Why I Don’t Trust the Police   Leave a comment

Content Note: Rape, Sexual Harassment, Protests, Police Abuse of Power, Religious Discrimination

There have been a few different news stories in the past week or so that have thrown this into relief for me.

First, there was the news of protests around the Muslim world. Most of the reporting I saw made these protests difficult to understand, which usually indicates bad or incomplete coverage. Any story that covers these protests without mentioning the fact that the United States has been invading, occupying, and bombing multiple Muslim countries for more than a decade now is not doing justice to the protesters complaints.

Anyway, I keep seeing these headlines like, “26 Killed in Pakistani Protests.” Notice the use of passive voice. It’s as if dying is just the natural result of participating in a protest. Maybe some of the dead got that way because of the actions of protesters, but if I had to guess, I’d guess most of those casualties were the result of police actions (police who are probably equipped at least in part with American made and American subsidized gear, if the police are from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, or any of the gulf states. Why are people protesting us again?). And that dynamic is repeated all over the place, including the United States. It’s doesn’t happen in the same degree in the United States, but it’s the same dynamic.

When Occupy Wall Street protesters crossed the Brooklyn bridge, it was police actions that forced the closure of the bridge for as long as it was closed (and there are reports that it was police operatives who got protesters to go on the traffic portion of the bridge in the first place). The protesters were all arrested, a process that took far longer than if they had simply been allowed to cross. Yet protesters received all the blame. And then again, reports of police using sexual harassment, excessive force, and illegal arrest are incredibly common from Occupy Wall Street protesters. And these complaints aren’t taken seriously despite the fact that we know the police have a long history of harassing and attempting to discredit protest movements. Seth Rosenfeld came out with a book a few weeks ago that showed the FBI actively trying to undermine Berkeley’s free speech movement. It not only investigated nonviolent protest groups, it attempted to get teachers who were too leftist fired.

And the media conspires to hide all this. Maybe they don’t do it consciously, but that “26 Killed” line is too common to be accidental. Violence between police and protesters is frequently blamed on the protesters, almost never on the police, and that just simply isn’t an accurate reflection of reality.

The second news story I heard was a radio interview about another gift the War on Drugs has given us: confidential informants. I guess there was a piece in The Atlantic about their use. Basically what happens is the police will get someone on a minor charge and then coerce them into becoming informants in more serious investigations. Frequently, all the promises made by the police are verbal, and sometimes not nearly enough is done to ensure the safety of the informant. And informants can be minors. In one case, the police threatened a sixteen year old with assault charges (for punching his teacher) unless he became an informant for them. They had this sixteen year make drug buys, and then they had him testify in open court. He was killed.

But police won’t be halting the practice of using minors as informants anytime soon. They’re needed. For the Drug War. After all, drugs are in schools. Who else will ensure that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. How can we maintain that kind of prestige unless we start young?

It reminded me of an episode of This American Life from a month or so ago. About the case where the FBI sent an informant into a California Mosque to look for terrorists, and members of the mosque wound up reporting that informant of being a suspected terrorist. I heard about that part of the story a while ago. What I hadn’t heard was that one of the two men who reported the informant was then brought up on charges of suspected terrorist activity. The FBI said they would drop the charges if the man would work for them… in Afghanistan. The man ultimately refused, and after a good deal more harassment, public embarrassment, and a few searches of his home, the charges were dropped anyway.

And that’s why I don’t trust the police. They use threats and harassment, both physical and legal, to get what they want. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity of listening to a police officer speak about how they handled rape cases. It was unnerving for me. When the officer talked about going after perpetrators, trying to prove a case against them, he got a glint in his eye and a little bit of a smile on his face. He talked about how the police tried to get rapists. Apparently, at least where I live, police will harass a suspect until they can get him (and it’s almost always a him) to take a lie detector test. The test itself is inadmissible in court, but if it turns something up, the police can use that to further badger the suspect. They try to trip him up, get him to contradict himself. And when he does, they try to convince him how much better off he’ll be if he just confesses. And that’s how the police go after rapists.

And I won’t trust an organization that works like that. If that’s the best way to catch rapists (which I doubt), I still don’t have to trust the people who do it. A system that relies so heavily on tricks and threats and lies is not a trustworthy organization. Any system that places so much scrutiny on minority religions and nonviolent protest movements is not one that should be given much trust by what is supposed to a free and open society.


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