Human Rights

Can Brutal and Racist Cops Change to Become More 'Sensitive'?

The Boston policeman who called Gates a "banana-eating jungle monkey" had taken racial-sensitivity training classes. It's not clear they work.

It's too late now for Justin Barrett, the Boston cop who shot a racial slur straight into the heat of the controversy surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates last month.

Unlike the Gates incident -- which many Americans insisted had nothing to do with race -- in this case, the racism was beyond dispute. Weighing in on Gates, Barrett declared, via mass e-mail: "If I was the officer (Gates) verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC deserving of his belligerent noncompliance." (OC, of course, is pepper spray.)

Reprisals were swift. Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis "immediately stripped Barrett of his gun and badge," according to local media. "These racist opinions and feelings have no place in this department or in our society and will not be tolerated," he said.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino called for Barrett's dismissal, telling reporters he intends to "rid our department of the cancer" that is racial hatred. "All the police officers I know don't condone any of that," he said.

On July 29, Barrett apologized for his remark, calling it "a poor choice of words." But it wasn't enough to save his job.

Now, he's suing the police department, police commissioner and mayor, accusing them of "conspiring to intentionally inflict emotional distress" and "conspiring to intentionally interfere with [his] property rights, due process rights and civil rights."

Barrett's defenders have argued that he shouldn't lose his job over an e-mail he sent from his personal computer, while off duty, but in fact the official response was exactly as it should be. Basic respect for minority communities should be a condition of employment for anyone tasked with protecting the public (let alone carrying a gun). Yet, until now, such a zero-tolerance approach has been the exception rather than the rule, to even far more egregious -- and sometimes deadly -- incidents of racial bias in police ranks.

A more typical response might have been for Barrett to be subjected to some kind of racial sensitivity training -- that is, in addition the "extensive training in racial-profiling prevention" he received in his police academy days.

"People go through these courses and they pass them and you don't know what they are going to do in a situation," Menino told reporters last month.

Indeed, Officer James Crowley, who arrested Gates, not only passed racial-profiling classes -- for the past five years, he has taught them. Yet one of Gates's initial demands following his arrest -- along with an apology, which was never granted -- was a prescription of racial-sensitivity training for him and his fellow officers. "We just need to find a way to re-establish that regular routine of engagement and dialogue with police," Harvard law professor Charles Ogeltree (who represents Gates) told reporters.

In Boston, the need to address racism in the ranks, overt or otherwise, could hardly be more pressing. Even as the police commissioner "tried to distance the department from the e-mail, saying it reflected the 'racist opinions and feelings' of one individual," Boston Globe reporter Maria Cramer wrote, meanwhile, "Larry Ellison, a Boston detective and the president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said the incident reflects a subtly racist culture that permeates the department."

He pointed to several incidents in the last year, including a white officer who urinated in the water bottle of a black female officer and another who posted an article, "Slavery: Best Thing that Ever Happened to Blacks."
Yesterday, Ellison and other officials learned that someone had scrawled graffiti in the bathroom of a Charlestown police station. The toilet has two buttons, one for flushing liquids and another for flushing solid waste. Next to the buttons, someone had written Deval Patrick and Barack Obama.
"This is not an isolated incident," Ellison said of the e-mail.

It seems likely Boston police have some form of sensitivity training in their future. The same goes for police officers in Fort Worth, Texas, where cops brutally raided a gay bar earlier this summer, sending at least one man to the hospital. (Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead said "he will implement sensitivity training that specifically addresses LGBT issues," according to the Dallas Voice.)

Meanwhile, the New York Police Department recently held a racial sensitivity seminar at Harlem's Apollo Theater following the shooting of a black plainclothes police officer by his colleagues in June. All around the country, sensitivity training abounds. But is it helping?

"Law enforcement has been working on improving police-minority relations for decades," Julian Wilson, a columnist for the Examiner.com, wrote earlier this month. Yet, "as a result of these two incidents in Massachusetts, it is clearly evident that the cultural diversity training given to police officers is either not being used, or is just flat out not working."

'I Saw Police Officers Stand Up And Walk Out'

Norm Stamper was a police officer for 34 years and is the author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose on the Dark Side of American Policing (Nation Books, 2005). Years have passed since he was in uniform, but his frustration with sensitivity training is fresh.

"Whenever there's been an incident and it gains notoriety, there's a tendency to focus almost exclusively on training," he says. "I take issue with that tendency."

When Stamper started out, as a beat cop in San Diego, sensitivity training was deployed in a well-intentioned attempt to deal with the "racial unrest" of the late 1960s. A citizen complaint about police officers' handling of an incident could sometimes result in the entire department receiving training "in what we then called 'race relations' -- or what today we would call 'cultural diversity' or 'cultural competence,' " he recalls.

"Everyone would be herded into a big room … and a black civic leader would come in and talk to us." The reaction?

"I saw police officers stand up and walk out."

"Now," Stamper says, "those are police officers who, in my judgment, ought not to have been cops in the first place. But their rude behavior is symptomatic of this resistance within the police culture to any externally imposed 'sensitivity training.' "

For all the societal progress that has been made in the past few decades, in many ways, this culture has not changed.

"The fight for racial equality has taken forever in this country, and the battle is far from won, especially in policing," Stamper writes in Breaking Rank. The 1960s may seem like ages ago, but "in the parallel struggles for racial justice in America and for the 'professionalization' of policing, it's little more than a blink of an eye."

In Stamper's opinion, respect for and capacity to deal with minority communities must be a condition of employment, not something to teach after the fact.

"It starts and ends with non-negotiable expectations for performance and conduct," he says. "Instead of 'let's all feel good about one another,' 'let's indulge whatever contemporary definitions of popular correctness are popular at the moment,' you should have a very tough statement of these conditions of employment: If you want to be a cop, or be promoted, understand that you cannot violate these very basic standards."

Richard Weinblatt is a former police chief and is the director of the Institute for Public Safety at Central Ohio Technical College, where he has taught numerous sensitivity courses. "We tend to realize we can't control what people think," he says. "But we certainly care, and we certainly can control the manifestation of that thought process and behavior." In his professional opinion, behavior like Barrett's is "absolutely unacceptable."

Weinblatt points out another problem with sensitivity training, which is that while most police academy training involves some sensitivity coursework for new recruits, there are very few courses that are tailored for active-duty police officers. "You'll have them every once in a while, but they are not offered on a regular basis," he says.

This can mean that police officers who are prescribed racial sensitivity training after an act of brutality or verbal abuse act are likely to find themselves auditing a class alongside new recruits -- an infantilizing experience, to be sure.

But even those courses offered to in-service cops can have limited value. One major problem comes down, in Weinblatt's view, to how sensitivity training is defined, which is as a form of punishment for bad behavior.

"If you are going to do something along those lines," says Weinblatt, "you need to frame it not as a sanction, but as a remedial effort."

He explains why:

"If you frame it as a sanction, you know what happens: The person goes in there with their arms crossed, all the wrong body language; they're resistant to anything going on there -- and then it's just an exercise in putting in hours. There's no quality outcome."

The same is true if the person teaching the course is not invested in it. "If the instructor is sitting in there and saying, 'Well, you know, you got your hand smacked, and you're here as a sanction and let's just go through the motions here' … It's not going to work. Like any instructor in any other subject, you need someone who truly believes in what he or she is facilitating.

"Let's not just go through the motions. Let's actually try to affect behavior."

But affecting the behavior of police officers is no simple task. As an instructor, says Weinblatt, "maybe you'll penetrate and make them see some of the other perspectives that have led them to be there." But, "it's not easy to do."

Backlash and Brutality

In an era that has seen indignation and anger over "political correctness," the mere concept of "sensitivity training" has been critiqued and satirized many times over -- from a South Park episode featuring "Muslim Sensitivity Training" for fourth-graders to an episode of the FX drama Rescue Me, in which the perpetually pissed-off firefighter played by Denis Leary storms out of a sensitivity training course, to the dismay of a hapless instructor armed with a cheesy educational video. ("What did we learn from that?" asks the teacher after showing the video. "That only white people can be racist?" offers Leary.)

On the far right, sensitivity training is treated like the most insidious form of brainwashing, the spawn of the hippie left. Hate-spewing shock jock Michael Savage recently ranted about efforts to train San Francisco police officers in a course taught by a transgender detective, calling it an attempt "to teach normal men how to have sensitivity to a psychopathic sex-change operative who should be in a mental hospital."

"If I were the inspectors being forced to do this, I would, as a group … refuse to go. I would not let myself be brainwashed by this freak," he said.

Not all police officers are so blatantly bigoted, of course. But, as Stamper writes in Breaking Rank, today's police forces have a long way to go when it comes to dealing with its biases.

"What makes chiefs and mayors believe today's police officers are all that different from those of the '70s?" he asks. "Do their cops provide equitable service to all communities? Do they respond rapidly and vigorously to crime in black neighborhoods? Do they follow proper procedures in stop-and-frisks, collecting evidence, making arrests? Do they refrain from excessive force?"

Not likely. The Neanderthal spirit is alive and well in America's police departments. Los Angeles cops, for example, used their MDTs (mobile data terminals) to send car-to-car messages about "gorillas in the mists" at the time of the Rodney King incident (1991). After O.J. Simpson was acquitted, one of my veteran cops in Seattle was inspired to use his own MDT to enlighten peers about the differences between white and black juries. … The King beating, the [Amadou] Diallo and [Abner] Louima incidents in New York, the profiling cases on the New Jersey Turnpike -- all make it clear that racism continues to thrive in policing.

Not to mention more recent examples of police brutality, from the New Year's Day slaying of Oscar Grant on an Oakland BART train platform by transit police to the Sean Bell case in Queens, where a young black man was gunned down by NYPD on his wedding day. These cases -- and countless others -- make it pretty clear that it's time to go beyond sensitivity training and take a serious look at how power is wielded by police officers, particularly over people of color -- even if they happen to be Harvard professors.

"I have no doubt that even when a police officer enters another's private home, he or she feels in charge," says Stamper. "It's anti-American, it's un-American, it's inefficient, it's ineffective. It damages the relationship between community and police." It is, in his description, "an occupational mentality."

Are Police Forces Becoming Occupying Armies?

Michael Letwin is a public defender at the Brooklyn office of the Legal Aid Society's Criminal Defense Division. He sees the consequence of this "occupational mentality" in policing on a regular basis.

"In 2007, the NYPD stopped nearly 469,000 New Yorkers," says Letwin. "Eighty-eight percent were found completely innocent of any wrongdoing. The racial disparity in the stop-and-frisk encounters is almost identical to the disparity in marijuana arrests: Though they make up only a quarter of the city's population, more than half of those stopped were black."

This kind of racial profiling, all too familiar in urban areas across the country, has not only fueled the staggering levels of incarceration in the U.S., it has created a situation where even minor infractions by people of color -- often classified as "quality of life" offenses -- can lead to jail time.

"Despite repeated efforts at reform, police departments continue to target communities of color and subject them to dramatically higher rates of stops, search and arrest," according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

A good example is the privatizing of lobbies and public hallways in public-housing buildings, which have led to a spike in trespassing arrests. In New York, police conduct "vertical sweeps," walking through entire buildings and stopping everyone they encountered in the halls to ask for identification and verification of their residency or otherwise lawful status in the building.

"The rate of trespass arrests has surged dramatically in the last few years and has focused entirely on communities of color and the poor," according to the NAACP. "A review of cases between 2004 and 2007 reveals a 30 percent increase in trespass arrests. An unacceptable number of these arrests are 'unlawful arrests of people who seem to be caught in a trap while going about their everyday lives in a perfectly legal way.' "

Barabara Ehrenreich recently described this phenomenon in a devastating New York Times piece titled "Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?"

"Flick a cigarette in a heavily patrolled community of color, and you're littering; wear the wrong color T-shirt, and you're displaying gang allegiance," Ehrenreich wrote. Perhaps most shocking, "a growing number of cities have taken to ticketing, and sometimes handcuffing, teenagers found on the streets during school hours."

In Los Angeles, the fine for truancy is $250; in Dallas, it can be as much as $500 -- crushing amounts for people living near the poverty level. According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group, 12,000 students were ticketed for truancy in 2008.
Why does the Bus Riders Union care? Because it estimates that 80 percent of the "truants," especially those who are black or Latino, are merely late for school, thanks to the way that overfilled buses whiz by them without stopping. I met people in Los Angeles who told me they keep their children home if there's the slightest chance of their being late. It's an ingenious anti-truancy policy that discourages parents from sending their youngsters to school.

It doesn't help that at the same time police forces are resembling occupying armies waging war on the poor, the nature of policing itself is becoming more and more militarized.

"Even as we continue to hear the rhetoric of community policing, we're seeing this increase in militarism in American policing," says Stamper. "I think it's a very unhealthy trend."

Indeed, the creepy paramilitarism of post-9/11 homeland security policy was on full display in St. Paul, Minn., during the Republican National Convention last year, where "preventive" house raids and mass arrests of law-abiding citizens, including journalists, made the city itself feel under siege.

"Nowadays, police are looking, and acting, more like soldiers than cops, with bad consequences," law professor and Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds wrote in Popular Mechanics in 2006. "And those who suffer the consequences are usually innocent civilians."

Some conservatives draw favorable parallels between the "surge" tactics by the U.S. military and the deployment of police armies on U.S. streets.

"The war in Iraq bears more than a passing resemblance to the battle against violent street gangs in the roughest parts of American cities," wrote Harvard criminologist William Stuntz in the Weekly Standard this spring. "The tactics [Gen. David] Petraeus used to win that war are eerily similar to the tactics the best police chiefs use to rein in gang violence.

"But better tactics alone cannot do the job. In Boston, as in Baghdad, those tactics work only if the police forces that use them have enough personnel: lots of police boots on the most violent ground.

"Like the Army in pre-surge Iraq, the nation's criminal justice system is in a state of crisis. America needs another surge, this one on home territory."

Such rhetoric is not new, of course -- consider the "war on drugs." But it's alarming nonetheless.

For police forces that see themselves as foot soldiers in a war, civilians too easily become the enemy. And no amount of "sensitivity training" will prevent the inevitable collateral damage.

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. http://twitter.com/LilianaSegura
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