Community, Politics, Social Justice

Who You Gonna Call?

It’s weird to have to hesitate before calling when you need the police: Will the cops make a situation worse?

Cops killed more than 100 unarmed American black people in 2015. This year has seen more high-profile killings.

If I were black, particularly a black man, I’d be pretty skittish about interacting with the cops. I’m not black, though. I’m White, educated and privileged. I don’t typically think, “Be careful, you don’t wanna get shot,” if I get pulled over for having a tail light out.

In some respects, I think that other people like me (i.e. white), see the militarization of police as a somewhat abstract problem. We’re against it, we think cops should be trained differently, we empathize with Black Lives Matter. But it’s not typically something that hits us where we live.

Except when it does.

A couple weeks back, an obviously mentally ill man of color wandered through my neighborhood (just outside downtown Albuquerque). Dressed in camo fatigue pants and what looked like an Air Force camo shirt, he shouted insults, threats and challenges at an invisible adversary. Carrying a Slurpee cup, which he impressively managed to keep upright while swinging his legs around in ill-coordinated roundhouse kicks, he meandered into the vacant lot a door up from me, crossing from the street to the alley that runs behind my house. I decided to keep an eye on him.

When he got to the back alley, he proceeded into the receiving/shipping area of the gift shop that fronts the next block. There, he challenged and threaten his invisible foe while he began to kick the steel rear door of the gift shop. At that point, I thought, “Okay, it’s time to call the police.” I pulled out my cell phone to call Albuquerque dispatch.

And then I put it away. I didn’t make the call.

Why? Because I realized that this man, being black and obviously disturbed, runs at least a 50-50 chance of being shot by the police when they arrive. Probably the chances are even higher than that. Calling the cops on this guy borders on calling in a death squad.

Instead, I surreptitiously followed him for a few blocks to make sure he didn’t decide to attack someone, or start throwing shit through windows. Eventually he calmed down to the point where he didn’t seem any crazier than a guy with a Bluetooth headset and, more important, got far enough from my house that the situation didn’t really feel like my problem anymore.

The militant cop thing isn’t just about what might happen to a mentally ill guy on the street, either. There are plenty of examples of police kicking down the wrong door on a drug bust warrant and shooting the surprised and wholly innocent occupants. Or examples of cops killing the very people they were called to help, as in the case of Brian Wood of Farmington, whose death spurred his father-in-law, former Davis County Sheriff Dub Lawrence, to become an investigator (see the film Peace Officer, about Lawrence’s findings on this case).

Our police are no longer serving their purpose as protectors if we feel we cannot call them without a serious concern of someone being killed. Our police are not serving as protectors if the situation is worse because of their actions upon arriving at the scene.

The problem, I think, is the militarization of police, and not, as the Republican presidential candidate would like you to believe, an increase in crime. In fact, crime is lower now than it’s been in a long, long time. Cops, themselves, are actually safer now than they’ve been in many decades.

But when cops are militarized, they no longer see themselves as protectors, but rather as enforcers. Instead of being the agents of authority, they become authorities themselves.

Perhaps the best example of this is the Salt Lake Avenues shooting of James Dudley Barker (January 2015). Watch the full video (not the final cut, sanitized for TV viewership and attention span).

Yes, Barker attacked officer Taylor. (As a side note: Personally, I feel that if you cannot deal with a man armed with a plastic snow shovel without killing him, you shouldn’t be a cop in the first place.) But before Barker attacked, watch Taylor’s behavior. He continually moves closer to Barker. His tone in giving Barker orders gets more and more authoritative. The problem is that Barker told him ‘no,’ and you don’t tell cops no. Instead of backing off and calming down, he insisted that Barker comply, and comply now.

I don’t mean to pick apart one incident, but rather to use this incident as an illustrative example of what’s wrong with the culture among our police.

Dear Police:

If you are called in to help someone, and you end up killing that person, you’re the oppressor, not the protector.

If folks hesitate to call you because it’ll most likely make the situation worse, and potentially lethal, you’re not the White Knight, you’re the Imperial Storm Trooper.

It’s time to back down. It’s time to learn to de-escalate. It’s time to become protectors again. You’re our employees, not our occupiers, remember.

Pax is a longtime CATALYST staffer currently living in Albuquerque. He works as evaluation faculty at Western Governors University, and teaches magazine writing online for the University of Utah’s Communication department. He and his wife Adele Flail blog at www.halophile.net.