Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?
By Robert Bernstein
The Humanist Society July meeting was held via Zoom with over 40 people participating.
The topic was "Policing Reform" which is very timely with the Black Lives Matter protests exploding around the country and around the world. The speaker was Terry Blevins, a retired sergeant with the Gila County Sheriff's Office in Arizona. He was the son of Christian missionaries who has experienced being a Christian, an atheist, and now is agnostic.
He kindly let us share his slides which I have posted here.
He made his family crazy with questions about the Bible. He read Aquinas and other scholars.
He sees that everything going on now has to do with justice and fairness. Caring about fellow human beings and society. Wanting to make a difference.
He grew up in Mexico and Central America. His parents were Pentecostal missionaries. It was a very evangelical organization.
He moved to Arizona with his family when he was in his mid teens. That is where he eventually became a police officer.
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership LEAP is a national organization made up of police officers, prosecutors and judges who advocate for drug policy reform, policing reform and criminal justice reform. In his own words he says it is "an organization of people who get it."
Blevins went on to describe his background in a variety of roles in security and law enforcement in the US and working in Afghanistan, Iraq and throughout Latin America. Much of this foreign work was with the State Department and much of the Latin America work involved the War on Drugs. That is where a lot of US money goes to that region.
He sees the War on Drugs as not working. By one estimate the US has spent a trillion dollars in this effort and has little to show for it.
He recounted the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. Other officers assisted in the killing and did not stop Chauvin. Floyd was handcuffed and face down as Chauvin kneeled on his neck for almost eight minutes until Floyd died.
Blevins noted that the actions of the other officers makes him believe that there is a culture of acceptance of this behavior in the Minneapolis Police Department. It is rare for individual officers to break out of the pattern of culture in their department.
Blevins recounted other recent events where police killed people of color. Video recordings showed officers using excessive force during protests, including driving into a crowd and pushing down an older gentleman in Buffalo, NY.
Those images of police violence increased overall violence in his view. Hundreds of injuries on both sides. Which has led to a national outcry for policing reform. It has also led to some groups supporting the police even more.
His experience in Law Enforcement (LE) is that most LE officers have good intentions and want to do the right thing. Blevins deviates from LEAP at times. He thinks most police agencies have a reasonably good culture and hold officers accountable.
Many police agencies have excellent training, even sensitivity training that encourages more progressive attitudes. But this training is often not well received.
Most police he has known are not racist, but are embedded in a system that is implicitly biased. Many of the officers he worked with reject change.
He has heard expletives used to describe sensitivity training. It ends up not effective because of the way it is presented and/or the officers just don't want to hear it. The trainers don't understand what they have to do.
The police forces have been integrated by race and gender. But they pretty much have to be straight or keep quiet. California is more progressive on that. Other police forces make fun of California for being so accepting. It is still taboo in most of the US to be LGBTQ.
Police officers tend to like the status quo or even prefer to go back to earlier times.
Blevins noted that young black men use cannabis at the same rate as young white men or even less. But they are arrested three to four times as often. Something is wrong with a system where that happens.
There are smart investigators trying to understand this implicit bias and remedy it.
Blevins worked in Internal Affairs (IA). In 2009 he left LE to do IA. He didn't want to do it. He sees officers doing a difficult job. But he also saw a lot of nepotism. And he saw people persecuted for not being insiders; not golfing or playing baseball with others.He is a student of history. He was in LA during the riots in the early 1990s. He knows about the Congressional work on racial unrest in the 1960s. He thinks that smart people came up with good ideas for national standards.
As it is, policies and procedures vary widely around the US. He thought that his department did a good job handling citizen complaints against officers who mistreated them. But this is not true everywhere.
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) put out national guidelines for that purpose. But local departments saw those guidelines as only directed at departments that "had problems".
LE is hierarchical and he had to do what he was told. He read books and followed media stories on police corruption. The investigative TV show 20/20 put people undercover to file police complaints around the country. Some refused to take the complaints. Some took them grudgingly. Some threw them in the trash after the person left. Some undercover people were even arrested.
You would think filing a complaint is simple. Against a specific officer or department. You would think there is a standard form, ideally online. This is not the case.
It is often up to the on duty supervisor to decide if a case is worth pursuing. At least if a case is filed it is documented. Some supervisors accepted no complaints from the public. Some will threaten "false reporting" if cases are pursued.
Blevins warned we might have a "revolution" unless something is done. He was recently interviewed in a news article. It was not well received by fellow officers. They said he was "turning into a liberal", becoming a "softie" or going to "the dark side".
There are 18,000 police agencies in the US. There are Federal policing guidelines. But each agency has its own standards. No other country comes close. The next closest is Canada which has 56 agencies.
He heard a rumor of a detective who had gathered dirt on members of a County Board of Supervisors. It is very hard to fight such corruption. Few Federal judges are willing to override local control; local control is big in the US.
Oakland had a history of systemic human rights abuses. The Obama administration intervened and Oakland is still under that order. Many improvements were made.
LEAP has a number of National Policing recommendations. There should be transparency. Congress should have a national public database of officers who are a problem. Doing things like planting or destroying evidence. An officer who does something like that should not be an officer anywhere.
LEAP is calling for a national standard for the use of deadly force. It should uphold the sanctity of human life. It should raise the threshold for the use of deadly force. It should affirmatively state an officer's duty to de-escalate.
Arizona currently allows shooting a fleeing felon in the back. LEAP wants a standard that this is not allowed just because someone is fleeing.
LEAP wants Qualified Immunity to be reexamined. It is hard to file a lawsuit against officers.
He ended his talk encouraging people to get involved with LEAP. Anyone can join for a small donation.
He then took some questions.
He talked about the call to "defund" the police. Blevins understands that this does not mean to completely defund the police. It means to take some money away and reallocate it to other resources. Society expects police officers to handle marriage problems, mental health problems and drug problems. They are not qualified and don't have the resources. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Officers end up arresting people who should not be arrested. They have to get back out on the road and that is the easy solution.
He was asked about the militarization of the police. He said there is a theory that if police show up with overwhelming force then people will surrender and this will avoid violence. Unfortunately, he feels that is wrong. It gives the wrong impression to have armored vehicles and officers in camouflage military uniforms. Especially in communities that already feel the police are not there to help them.
But he also warns that police will refuse to go on patrol if they don't feel safe.
Dave Flattery asked about the role of police unions in fighting reform. Blevins agreed that police unions tend to protect every officer no matter what they have done. Which is one reason Minneapolis is looking to abolish the police department and start over. He noted that this is what happened in Camden. It helped and is worth studying, but it is not perfect.
Former Mayor Sheila Lodge talked of her experience as Mayor and her husband's experience as a judge. She said most officers are decent but many have authority issues; they need to dominate people. She wondered if there needs to be better screening of who can become an officer.
Blevins agreed, but said it is difficult. Many smaller agencies don't have the resources. Another reason to have a national registry. And some can game the screening process and get through anyway.
I appreciate the work that Blevins and LEAP are doing to improve the accountability of police and to create national policies to de-escalate conflicts and to raise the threshold for police use of deadly force.
But at least a century of "police reform" efforts have not led to substantial progress. I think that the Black Lives Matter people are correct that radical change is needed. "Reform" is not enough. Whether Blevins meant to give this message or not, this message came through to me in everything he said.
"Radical" means going to the root of a problem. Millions of Americans are homeless and lacking in access to health care and mental health care. And millions lack any path to stable, dignified employment. Shouldn't we be investing in solving those problems that are at the root of much of what "policing" is about?
Blevins invited people to Like their Facebook page.