20/20 (20 minutes of writing for 20 days): 9. Further Thoughts on Police Oversight

Back home after a time of deep reflection in Spokane concerning police oversight.

I came away thinking about trauma, means and ends, technique (the blind search for the most efficient/one best way), the fear and liberating force of transparency, and whether the vision for oversight might really be about creating a wholly new way of thinking about policing. Since I already discussed trauma, let me focus on the other elements here.

When I ran for office in 2013, I never suspected that I would be spending much time on matters of policing and police oversight.  But the realization that police forces across the country were militarizing, and the subsequent events of in Ferguson, Dallas, Baltimore, and, yes, Davis have made oversight a seemingly all consuming challenge for me today.

Six months ago, I had never heard of NACOLE.  Six months ago the “Picnic Day 5” was not a thing.

When the Davis Police Department obtained a mine-resistant armored (MRAP) vehicle just over 3 years ago, I reflected on the fact that the MRAP was a “means” in search of an “end.” I noted the insidious nature of “means” that purported to provide security:

We are in a situation in which a given “means” is purported to provide security while at the same time embodying humanity’s destructive power. I am talking about the military vehicles we willfully bring into our community to enhance our “security.” Said vehicles would not exist were it not for the creation of wars that have no other purpose than to solidify power and secure limited natural resources for the benefit of a minority of the world’s population.

These prodigious means (created by the narrow pursuit of the “one best way” of solving narrow technical problems) are utilized without reference to who is ultimately responsible for their application. As Jacques Ellul noted: “personne n’est responsable” but, “personne n’est libre”—no one is responsible, but no one is free (of responsibility).

Interestingly, the issue of means and ends was central to the discussion of things like the use of force, military equipment and the setting of policies on such matters.  As Kevin McMahill, Undersheriff, Las Vegas PD said: “Looking back, I can’t believe that before 2010 our use of force polices did NOT include as a primary commitment the sanctity of life and that we did not have deescalation within the policy. It seems so strange now that these things were not there.”

What McMahill was talking about was means without ends: policies that do not ask the question of what we want to achieve but offer a series of “best practices” nonetheless.  His comment represents a kind of awakening in which he started thinking about the ends of policing: preserving life and enhancing community (among other things) and the means that should flow from those ends–to help accomplish them.

Perhaps we have come some distance since the time when police forces merely accepted violent means without reference to the ends they are meant to achieve.  Indeed, the whole conversation about oversight in which McMahill made these comments concerned the police as “technicians” (not his word) who have always made policy as the experts.  McMahill and the others on the panel with him agreed that it was time to open up the conversation on policy formation and set policy based on the ends the community wants to achieve; involving the community itself in such conversations.

The implications of this approach are fairly radical because when the technician allows him/herself to be judged, then technique loses its power and we move towards considering the human need within the policy; not merely the most efficient or “one best way” of the technician.  In fact, the panelists that day noted that opening up policy formation to a broader community discussion is NOT efficient at all.  But it is necessary, they said.

Could it be that the police themselves will lead us out of our enamorment of technique?  The thought is jarring, but perhaps not all that far fetched: in no other public affair has the utter failure of technique become more apparent than in policing.  Our police have obtained the most sophisticated equipment but they remain estranged from their supposed role as “peace officers.”

And so, there is an introduction of transparency in the, frankly, mundane but critical arena of policy making as it concerns our police.  For, make no mistake, policy formation done with public scrutiny, while messy, no longer lives in the shadows–the sole purview of the “experts.”

But there is a further transparency that was on display in the discussions this week.  This transparency concerns the revealing of information from police actions.  Speaker after speaker across nearly EVERY presentation remarked on how fearful the police were when leaders proposed releasing more, and more comprehensive, data on stops, violent encounters, complaints, body-worn camera images, and other details of day-to-day policing.  And each and every one stated emphatically that the fears had not been borne out.  The greater the revelation, the better community relations had become in each case.

Does any of this imply that we are on the cusp of thinking in wholly new ways about what it means to be a policeman and what policing entails?  I am not sure.  But when I hear technique challenged by the technician; when I hear people who might otherwise fear disclosure talking about how freeing it can actually be; and when I see leaders speaking frankly about the need to define and achieve clear ends–clear human ends… Well, then I think the enthrall of technique has been broken and we can talk about truly human thriving and truly human policing.


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