Friday, March 3, 2017
Cop Out Too
2014 was a big year for civil unrest (think: Ferguson, Mo., etc.). The Black Lives Matter movement was born. The Department of Justice (begun during the Obama era) was investigating lots of metropolitan police departments for racial profiling, targeting blacks in particular, and watching a litany of “shoot first and ask questions late” caught-on-video moments spawn riots and protests across the land. The ubiquitous smart phone camera, CCTV systems and wary citizens with digital cameras poured out a flood of hard video evidence of Blue-on-Black violence that was simply hard to watch.
A backlash ensured, that included “White Lives Matter,” “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter,” but this only put a strain on minorities who had otherwise felt perhaps that now that people were witnessing visual proof of their complaints that were not listened to for years, their voices would no longer be diluted. Additional cities (beyond St. Louis, Los Angeles, etc.) – notably murderous Chicago – found themselves on the wrong side of Department of Justice investigations and court orders. A rising tide of requirements for grassroots officers to wear body cameras spread across police departments everywhere. Miraculously, some of these body cams were often “malfunctioning” at critical moments, but at least there was growing acknowledgment in the greater community at large that Blue-on-Black law enforcement was about to change for the better.
Well, technology is at least able to solve that body cam issue: “To ensure accountability during police encounters, Axon, Taser’s police body camera division, has announced a small sensor for gun holsters that can detect when a gun is drawn and automatically activate all nearby cameras. The sensor, Signal Sidearm, is part of a suite of products aimed at reducing the possibility that officers will fail to or forget to switch on their cameras during encounters with the public. Last year in Chicago for instance, an officer, when giving chase, said he forgot to turn on his camera before fatally shooting an unarmed 18-year-old named Paul O’Neal.
“Taser also sells sensors that activate the company’s body cameras and dashboard cameras when a police cruiser’s door has opened or its lights have been switched on, as well as a battery pack for the Taser electroshock weapon that prompts cameras to record when the weapon is armed. By activating all cameras within a 30-foot radius, the suite of products can help police create a multi-angle video of a police encounter. (Taser’s cameras are also equipped with a historical buffer that captures footage up to two minutes prior to a camera’s activation.) Many police dashboard cameras are already designed to activate when the engine is started or a siren is turned on, and another camera maker, Vievu, also sells a holster that automatically triggers its cameras. In the future, body cameras could be activated when an officer enters a hot spot or makes a call on the radio.” FastCompany.com, March 1st.
Problem solved? Not exactly. Unless local police departments, without external pressure, voluntarily move this technology forward – and there are a number of cities and towns quite committed to making these improvements – they sure are not going to find any real support from the federal government. It seems that the new sheriffs in town – Donald Trump (and his DOJ head, Jeff Sessions) – are completely committed to Blue and, other than a uttering a few “supportive” statements, rather totally uncommitted to improving the lot of minorities in cities with highly racially-biased cops.
Something else that might trouble privacy advocates: those body cams can produce visual data that can be analyzed in real time by search engines driven by artificial intelligence that can apply facial recognition software to everyone the relevant officer sees or comes into contact with anywhere… or can go into massive data bases shared across the entire American legal system… and beyond. Valuable, yes. But if you are undocumented or have an unpaid parking ticket, not so nice. The technology is just about there, and the beat officer can get an automated response in seconds: “That video could also be quickly analyzed by software that scans for faces, objects, and heated encounters. Crucial information could be instantly sent to officers’ smartphones; eventually, a pair of augmented-reality glasses could display that data in an officer’s field of vision.” FastCompany.com, March 3rd.
Bottom line: supporting cops fighting crime is now vastly more important than protecting minority rights. “Echoing President Trump’s dark vision of crime in the United States, Mr. Sessions said that rising violence in some big cities was ‘driving a sense that we’re in danger’ — even as crime rates nationwide remain near historic lows. Monitoring police departments, Mr. Sessions added, did not help.” New York Times, February 28th. The underlying thought is that Department of Justice investigations and monitoring of police departments were shackling the boyz in blue from fighting crime.
Sessions stated that “the federal government would back away from monitoring troubled police departments, which was the central strategy of the Obama administration to force accountability onto local law enforcement amid rising racial tensions… In his first speech as attorney general, Mr. Sessions did not name any specific cities, but he indicated that Justice Department scrutiny from afar was undermining the effectiveness of the police across the country. It was a clear reference to the aggressive efforts of the Obama administration to oversee law enforcement agencies charged with civil rights abuses.
“‘We need, so far as we can, in my view, help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness,’ Mr. Sessions said in remarks to the National Association of Attorneys General. ‘And I’m afraid we’ve done some of that. So we’re going to try to pull back on this, and I don’t think it’s wrong or mean or insensitive to civil rights or human rights.’” NY Times.
Sessions had to pretend that unleashing unmonitored cops, in police departments with horrible civil rights records, to do whatever they deemed necessary or expedient to fight crime in minority communities was actually good for those minorities: “The Trump administration, Mr. Sessions said, is working ‘out of a concern to make the lives of people in particularly the poor communities, minority communities, live a safer, happier life so that they’re able to have their children outside and go to school in safety and they can go to the grocery store in safety and not be accosted by drug dealers and get caught in crossfires or have their children seduced into some gang.’” NY Times.
Indeed the vector of taking America back to a simpler and easier time sounds attractive, but taking us back to the values of the 1950s/60s/70s also takes us back to the time when “blacks knew their place,” where desegregation, battling Jim Crow laws and clear voter discrimination were fiercely opposed by the “law and order” white traditionalists of yesteryear. “While civil rights advocates and liberal groups say that a number of the stances Mr. Sessions has taken were not unexpected, they remain troubled. The focus on states’ rights — which some see as a code phrase for segregation in the civil rights era — is particularly worrisome, they say.
“‘Trump went out of his way to select an attorney general who had a history of hostility’ to immigrants’ rights, minority protections and other issues, said David Cole, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union who testified in the Senate against Mr. Sessions’ nomination. ‘Thus far, all signs are that Sessions is playing to type.’” NY Times.
Interestingly, even as crime among immigrants is quite disproportionately lower than the national average, Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant obsession is so extreme that he has ordered the federal government to create a new office to focus on, track and report solely on crimes committed by immigrants… a seeming search for some additional justification for his obsession with reducing the number of non-white-ethnic Europeans living in and becoming citizens of the United States. But then, this is just one more way for us to attempt to turn back the hands of time to the 1950s.
The message is pretty clear: if you are not obviously white, especially if you live in a big city, particularly if you live in a less-affluent part of that city, you are probably going to see a rather rapid decline in how you are treated by your local police and may well think a time machine has taken you back more than a few years. You are going “retro” in a very bad way.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we are pretty much going to be living in a world where civil and voting rights are no longer being protected by the federal government, so private foundations, take over.