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Film the Police (4)

A. D. Coleman selfie, 8-7-16Lawnorder

With Donald Trump proudly and unapologetically proclaiming himself “the law and order candidate in this election,” the moment seems right for me to resume my posts on the photographic documentation of police misconduct in the United States.

This series takes the following as its premises:

1. Widespread reports of police misconduct of all sorts indicate that, far from being “isolated incidents” performed by a few “bad apples,” they constitute evidence of grave and systemic problems in the nation’s police culture. Every U.S. Justice Dept. investigation of cities large and small across the country (see list below) corroborates this.

2. For an assortment of obvious reasons, fear of reprisal foremost among them, few such events get reported, and fewer yet get pursued by the authorities. Thus the reported instances represent only the tip of the iceberg.

3. Few of those reports come spontaneously from within the nation’s police culture, which instead systematically discourages them and/or covers them up. Most come from citizens acting on their own; some come from investigative journalists.

Cellphone video screenshot (YouTube), Eric Garner dogpile by NYPD officers, 7-15-14

Cellphone video screenshot (YouTube), Eric Garner dogpile by NYPD officers, 7-15-14

4. The combination of the omnipresence of cellphone cameras (with digital still and video and audio recording capacity) and the internet has led, in a very short period, to the emergence of citizen journalists paying close attention to police behavior, as well as accidental witnesses to random incidents who now have the capacity to document scenes unfolding before them unexpectedly.

5. Augmenting this, and in good part as a result of the resultant public pressure, police departments — always reluctantly — add dash cams to their vehicles and body cams to their officers’ standard equipment, thus increasing the quantity and quality of visual documentation of policing.

6. The resulting flood of photographic representation of police interaction with the citizenry has informed and transformed the national conversation about the relationships between policing, class, and race.

With those as givens, it seems both logical and appropriate to bring critical understandings of photographic imagery to bear on this wealth of new material concerning the day-to-day lives of the citizenry as it interacts with governmental forces.

Humboldt County police officers apply cotton swab soaked in pepper spray to the eyelids of activist, fall 1997. Screenshot from police video.

Humboldt County police officers apply cotton swab soaked in pepper spray to the eyelids of activist, fall 1997. Screenshot from police video.

Toward that end, I have for some time aggregated published instances of photographically documented police behavior. For convenience’s sake, I have grouped these into thematic clusters. Some address patterns in specific cities: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Others address specific types of police misbehavior: brutality, corruption, pedophilia, homicide.

I will present them here, over the coming months, not only because the issue that Trump calls “law and order” has come to play a central role in this election cycle but because, as citizens, we need to confront the state of policing in this country.

Photographs particularize. Whether still, film, or video, when you look at any unmanipulated lens-derived image you always see that particular moment, that particular event, that particular person, place, or thing.

Photography, in its various forms, achieves this effect automatically, and thus persuades the viewer of its credibility in ways that no other medium can. Needless to say, any photographic documentation “takes things out of context,” showing its subject matter only from that particular point of view and only for the duration of its exposure. This doesn’t impeach its evidentiary function, merely delimits it. Yet within those bounds the medium’s output renders specifics more convincingly and inarguably than  any other. Hence the power of lens-derived imagery as information.

Laquan McDonald murder, October 20, 2014. Stills from Chicago PD video.

Laquan McDonald murder, October 20, 2014. Stills from Chicago PD video.

For those very reasons, individual photographs do not (indeed, cannot) generalize — though people all too frequently generalize from them. However, accumulations of photographs, like aggregated accounts of any kind, acquire a collective believability, moving them beyond the fragmentary and anecdotal into something like a cubist representation, the same subject seen simultaneously from multiple perspectives. This proves as true of clustered videos of police misconduct on YouTube as it does of Alfred Stieglitz’s multi-image portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe, the firs truly cubist work in photography.

Systemic Racism, Defined

Even so, written documents, statistics, and other forms of evidence provide less sensorily engaging, more distanced, and thus more neutral and analytical responses to the same subjects. They enable generalization, the painting of a broader picture.

Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia reaches into Sandra Bland’s car during their confrontation on July 10, 2015. Dashcam video screenshot.

Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia reaches into Sandra Bland’s car during their confrontation on July 10, 2015. Dashcam video screenshot.

To see what it’s like, as a black pedestrian or driver, to undergo an arbitrary stop by a white  policeman — to put a human face on it, as we say — you need to watch a video like the one recording the arrest of Sandra Bland. But to understand what it means to live under such policing as a black person, it certainly helps to learn from the U.S. Department of Justice, as we did this past week, over 400 people — 95 percent of them black — were stopped more than 10 times in a five-and-a-half-year period, with some experiencing as many as 30 police stops in a four-year period.

Imagine that as a fact of life: Once every six weeks, walking along and minding your own business, a man in a uniform carrying a gun stops you, demands your ID, and insists on an explanation for your presence at that place at that time. Quite possibly you get frisked, conceivably strip-searched in public, even arrested on some vague mopery charge — especially likely if you express any dissatisfaction with this treatment or, heaven forfend, challenge his authority.

So if you want to think of yourself as an informed citizen, and speak in an informed way about police practices in the United States, I think you owe it to your fellow citizens (and to yourself as well) to read the U.S. Department of Justice report “Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department,” issued on August 10, 2016. Initiated in the wake of the April 12, 2015, police homicide of Freddie Carlos Gray, this report on the DOJ’s exhaustive investigation deserves the adjectives in the news stories it has generated, “blistering” and “scathing” among many others.

U.S. Dept. of Justice, Baltimore Police Dept. Report, 8-10-16, cover

U.S. Dept. of Justice, Baltimore Police Dept. Report, 8-10-16, cover

You can download a pdf of the report here, or read it online here.

I hasten to add that this report in no significant way differs from the Justice Dept.’s 2015 report on the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department. Or the Justice Dept.’s 2014 report on the Cleveland, Ohio Police Department. Or the Justice Dept.’s 2014 report on the Newark, New Jersey Police Department. Or the Justice Dept.’s 2014 report on the Miami, Florida Police Department. Or the Justice Dept.’s 2011 report on the Portland, Oregon Police Department. Or the Justice Dept.’s 2011 report on the Puerto Rico Police Department. Or the Justice Dept.’s 2011 report on the New Orleans Police Department. Or the Justice Dept.’s 2011 report on the Seattle, Washington Police Department.

The Justice Dept. refers to these invesigations as “probes.” From this September 20, 2011 report by Sarah Moughty for PBS “Frontline”:

“The probes — which are sanctioned under a law passed in the wake of the notorious 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers yelling racial slurs — are known as “patterns and practice” investigations, and they look at whether police departments exhibit patterns of behavior, including excessive force, false arrests, unreasonable searches and seizures, or racial/ethnic discrimination. While the DOJ doesn’t name the departments it’s investigating, often the cities themselves will publicize them as attempts at reform.”

In each and every case, the DOJ has found systemic, pervasive, unlawful, and unconstitutional behavior entrenched not just as standard practice but often as official policy in police departments from north to south and coast to coast. Typically, police departments keep such shoddy records that in all cases illegal police behaviors — such as unlawful stops, frisks, strip-searches, use of force, etc. — can safely be assumed to be drastically under-reported by the police themselves.

Theresa McElwaine, Millions March, One Police Plaza, NYC, December 13, 2014

Theresa McElwaine, Millions March, One Police Plaza, NYC, December 13, 2014

Much of it has racist, sexist, and class bias as its unstated but otherwise overt premise. This should come as a surprise to no one, given the close original connection of policing in this country to slavery and control of minorities. (See “A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing,” by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D, for an overview of this subject.)

Also unsurprisingly, police departments nationwide make it a practice to discourage citizen complaints about and journalistic inquiry into those actions, creating opaque, impenetrable labyrinths for the lodging and pursuit of such complaints. (See the Portland, OR Police Department complaint flowchart, below.) They themselves originate hardly any investigations of misbehavior among their own, investigate such complaints from the public unenthusiastically and haphazardly, and, in the rare cases where they do pursue them, almost invariably conclude in the officers’ favor. Furthermore, they habitually lie to protect themselves.

Portland, OR Police Bureau, flowchart for "excessive use of force" complaints, U.S. Dept. of Justice report, 2012

Portland, OR Police Bureau, flowchart for “excessive use of force” complaints, U.S. Dept. of Justice report, 2012

The nation’s top cop, F.B.I. Director James B. Comey, rejects out of hand the evidence accumulated by the Justice Dept. demonstrating self-evident patterns of police abuse of power everywhere. Instead, kissing the asses of every police department everywhere, he continues to assert his ridiculous, unsubstantiated claim that any rise in crime results from a so-called “Ferguson effect”: a “viral video effect” inhibiting police officers that “could well be at the heart” of recent spikes in crime in several cities.

In May 2016 Comey reiterated his October 2015 pronouncement that citizen journalism (and, though he somehow failed to mention it, forced public release of police dashcam and bodycam videos) had sent a “chill wind” blowing through police forces everywhere. As proof, he reported anecdotal private conversations with unidentified police officials who told him that “‘lots and lots of police officers’ are pulling back from aggressive confrontations with the public because of viral videos.” (See Eric Lightblau’s New York Times report of

These past few years we have witnessed the international embarrassment resulting from the revelation by journalists that the F.B.I has no effective system in place even to count deaths at the hands of police nationwide, not to mention all the lesser crimes and violations of the law perpetrated regularly by police officers. Belatedly, responding to that disclosure, Director Comey has initiated a new system via which the agency will actually seek to confirm with police departments nationwide the details of “arrest-related deaths.”

FBI Director James B. Comey

FBI Director James B. Comey

Note that this process — still in the review phase — does not require local police departments to initiate reports to the F.B.I. of “arrest-related deaths.” It “requests” that “all law enforcement agencies (LEAs) … confirm deaths identified through open-source review, correct decedent name and date of death as appropriate, and identify any other arrest-related deaths that were not found through open-source review. It requests any LEAs without any deaths to provide an affirmative zero.” In other words, the F.B.I. will, at long last, do what numerous non-profit police watchdog sites do, gathering information from public sources about police killings, and then will ask police departments to confirm those and correct the details. (For a summary of these proposed procedures, click here.)

Clearly, F.B.I. Director Comey does not have his heart in becoming part of the solution to the nationwide crisis in policing, which makes him — and the institution he heads — part of the problem. I’ve addressed that before; see my open letter to him, published here on January 27 of this year. That leaves it up to the citizenry — us — to force the system to change, from our local precincts right up through the F.B.I. And the first step toward sweeping, substantive change involves informing ourselves about the nature and scope of the problem.

Tragedy, Pathos, Farce

Here, in a nutshell, we have the difference between tragedy and pathos and farce:

Philando Castile shooting, St. Anthony, MN, 7-6-16, Facebook, screenshot

Philando Castile shooting, St. Anthony, MN, 7-6-16, Facebook, screenshot

Watching the aftermath of a white policeman unload his pistol into the body of a black man who has committed no crime, has not threatened him in any way, and has a legal license to carry a gun whose presence he has just disclosed to that officer, killing him in front of his girlfriend and her baby daughter: That’s tragedy.

Watching the clueless white governor of the state in which both those men lived and worked, Mark Dayton, announce his “got woke” realization at the ripe age of 69 that yes, even in a state which takes “Minnesota nice” as its motto, systemic racism might exist and this incident could represent a symptom of this condition: That’s pathetic.

Seeing Sarah Palin, ex-governor of one of the whitest states in the union, endorser of the racist Republic party candidate Donald Trump, whitesplain the misguidedness of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling it “a farce”: That’s farce.

(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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3 comments to Film the Police (4)

  • Allan,

    FYI, the ACLU has an app for 17 states and DC, and a special one for NY, to record police conduct and automatically send a video to a local affiliate.

    There’s a test mode so you can verify that the app is working.


  • Allan,

    Glad to see you writing about this, especially about Comey being such a reactionary figure as BLM and the wealth of photo and video documentation from democratized technology puts this issue front and center in national consciousness. Clearly there’s a power struggle going on between Comey and Lynch over this issue.

    I hadn’t heard the statistic about an average of 10 police stops a year for black people in Baltimore. Your call on people to imagine what that’s like is spot on.

    I’d like to believe that this issue is reaching a tipping point politically speaking, but I fear we may not be there yet — about this or about general gun control. Nevertheless it’s encouraging to see more people becoming aware of what black people have known for decades and your post is one more piece of that puzzle. I guess we’ll see if Hillary is as focused on creating change in police practice as Obama has been of late.

    Hope all is well.


    • A. D. Coleman

      Read it online:the Baltimore report. For anyone capable of empathy, it’s terrifying.

      From what I see, Clinton and Kaine have decided to emphasize the imperative of white Americans coming to grips with the experience of their minority counterparts. It’s a smart campaign strategy. It’s also the right thing to do, especially right now. So pragmatism and idealism can shake hands and get on with it.

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