My first Uber lift was in South Carolina. My driver was from Sudan originally, but had emigrated to the US 20 years ago. Being the curious sort, I asked him about his life in Sudan and why he moved. He said that he left when his country had crumbled too far, past the point where a reasonable person could have a reasonable expectation of personal safety, when all institutions had become corrupted making business increasingly difficult. So he left.
Detecting a hitch in his delivery when he spoke of coming to the US, I asked him how he felt about the US now, 20 years later. "To be honest," he said, "the same things I saw in Sudan that led me to leave are happening here now. That saddens me greatly, because where else is there to go?"
It’s time to face some uncomfortable ideas about the state of civilization in the United States. This country is no longer the beacon of freedom illuminating a better way for the world. Why not? Because it has ceased to be civilized.
The recent spate of police brutality videos and the complete lack of a useful or even sane response by the police unions is shaping my writing here. But it goes well beyond those incidents and extends into all corners of the lives of US citizens now, as police abuse is only one symptom of a much deeper problem.
What do we mean by "civilized?" Well, take a look at its official definition and see if you note any descriptors that are lacking in present day US culture:
1. Cultured, educated, sophisticated, enlightened, humane All truly civilized countries must deplore torture.
2. Polite, mannerly, tolerant, gracious, courteous, affable, well-behaved, well-mannered
A civilized society, then, is one that is humane at its core, that knows right from wrong, and which does not need to conduct lengthy ‘internal reviews’ to discover if videotaped brutality is indeed showing illegal abuse.
Let’s begin by examining a few recent cases of brutality, so many of which now exist that I have to narrow the field substantially in the interest of brevity. I'm going to skip over the one where an unarmed black man was shot five times in the back and coldly murdered by the officer in South Carolina, because that has already (and rightly) received a lot of media attention.
So, the first case I'd like to discuss comes to us from San Bernardino CA where a man being served with a warrant for suspicion of identity theft started to flee. Much to the dismay of the police, the last leg of his otherwise humorous escape plan involved a horse, forcing the cops to huff across the hot, dry desert on foot.
The video eventually shows the fugitive falling off his horse, throwing himself flat on the ground in total submission, and then putting his own hands behind his back. Two officers then approach and, in full view of the news chopper camera circling overhead, proceed to violently kick him in the face and groin, pistol whip him with a taser, pile-drive him with their elbows, and then move aside to make room for the other nine officers that also join in the violent 2 minute long beating:
Aerial footage showed the man falling off the horse he was suspected of stealing during the pursuit in San Bernardino County Thursday afternoon.
He then appeared to be stunned with a Taser by a sheriff's deputy and fall to the ground with his arms outstretched. Two deputies immediately descended on him and appeared to punch him in the head and knee him in the groin, according to the footage, reviewed several times by NBC4.
The group surrounding the man grew to 11 sheriff's deputies.
In the two minutes after the man was stunned with a Taser, it appeared deputies kicked him 17 times, punched him 37 times and struck him with batons four times. Thirteen blows appeared to be to the head. The horse stood idly nearby.
The man did not appear to move from his position lying on the ground for more than 45 minutes. He did not appear to receive medical attention while deputies stood around him during that time.
San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon told NBC4 he was launching an internal investigation into the actions of the deputies.
"I'm not sure if there was a struggle with the suspect," McMahon said. "It appears there was in the early parts of the video. What happens afterwards, I'm not sure of, but we will investigate it thoroughly."
Note the lack of civilized responses there from beginning to the end. A yielding, non-resisting suspect was repeatedly pounded by 11 officers using means that would land you or me in hot water (justifiably) on “assault with a dangerous weapon” charges if we did the same.
Then the beaten man was left on the ground afterwards without any medical attention for 45 minutes. The physical abuse nor the later disdain for the suspect's condition aren't behaviors you find in a civilized society. Successfully apprehending a 'suspected criminal' does not give you free license to mete out a brutal beat-down, at least not if your humanity is intact. But with these officers, that appears to be precisely what happened. The fact that it did is indicative of a culture in distress.
In the next part of this sad drama, the county sheriff had the audacity to say (in an obvious attempt at damage control) that he was ‘not sure’ if a struggle had happened with the suspect, but that it appeared that there had been one. Apparently, the sheriff needs some training in evidence review (or a new pair of glasses) because there’s no struggle there at all, which is plainly obvious in the video:
Then the sheriff concludes with “what happens afterward, I’m not sure of,…” Again, anybody who viewed the video is very certain of what happened afterwards because it’s completely obvious: the deputies kicked the crap out of a non-resisting suspect.
So obvious that less than 2 weeks after the beating, San Bernadino county hastily agreed to a $650,000 settlement in attempt to very rapidly put the whole thing behind them.
The only legitimate response from the sheriff, to show that the rule of law applies and that he and his deputies have morals and are part of a civilized society, would have been to say something along the lines of, “Assaulting a compliant and non-resisting suspect is never OK, and it is against our internal policies and training as well as the law. In the interest of complete transparency and fairness, both real and perceived, we’ve asked for an external review which will include citizen participation. Whether laws are broken by citizens of the police, our department believes 100% in equal application of the law because anything else erodes the basic perception of fairness upon which a civilized society rests.”
Of course, nothing of the sort was said here. Nor is it ever said in other brutality cases, where instead we see the ranks close around the accused cop(s), which unfortunately communicates the impression that one of the perks of being a law enforcement officer is being able to dodge the consequences of the same laws they administer daily.
Here are a few more cases, all demonstrating the same unequal application of the laws:
In this next case, an unarmed, fleeing black male suspect was tackled and pinned on the ground by at least two officers. He then was shot in the back by a 73 year-old reserve deputy who apparently couldn't tell the difference between a revolver and a taser. A 73 year-old whose main qualification for being on the scene seems to have been his prior generous donations to the police department.
Tulsa Police Chase And Shoot Eric Courtney Harris
The above video is disturbing for many reasons, but especially because while Eric Harris is dying he says “Oh man, I can’t breathe” to which one of the officer who happens to have his knee firmly on Eris’s head says “Fuck your breath!”
Recall that one of the words used to describe civilized is "humane". Think about how far out of touch with your own humanity you have to be to say that to a dying person. Even if the officer didn't know Harris was dying at the time, he at least knew that he had been shot.
In another case, a man approaches a car blocking the street and asks for it to be moved. The violent manner of the officer's response would be a case of road rage if it involved another civilian and be prosecuted as a serious crime with multiple charges.
Man Asks Cop Nicely to Stop Blocking Traffic, So the Cop Beat Him and Stomped his Head
Sept 11, 2014
Sacramento, CA — A Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputy is on paid vacation after a video surfaced showing him stomping on a man’s face and hitting him with his flashlight after tasering him.
Undersheriff Jaime Lewis says that they are investigating themselves after viewing the video.
“There are portions of that video that clearly have caused me concern,” Lewis said. “And that is exactly what has caused the department to initiate an investigation, so we can get to the bottom of it.”
The man being beaten in the video is 51-year-old John Madison Reyes, who said the incident started when he asked the deputy, whose car was blocking the road, to move.
“I asked him kindly to move the car,” Reyes said. “He glared at me and stared at me. And then, I said an expletive, ‘You need to move the car because I can’t get through.’”
"Let's face it, had the subject complied with the officer's directives from the initial contact and beyond, we wouldn't be sitting here talking about this today," Lewis said.
What seems to have happened in the above story is simply that the cop didn't like his authority being challenged, even in a very minor way, and he over-reacted.
The recipient of the beating, Mr. Reyes, was charged with resisting arrest. How is that even possible? It seems like there needs to be something you are being arrested for to resist in the first place. Something for which the officer has probable cause in the first place which you then resist? How can the only charge be ‘resisting arrest’?
Sadly, many times after a confrontation has become physically violent the one and only charge applied is ‘resisting arrest.’
Of course, that’s a mighty convenient charge for some police who escalate a situation first, and then resort to using the charge of resisting arrest because, in the end, that’s the only charge they have. And while it’s not wise to resist arrest, there are hundreds of cases where people claim they weren’t resisting at all, merely trying to protect their heads and faces from heavy blows, while the police were beating them yelling “Stop resisting arrest!” like it was a magic incantation.
As in this case:
Brutal LAPD arrest caught on video; Department investigating cops seen bodyslamming nurse twice during cell phone traffic stop
The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating two officers who were allegedly caught on surveillance camera slamming a nurse on the ground twice — and then fist bumping afterward — during a recent traffic stop.
The two officers pulled over Michelle Jordan, 34, of Sunland, Aug. 21, for allegedly talking on her cell phone while driving in Tujunga, in northeast Los Angeles, the department said.
Jordan pulled into the parking lot of a Del Taco restaurant and got out of her car to confront the officers, cops said.
The taco joint's surveillance video appears to show the officers, both men, yanking the 5-foot-4 inch registered nurse from the open driver's seat and then slamming her on the ground to cuff her.
The duo then yank Jordan to her feet and bring her to the patrol car, where they pat her down.
Moments later, one of the cops slams the married mom to the ground a second time.
After placing her in the cruiser's backseat, the two appear to share a celebratory fist-pound.
Jordan was booked for resisting arrest and later released.
The pictures of the damage to this woman's face are disturbing. Think about what it would be like to be pulled over for a minor infraction, be yanked from your car, thrown to the ground, handcuffed, stood up, and then violently body slammed a second time. While she may have been using words that these officers found to be less than respectful of their authority, in a civilized society grown men do not violently assault the unarmed — especially handcuffed women. That's just sadistic and has no place in a decent society.
In another case from Baltimore police broke the leg of a man they were arresting, Freddie Gray, cuffed him, and instead of getting him medical help dragged him to a van obviously alive and screaming in pain from the broken leg. By the time that van ride was over, the man was delivered to a local hospital with a broken neck, his spine 80% severed, and he died a short while later. His “crime?” He allegedly “fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence," which, by the way, is not actually a crime, something the Baltimore police were forced to acknowledge in the aftermath of the incident. The police spokesman, Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez initially stated that there was “no evidence” of any use of excessive force. I would counter that any time you shatter a person’s neck after they are cuffed during a van ride, that’s "excessive", by definition.
Again, the initial response by the police, which began as silence followed by the filing of an initial report that said Mr. Gray was "arrested without incident or force" reveals just how broken our enforcement system and culture really are.
In another recent case a mentally ill woman in Idaho was shot dead by police within 15 seconds of their arrival. She had a knife, the police got out of their vehicle, walked straight towards her and when she did not immediately comply with their commands, they opened fire.
Something Is Very Wrong
[note: an incomplete statistic was used here and has been removed and replaced with the following]
In the past ten years police in the UK have been involved in 23 total police shooting fatalities. In the US in 2013 alone there were a minimum of 458 'justifiable homicides' by firearm committed by US police. I say 'a minimum' because the FBI statistics are woefully incomplete because there is no mandate that police forces report their killings to the FBI so the database is certainly inaccurate on the low side. But taking that at face value, there is a vast gap between the number of people shot in the UK as compared to the US. Adjusting for population, US police officers are killing citizens at roughly 40 times the rate of UK police. 40 times!
How can this be? In the UK they’ve got hooligans and yobs, immigrants and poor people. They’ve got drunks and mentally unbalanced people too. And yet they somehow don’t kill people in the fulfillment of their duties as public safety officers.
In this video you’ll see a mentally deranged man outside of Buckingham palace threatening people while wielding knives. He was successfully apprehended alive by a patient and methodical UK police force that did not aggravate, but instead waited for an opening to make their move, which they did quite successfully using a taser instead of guns.
The problem, it seems, is that the US police have been trained to be highly confrontational and to escalate, rather than defuse, any situation.
Police in the US have shot an individual’s highly trained service dog after showing up at the wrong address, and even a family’s pet pot-bellied pig simply because they ‘felt threatened.’
So the one-two punch here is that cops are trained to be highly confrontational and then to react with force — oftentimes deadly force — when they ‘feel threatened.’ See the problem here? It’s pretty easy to end up feeling threatened when you are creating threatening situations.
That’s a recipe for exactly the sort of over-reactive uses of force that are giving us the problems we see today.
An Occupying Force
If you saw the images coming out of Ferguson recently, you may have noticed that the law-enforcement presence did not so much look like police, but an occupying military. Snipers perched on roofs viewing the crowds through their scopes, tear gas and rubber bullets constantly in use, Humvees, the latest acoustic anti-personnel devices, and officers outfitted with ‘battle rattle’ that even made one Afghanistan vet jealous for its magnificent excess compared to what soldiers were issued in one of the most dangerous regions of the world.
How is it that a small mid-western city arrayed more hardware against its own citizens than you might find in an active Middle East war zone? Who really thought that necessary and why?
Exactly how and when did policing and crowd control in the US slip into a set of methods that match those used by occupying forces — like those of Isreal — who subjugate whole populations?
It turns out, by going to Israel and learning Israeli methods of crowd 'control.'
Israel-trained police “occupy” Missouri after killing of black youth
Feb 8, 2015
Since the killing of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police in Missouri last weekend, the people of Ferguson have been subjected to a military-style crackdown by a squadron of local police departments dressed like combat soldiers. This has prompted residents to liken the conditions on the ground in Ferguson to the Israeli military occupation of Palestine.
And who can blame them?
The dystopian scenes of paramilitary units in camouflage rampaging through the streets of Ferguson, pointing assault rifles at unarmed residents and launching tear gas into people’s front yards from behind armored personnel carriers (APCs), could easily be mistaken for a Tuesday afternoon in the occupied West Bank.
And it’s no coincidence.
At least two of the four law enforcement agencies that were deployed in Ferguson up until Thursday evening — the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department — received training from Israeli security forces in recent years.
If the tactics and gear of the police in Ferguson looked military that’s because they were. The purpose of APC’s and m4 assault rifles is to go into dangerous battles and kill the other side first so you can survive.
I believe that one’s training and mindset are critical determinants of what happens next. It should really not surprise anyone that a militarized mindset accompanied by specialized training and hardware has led to scenes like the one we saw in Ferguson, among many other places over the past several years.
I wanted to find out if the assertion of the above article was true. Had US police agencies really trained with the Israelis?
The answer is yes, beginning over a decade ago. Note that US police have been training for a domestic terrorist threat that has been almost completely non-existent, well below the statistical threshold that would seem to justify such advanced training and tactics:
U.S.-Israel Strategic Cooperation: Joint Police & Law Enforcement Training
In 2002, Los Angeles Police Department detective Ralph Morten visited Israel to receive training and advice on preparing security arrangements for large public gatherings. From lessons learned on his trip, Det. Morten prepared a new Homicide Bomber Prevention Protocol and was better able to secure the Academy Awards presentation.
In January 2003, thirty-three senior U.S. law enforcement officials – from Washington, Chicago, Kansas City, Boston and Philadelphia – traveled to Israel to attend a meeting on "Law Enforcement in the Era of Global Terror." The workshops helped build skills in identifying terrorist cells, enlisting public support for the fight against terrorism and coping with the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
“We went to the country that's been dealing with the issue for 30 years,” Boston Police Commissioner Paul F. Evans said. “The police are the front line in the battle against terrorism. We were there to learn from them – their response, their efforts to deter it. They touched all the bases.”
“I think it's invaluable,” said Washington, DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey about the instruction he received in Israel. “They have so much more experience in dealing with this than we do in the United States.”
Also, in 2003, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security established a special Office of International Affairs to institutionalize the relationship between Israeli and American security officials. “I think we can learn a lot from other countries, particularly Israel, which unfortunately has a long history of preparing for and responding to terrorist attacks,” said Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) about the special office.
Here’s the thing: your chances of dying of ‘terrorism’ on US soil are dwarfed by the chances of dying from practically every other cause of death in the US. Terrorism simply is not a gigantic and imminent existential threat that requires special hardware and training relationships with nations that practice the tactics and strategies of occupation.
Terrorism is not such a common thing that we need to define our entire crowd control methods around it, but a rare thing, and is really what’s left over after a few individuals feel like every other option of redress has been stripped away. Which is why it’s practically unheard of in the US, and most other civilized countries.
But domestic US law enforcement agencies have been training and outfitting themselves as if it’s a top threat. Why is that?
There are not very many reassuring answers to that question. One is that our law enforcement agencies lack the ability to discern actual threats from imaginary ones. Another is that they envision a time when some portion of the civilian population feels as if it has lost all hope and options for a better future, and starts resorting to terrorist acts.
Either way, very poor answers.
A Dangerous Job?
One mitigating factor is to note that police have a stressful, dangerous and low paying job. Erring on the side of personal safety makes sense when looked at this way.
In terms of dangerousness, however, law enforcement doesn't even crack the top-ten list of most dangerous professions:
The death rate for sworn officers is 11.1 per 100,000 (2013 data) for job-related injuries. Fishing is ten times more dangerous. And even the 11.1 rate includes some deaths which were not the result of violent actions committed during an arrest, but things that tend to happen among a force more than a million strong (green circles).
Even if we assumed that half of the reported job-related deaths were homicides, that would make policing about as dangerous as living in an average city (5.5 per 100,000) but seven-fold less dangerous than simply living in Baltimore (35 per 100,000).
So a stressful job yes. An important job, definitely. But not as dangerous as many other occupations, which is relevant context to this story.
I would be remiss to not also point out other examples of great police work. We need to illuminate both what’s wrong and what’s right.
One of my favorite examples shows Norwegian police handling a belligerent drunk:
Be sure to watch at least the first full minute, and note that this drunk is yelling, cursing, kicking, and generally ‘resisting’ and yet the police involved never rise to the bait, handle him with good manners and like he’s a human being the entire time. Well done!
This next clip shows a policeman in Ohio refusing to shoot a man wanted on a double murder charge even though he really probably should have and would have been completely justified in doing so:
The man wanted to be shot and killed by the officer who, despite being rushed, and having the man put his hands in his pockets after being warned not to, and even being knocked to the ground at one point, refused to shoot.
That restraint was quite remarkable and showed someone willing to place his own life in danger before committing to take another’s. He said afterwards that he “wanted to be absolutely sure” before pulling the trigger that it was absolutely necessary.
I do wonder if the two tours the former marine took before becoming an officer had anything to do with his unwillingness to take another life?
How To Fix This
Well I think I’ve been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I’ve underestimated it.
I think the solution to reducing episodes of police assaults on citizens is contained within the Charlie Munger quote above. The incentives have to be aligned.
My solution is simply this: every time a police department loses an excessive force or wrongful death case and has to pay out money, that money should come from their local police union’s pension fund. And by law, these losses cannot be refilled with taxpayer funds.
Every single time a judgment is made against that department and the union pension is reduced, the retired and currently-serving officers will have to decide for themselves if they should keep the indicted officer or officers on the force who lost the pension all that money. Or decide if training and policies need to be adjusted.
I guarantee you that with the incentive to train and behave properly and lawfully now resting with the police itself, rapid behavior and training modification would result.
Moreover, I see no reason why the citizens of any given municipality should be on the hook for repeated violations by any public servant or office.
For some of the most abusive departments, the amounts are far from trivial.
U.S. cities pay out millions to settle police lawsuits
Oct 1, 2014
The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this year that the city has paid out nearly half a billion dollars in settlements over the past decade, and spent $84.6 million in fees, settlements, and awards last year.
Bloomberg News reported that in 2011, Los Angeles paid out $54 million, while New York paid out a whopping $735 million, although those figures include negligence and other claims unrelated to police abuse.
Oakland Police Beat reported in April that the city had paid out $74 million to settle 417 lawsuits since 1990.
And last month, Minneapolis Public Radio put that city’s payout at $21 million since 2003.
Just align the incentives and watch what happens next. The problem is, the incentives are just completely wrong right now, and taxpayers are footing the bill for repeated and expensive police behaviors.
That needs to stop if we want to see real change.
The police serve a very important role in society and I want them to be as effective as possible. They are there to uphold the law and protect the peace, which are extremely important functions. Unfortunately there are far too many cases where the police have acted as judge, jury and executioner to suggest that there are just a few bad apples.
Instead there’s a pervasive atmosphere of hostility and force escalation better suited to war zones than maintaining civilian order. The lines have been drawn in many police departments: it’s us vs. them.
Trust in many departments has been utterly shattered within some communities because the police hold themselves to a different standard than they do the populace. Police commit brazen acts of brutality and get away with it, largely because they self-investigate and/or because the local District Attorney office is unwilling to press charges.
But the recent cases of police brutality are simply a symptom of a much larger problem. Society in the US is breaking down, civility has been lost, and the country is rapidly becoming uncivilized.
This extends within and across all of the most important institutions. Congress is known to work for corporations first and foremost. Democracy itself is bought and sold by the highest bidders. The Federal Reserve protects big banks from the costs of their misdeeds and enriches the already stupidly rich as a side benefit.
DEA agents are caught in Columbia having sex parties with underage girls and drugs, and the worst punishment handed out is a 10 day suspension without pay. Nobody is even fired, let alone jailed.
"Crime, once exposed, has no refuge but in audacity".
~ Tacitus, Annals, Book XI Ch. 26
The FBI has just admitted that they had been consistently (and certainly knowingly) overstating forensic lab analysis in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95% of cases over a period of several decades. The cases included 32 that resulted in death sentences. Many people were wrongly convicted, but nobody from the FBI will face any charges and many of the states involved have (so far) decided they won’t be looking into any of the cases to right the wrongs. The wrongful convictions will stand, an injustice that is incompatible with the concept of being civilized.
The Department of Justice has utterly failed to hold any banks or bankers criminally responsible for any acts despite levying a few billions in fines for crimes that probably netted the banks tens of billions in profits. For some, crime does pay.
I could go on, but why bother? The pattern is easy enough to see.
The US has lost its way. Fairness, justice, and knowing right from wrong seem to all be lost concepts and the trend has only gotten worse over the past several years. Without moral bearings, what’s left?
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Either the people of the US stand up and resist these accumulating injustices or they will get exactly the sort of government, and law enforcement, they deserve.
In the meantime, the challenge for each afflicted institution is to begin to recognize right from wrong, and in the case of law enforcement agencies, stop pretending like every single one of your million+ officers is a good egg. We all know hiring is imperfect and mistakes get made. Own up to them and let those who make serious mistakes experience the consequences. Rebuild our trust in your necessary and important institution by clearly demonstrating that you know right from wrong wherever it occurs and whoever commits the deed.
If we don't do this, if we allow the current trajectory to build more momentum, the loss of civilized behavior will reach a tipping point from which it will be very hard to return without much hardship, and likely, bloodshed.
In Part 2: Preparing For The Coming Breakdown, we analyze how the boom in prosperity seen over the much of the 20th century is evaporating, and as the pie begins to shrink, the means by which the players compete for their slices becomes increasingly brutish and violent.
Ask yourself this: If tensions are this bad now, while relatively abundant resources exist, how bad do you think they’ll get during the next economic downturn or financial crisis?