response from that perspective.

Hearsay evidence, defined

Hearsay evidence, defined

Let me preface my comments by pointing out that you have based these assertions on what the U.S. legal system regularly disqualifies as hearsay evidence: your unsubstantiated, anecdotal reports of a few private conversations with a handful of law-enforcement officials who refuse to identify themselves publicly. If delivered under oath, and counsel objects, judges frequently have such irresponsible rumor-mongering stricken from the record, ordering the jury to disregard it. In my opinion, the citizenry at large should do the same. Hearing it from the director of the FBI tells us a great deal about you, sir, and thus about the culture of the organization you head. You have disgraced yourself and your office with this unprofessional, manipulative ploy, and thereby lost all credibility on this subject.

Officer Down Memorial Page logoNow to the matter at hand. In 2014, 133 police officers were killed in the line of duty; in 2015, 129 died that way. But I note that these 2015 “Line of Duty Deaths” included 28 car accidents, 4 motorcycle accidents, 18 heart attacks, 2 deaths by “friendly fire” during small-arms training, 1 aircraft accident en route to a training session, 2 listed as “accidental,” and 1 — described mysteriously as “a fatal medical emergency while participating in a training session with the agency’s Tactical Services Unit” — listed as “Duty Related Illness.”

In other words, fully 40 percent of last year’s “Line of Duty Deaths,” while certainly job-related (in that they happened during working hours), did not result from violence directed at the police or engagement with criminal behavior, and certainly fall within the range of statistical probability for people in any line of work that involves handling firearms, strenuous physical activity, and/or driving a motor vehicle.

Mintpress News logoStill, policing the citizenry can be dangerous work, no question. But being policed is no less dangerous. Indeed, it’s more dangerous — quantifiably so. By way of comparison, according to Mapping Police Violence, “Police killed at least 102 unarmed black people in 2015, more than any other race.” (Note: That’s just the black people they killed last year.) And, according to MintPress News, as of November 24 of last year “U.S. police had killed 1,024 people since the start of the year, according to The Counted, a continuously updated database of U.S. police killings maintained by The Guardian [U.K.]. Of the total, 203 victims of police were unarmed.”

We don’t know any of this thanks to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as you are well aware. In October of 2015, the Washington Post reported, you yourself “called the government’s effort to track deaths in police custody ‘unacceptable’ and ’embarrassing and ridiculous.'” Yet, typically, you stop short of acknowledging that, by your failure to engage with this problem, you yourself as head of the FBI have tacitly helped to to perpetuate it. Shame on you for that craven dodging of responsibility.

FBI sealAccording to the same report, Stephen L. Morris, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, called it “a travesty.” And that’s just “deaths in police custody,” a small slice of the larger pie of police malfeasance to which the FBI has historically turned a blind eye. Yet, as your foolish “Ferguson effect” comments make clear, you and your ilk in our national police culture resent and resist the very idea of citizen oversight of the police, in any form whatsoever — including the recording of the public behavior of police by citizens with cameras.

You lack even the fundamental honesty to admit that the FBI today, under your leadership, commits criminally negligent, brutal, violent, murderous, and otherwise outrageous acts on the citizenry. Surely it’s noteworthy that the FBI itself makes no annual public report of its own grievous errors — instances like this horrific botched raid last December 18, during the course of which your agents destroyed a family’s home just before Christmas. Or your agency’s wrongful arrest and imprisonment of Brandon Mayfield in 2004, which cost the taxpayers $2 million in settlement of the ensuing lawsuit. No surprise, then, that you approach the collection of such information about police departments lower down the food chain in such a lackadaisical manner.

The Counted logoNotably, the necessary information about incompetent, venal, brutal, and murderous police that would enable FBI analysis of this plague is readily available, as the above summaries from other sources indicate. Patently, it can be aggregated not only by professional journalists but even by small groups of people with no special training, drawing on published materials, at little cost, in their spare time. Yet the FBI, with its huge budget, expert personnel, and vast resources, assiduously avoids gathering it. Since the FBI has followed this practice since its inception, we must consider it a de facto policy.

We know such things thanks to such projects as Mapping Police Violence, Campaign Zero, Fatal Encounters, Killed by Police, the U.S. Police Shootings Database, and Guardian US, the stateside division of the UK news outlet The Guardian, which in mid-2015 initiated the project The Counted, asking citizens to “Help us document every police killing in America” because “The US government has no comprehensive record of the number of people killed by law enforcement.”

Cato Institute logoMind you, the above-named citizen-run and media-run databases address only killings by police — not any of the other crimes of which U.S. police are regularly accused and convicted: brutality, rape, pedophilia, drug-dealing, smuggling, theft, embezzlement, perjury, hit-and-run, DUI/DWI, domestic abuse, child abuse … I could go on. For information on the full scope of police misconduct in this country we must turn to (PINAC), and the Cato Institute’s exemplary National Police Misconduct Reporting Project (NPMRP), at the latter of which one can find a continuously updated stream of reports related to all forms of police misconduct. (Unfortunately, for reasons unexplained the last aggregated synthesis of this data issued by the NPMRP came in 2010.) You’d be astonished at how much mischief police get up to on a daily basis.

PINAC logoSo you have many working models showing collection procedures for information relevant to police misconduct. You took your oath of office as the seventh Director of the FBI on September 4, 2013. You have had well over two full years to address this, during which time you did … nothing whatsoever. You therefore have no excuse for continued reliance on a process that has proven itself entirely ineffective. Lacking such an excuse, your agency’s continuing dependence on an inadequate system clearly constitutes a deliberate choice — a matter of both policy and practice.

This raises an obvious question: Why, given all the time, money, and energy it devotes to gathering information about crime within our borders, has the FBI from its very inception willfully excluded criminal behavior by police from the scope of that inquiry — to such an extent that  your organization cannot provide even the most basic statistics on the frequency of the various forms of police misconduct that the public documents regularly via perusal of news reports, communication via social media, and crowd-sourcing?

Cato Institute 2010 Q3 County-Level Police Misconduct Incident Map

Cato Institute 2010 Q3 County-Level Police Misconduct Incident Map

Obviously, any future change in the FBI’s address to this matter will be not undertaken on your own initiative. Could your belated, clearly forced, and unenthusiastic decision to begin rectifying this longstanding yet suddenly “unacceptable, embarrassing, and ridiculous” situation, this “travesty,” have anything to do with the recent plethora of unjustified police killings — most of which we know about only because they got recorded on police cams or the cellphones of citizen journalists, and only because the citizenry demanded public release of the police videos and published its own documentation of police misconduct? In short, could we conceivably say that your reluctant decision to improve the FBI’s heretofore pathetic tracking system for police violence represents a direct result of of what you treat so negatively as “the Ferguson effect”?

As Reuben Fischer-Baum informs us in his August 19, 2014 report for FiveThirtyEight, “Nobody Knows How Many Americans The Police Kill Each Year,” there have been “approximately 400 ‘justifiable police homicides’ each year since 2008, according to the FBI’s annual Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR).” However, he goes on,

But these estimates can be wrong. Efforts to keep track of “justifiable police homicides'” are beset by systemic problems. “Nobody that knows anything about the SHR puts credence in the numbers that they call ‘justifiable homicides,'” when used as a proxy for police killings, said David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri who specializes in policing and the use of deadly force. And there’s no governmental effort at all to record the number of unjustifiable homicides by police. …

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, which compiles the SHR, relies on voluntary involvement of state and local police agencies — a fact that may raise some questions about the integrity of the data.

But the bigger issue is that the basic UCR reports don’t include any information on victims or offenders. …

Fischer-Baum goes on to spell out in detail the problems with the SHR reporting system, making it obvious that the system your agency put in place in 1976 and relied on for the past 40 years can only be described, charitably, as laughably inadequate. This despite the fact that, according to Matt Agorist’s January 8, 2015 report, “Police in the US Kill Citizens at Over 70 Times the Rate of Other First-World Nations.” How exactly do you explain your agency’s utter lack of interest to date in that discrepancy, and the pandemic of police violence in this country that it represents?

Cellphone video screenshot (YouTube), Eric Garner chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, 7-15-14

Cellphone video screenshot (YouTube), Eric Garner chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, 7-15-14

Even your assertion that the presence of cameras intimidates police I find questionable. Evidence indicates that the presence of cameras often has a disinhibiting effect: think of all those women baring their breasts for still and videocams at Mardi Gras and spring break. The presence of a cellphone cam didn’t stop NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo from killing Eric Garner six blocks from my house. More to the point, much of the most egregious police misbehavior of recent years got caught on the videocams of police departments, including the murders of Sam DuBose in Cincinnati and Laquan McDonald in Chicago.

You can’t possibly plead ignorance of these matters, because such ignorance would signify incompetence on a level that merited immediate dismissal from office. Nor can you pretend not to know that your organization in 1955 concerned itself more with Martin Luther King’s sex life than with the lynching of Emmett Till, which happened with the full cooperation of the police in Leflore County, Mississippi, but which the FBI couldn’t bother to investigate until — let me get this right — 2004.

Today you can’t trouble yourself to pursue a RICO investigation against the lily-white hierarchy in the Ferguson police force, judiciary, and government that conspired to milk that city’s poor and minority population of millions of dollars to support their lavish lifestyles. But you certainly can make time to mouth off about “the Ferguson effect” — without mentioning that part of the “effect” was to turn the spotlight on the racist practices of the good white Christians who ruled over that city until the people they oppressed finally had enough. Nothing deterred you from blaming the victim while killing the messenger.

Cleaning up the corruption of police forces nationwide is admittedly a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. In the vernacular, you need to “get woke,” sir. But, most importantly, you need to get gone, so someone who is “woke” can end the travesty at the Federal Bureau of Investigation for which you and your predecessors there are responsible.

You, lacking the courage even to own your personal and professional accountability for the “unacceptable, embarrassing and ridiculous” track record on that score of the very agency you head, clearly don’t qualify as the man for that job. So I suggest that you shut up, step aside, and let the citizenry continue to tackle it. They’re certainly doing better at it than you are — using just their cameras and the internet. Get used to it.


/s/ A. D. Coleman

cc: Pres. Barack Obama, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch

(For an index of links to all posts in this series, click here.)

A. D. Coleman, Critical Focus, 1995Special offer: If you want me to either continue pursuing a particular subject or give you a break and (for one post) write on a topic — my choice — other than the current main story, make a donation of $50 via the PayPal widget below, indicating your preference in a note accompanying your donation. I’ll credit you as that new post’s sponsor, and link to a website of your choosing. Include  a note with your snail-mail address (or email it to me separately) for a free signed copy of my 1995 book Critical Focus!

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