Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform? title=
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?
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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.

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19 Comments

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RHS Aug 04, 2020 06:27 PM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

9:20 a.m: It is not true that crime went down after 3 strikes was enacted. Crime had been going down for years before that. One of the most telling correlations is that crime started down in the US about 19 years after Roe v. Wade which could mean that not having unwanted and unsupported and maltreated children meant fewer people who struck out against the community.

a-1596558007 Aug 04, 2020 09:20 AM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

Voters for the past 20 years have supported candidates endorsed by the big city employee unions, the police union being one of the most appealing endorsements. This has been called the "progressive" agenda and has played out with these particular budget distortions for "first responder" employees. Voters wanted this, so why are you calling for "reform" of the police departments when in fact it has been the support of "progressive" voters who created this imbalance in the first place. Just elect more inddpendent, and less union-dependent candidates to run this city, who can negotiate arms-length with the city employee bargaining groups. You are targeting the wrong constituency; when in fact the mirror needs to be put in front of the voters own faces. You got the government you deserved - you traded independence and fiscal prudence for special interest money and endorsements. Vote as if you mean what you are saying next time. No, the candidate who raises the most money is not necessarily the "best" candidates; but often the most beholden candidate. You really should know this by now.

a-1596564079 Aug 04, 2020 11:01 AM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

Recusal of any elected city council member who took city employee union PAC money and/or endorsements when later bargaining with those same city employee unions would be good reform. Take a look at the public disclosure forms for campaign contributions and you will find regular, fixed amount contributions listed under city union members names, "as individual", row after row after row. How do you "reform" that? Citizens United only allowed some balance between the power of the insider public sector union members ability to donate massive amounts to their own "friendly" candidate, and the rest of us. You can see why the public sector unions are so against Citizens United - they have no interest in a level playing field. For sheer public sector union political excess, be sure to watch the Prop 15 campaign ads brought to you by SEIU and friends, who want to gut Prop 13 property tax protections, which have helped keep rents down. Except these ads carefully never let you on to what they are really doing - taking more tax dollars than they already have for the benefit of the public sector union members themselves. Fall for the Prop15 scam, and indeed you will get the government you deserve and public employee union members will be laughing all the way to the bank. With zero reforms in the incestuous political process that got us into this mess in the first place. Pay attention to the duplicitous Prop 15 ads. They want your money, but they try to con you into thinking you are paying this extra money to "invest in yourselves".

RHS Aug 04, 2020 10:44 AM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

9:20 am. I think police and firefighter groups have endorsed right wing candidates as well but generally the center left has had their (law enforcement and firefighter unions) back in return for their money and endorsement. (I do not believe they endorsed Bernie or Green Party candidacies.) Reform on who can contribute to elections is grossly overdue but as long as Citizens United stands this cannot happen.

vvorker Aug 04, 2020 08:14 AM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

1/3 of our local budget $49 Million, goes to pay for this protection racket. And I assume the other 16000 departments extract the same in their communities. Sometimes Robert, you have to call a racket when it is a racket. Similar to the Great Book "War is a Racket" we need a new one to explore how law enforcement is in the same game. Lets end the Prison Industrial complex... Show me the money!!

RHS Aug 04, 2020 06:24 PM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

It is not true, 9 20 am, that crime went down after 3 strikes was enacted. Crime had been going down for years before that. One of the most telling correlations is that crime started down in the US about 19 years after Roe v. Wade which could mean that not having unwanted and unsupported and maltreated children meant fewer people who struck out against the community.

PitMix Aug 04, 2020 12:53 PM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

9:20, the studies I have seen do not tie the reduction in crime to the 3 strikes law. It seems to have more to do with the percent of young people and also the state of the economy. But posts like yours convince people that having the highest percent of people in jail of any 1st world country is a beneficial thing, instead of a badge of shame.

a-1596558048 Aug 04, 2020 09:20 AM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

Crime goes down when the criminals are in jail/prison. That has been shown repeatedly - witness the crime reduction after the 3 Strikes law was enacted. And witness the increase in violent crime as criminals have been released due to Covid (and weak DAs).

RHS Aug 03, 2020 06:42 PM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

The reality is that young male cops are just fulfilling the role their genes, hormones and society has given them. Years of working in the criminal justice system has convinced me that the best solution to street confrontation would be to remove the new cops from that duty (which is usually the first given to them) and let older police (and maybe as many female cops as can be found) handle it. Young cops should be given jobs that are monitored and supervised closely. Over time they can be let loose into the community. But that duty is risky and not very rewarding so those with seniority claim dibs on doing less confrontational work. We need to reverse this and exert some community direction to require the police agencies to work for the all of the people, not just the "established" folks. Nothing this officer said is unknown to the powers that be, by the way.

doulie Aug 04, 2020 02:34 PM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

PITMIX - All we can do is speculate why the senior officer in the Minneapolis (Floyd) incident was a training officer. Best to wait and read what the coming investigation reports. Little doubt because of the world wide outcry due to this incident the "organizational mistake" will be corrected.

PitMix Aug 04, 2020 12:54 PM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

Doulie, why was that "experienced" cop with many problems in his record assigned as a training officer? That was an organizational mistake, and hopefully will be changed.

doulie Aug 04, 2020 09:42 AM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

Officers appointed at age 21 usually have good experience after five to ten years service. The physical capabilities of an older officer will vary depending on their physical training habits. I have little doubt there are overweight officers or officers in good shape simply not capable of chasing down a fleeing suspect, climbing a fence or performing other physical requirements when needed. So you are correct, like other older people, older officers no doubt lose their physical capabilities as they continue to age.

doulie Aug 04, 2020 08:30 AM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

Regarding your comment about the more experienced officer having "the final say." In the Minneapolis (George Floyd) incident, I believe it was because the "rookies" knew there was a "more experienced cop" involved they did not take any action. Most, if not all "rookies" are not about to and probably will not challenge a senior officers decision in the field. I believe it is this point in an officers training that needs to be emphasized. It doesn't matter how much experience an officer has in their department, if a junior officer sees conclusive evidence a different tactic could/should be used they should challenge/advise the senior officer (if there is time). Time is the critical factor. The Floyd case is a good example as there were almost nine minutes in which the "rookie" officers could have challenged/advised the senior officer of the problem being created. Why the third officer did not intervene is unknown. But, it's usually (after) a "hot" and quickly developing situation when it may be learned something possibly could have been done differently. Usually no time in a "hot" situation to have much discussion. Floyd was the exception.

a-1596522636 Aug 03, 2020 11:30 PM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

Interesting observations and suggestion. But the more experienced cops are usually not as physically capable of that duty, correct? Maybe make sure it’s one older cop partnered with one younger, with the understanding that the more experienced cop will have the final say?

PitMix Aug 04, 2020 12:56 PM
Humanist Society Lecture: Policing Reform?

Unfortunately in today's society we have a very short time to capture people's attention and accomplish change, or nothing will end up being done. People under scrutiny know that if they can just delay things long enough, people will lose interest. That 15 mins of fame thing is more true now than it ever has been.

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