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by Peter Moskos

July 21, 2015

"In a Dream, I Saw a City Invincible"

That's the motto of Camden, New Jersey. It's from a Walt Whitman poem. A comment to a previous post made me think more about Camden. I've been through there a few times. Caught the River Line. Looked down from the PATCO Speedline. And I know a lot of my old 78s are from Camden. That's about it.

I wish I knew more about what's going on there with policing. My knowledge, very limited, consists of the following:

A) There were issues.
B) The police department was basically disbanded; there was some police-union busting.
C) Murders were way down in 2014.
D) Obama said nice things about what was been going on there recently.
E) There are still issues.

That's it. I wish I knew more. What happened to the cops who were on the job then? Who are the cops on the job now? Let me know.

Checking just now, murders in Camden were way down in 2014: just 33 compared to 58 in 2013. That's a great reduction! The 2015 pace seems in line with 2014. But this is a city with just 77,000 people. 33 murders? It's not great. Even by violent US standards, a city with 77,000 peoples should have maybe 4 homicides a year. Not 33.

The other night I was talking to a friend of mine. She had just received a #BlackLivesMatters bracelet and said I could get one, too. I confessed, a bit apologetically, that I won't wear a #BlackLivesMatters bracelet. It's not that I don't care about black lives. It's because I don't agree with the ideological baggage that goes with the hashtag. I work with police. #BlackLivesMatter, in my humble opinion, sees police as the problem. [If that logic doesn't make sense and you're liberal. Let me say this. I'm not wearing a "pro-life" bracelet either. And that despite the fact that I absolutely love life.]

It's the "petite intelligentsia" that worry me. (Yeah, I'm coining that term, damnit.) What bothers me is the public shaming of people who "don't get it." Maybe O'Malley doesn't "get it," but does that make him "not human"? Come on, now.

The Left has a horrible tendency to cannibalize itself. (Sanders isn't the problem, Ted Cruz is!) Remember that great peace protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention? (I don't. I wasn't born yet. But thank God liberals helped get Nixon in office. We never had Humphrey to mess things up.)

From the fringe and not so fringe left, there can be no acceptable intellectual disagreement. If you don't agree with the politically correct movement of the moment, the only acceptable form of disagreement is silence.

I'm not willing to pass the progressive ideological linguistic litmus test. While trying to talk about real police issues on CNN, I was berated for using the word "ghetto" to describe, well, the ghetto. (See pp 16-17 of Cop in the Hood if you want a more articulate defense.) I've been interrupted for using the word "riot" to talk about, well, a riot. Most recently, I was actually reproached on NPR for using the word "criminals" to describe, well, people who commit crimes. My message to the Left: stop this!

When Batts got fired, somebody asked me, "But what does this do for the 'reform' movement?" I think my answer was something none-too subtle like, "If Batts is 'reform," fuck 'reform'! [If you make your position clear, reporters will paraphrase a bit.] I don't care what Batts labeled himself. He wasn't a reformer because he failed at reform. Batts made the problem worse. You don't get credit for what you want to do. You don't get credit for what you should do. You get credit for results."

I want to improve policing. And right or wrong, I see #BlackLivesMatter, the movement, not the concept, as more into blaming police than saving black lives. Maybe that's the point. But then pick a more accurately descriptive hashtag.

The other day I received a flyer (from a young white woman at a George Clinton concert in Queensbridge Park): "Stop Police Terror" it said. Gosh, I'm not for police terror. My eye jumped to the bottom: "Stop Mass Incarceration Network." What's not to like? I am against mass incarceration. I wrote a book against mass incarceration! Great cause. Except for this:
The powers-that-be have continued to unleash their cops to kill and brutalize people.... These killings are the spearpoint of an overall program of suppression that includes mass incarceration and all its consequences. This program of suppression especially targets Black and Latino people and has genocidal implications.... Which Side Are You On?
Well, they're having a march in NYC on October 24, if you'd like join. But given these facts, I'm definitely on the side of police.

Is it not possible for one to think there are problems in policing without believing police are evil? You need to let people argue the former without preaching the latter. I want police to kill fewer people. And I think the best way to get police to kill fewer people (blacks included) is to, well, get police to shoot less often.

So if you take the macro lessons of history and racism and violence and conflate that with individual police incidents today? Well, maybe history will prove you right... but I doubt it. Focusing on police as the problem rather than the solution will result in more black deaths (see Baltimore post-riot).

And if you think this "seasonal uptick" in Baltimore homicides is a small price to pay for a step toward a better society? Well, personally I think you're morally and intellectually delusional. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But hell on earth is paved with people who do the wrong thing and say, "gotta try harder!" (Put that on your inspirational poster.)

But back to Camden.... Now I understand that these murders are, well, crimes. In theory, the state investigates crimes and then arrests and prosecutes the offender. In theory "justice" is served (which happens about a third of the time). Buy if a cop kills you, there's little recourse. It is different when the state takes your life. This matters. This matter a lot. I do understand. But still, just look at this part of Camden. These little flags are murders since 2003. What are we going to do about it?

Let me zoom in on just a few blocks. And these are really small blocks. From top to bottom is half a mile. This whole area is about one-fifth of a square mile.

You might not believe what a small area this is. So here's google satellite view so you can see individual homes.

I want you to see the individual homes. I want you to understand that people are born here, grow up here, live here, and die here. This is America, too.

Atlantic to Sheridan on Louis Street? 2,000 feet and 20 homicides. How many people even live there? I don't know. A few hundred? There have been about 24 homicides within a few hundred feet of Bonsall Elementary School. Gosh, I wonder why their test scores are slightly below average? Must be the "soft bigotry low expectations."

In Camden there's hardly a corner where somebody hasn't been murdered. And #BlackLivesMatter says murder at the hands of police is the biggest problem? Get real.

Let's talk black lives. Let's talk War on Drugs. Let's talk mass incarceration. Let's talk racism and a whole class of people left behind by a free market and political system that couldn't give a damn. Let's talk good policing. Let's talk police abuse. But you can't demand intellectual acquiescence as a precondition.

As to police in Camden? I got no clue. Let me know what's going on. But more importantly, tell me how we're going to make things better?


Anonymous said...

Here is an article about a different kind of reform. It grew out of a failed effort to address crime. Now every major health plan has high-utilization case management teams.


Dave- IL said...

"Is it not possible for one to think there are problems in policing without believing police are evil"

Of course it is, unless you are consumed by your own tribalism.

Let's not just beat up on the Left though. Police who demonize any and all critics of policing are putting tribal allegiance ahead of their oaths. And when people with power get tribal and abuse their authority, they encourage tribalism in less powerful minorities.

The trick for all people--myself included--is to see beyond the tribe and embrace critical thinking. You don't have to forget where you come from, just realize you are part of something much bigger than the tribe. Be practical, be solution-oriented, don't be content with the same old name-calling. What can we do right now, in the world we have (not in the utopian future you discuss in some radical echo chamber) to improve people's lives? You are more than your job, more than your church, more than your ideology and, yes, more than your ethnicity.

Related to this discussion, I recommend the recently released book "Conflict Communications" by Rory Miller. It argues that problem-solving is constantly hijacked because we allow our "monkey brains" (limbic system; concerned with social/emotional matters) to overwhelm our "human brains" (neocortex; reason).

Joe said...

I'm having difficulty understand a couple of the arguments you put forward here. One of which is the link between protesting police abuse and homicide rates rising in Baltimore. Can you clarify a bit there? Shouldn't the police protect a community even if as it is protesting them?

And maybe we're reading different #blacklivesmatter writers, but the folks I read are concerned with systemic racism more than personal racism. But I'm not sure how you talk about or criticize a system without talking about some individual cases. That's what these police abuse conversations are about, imo, instances of a system oppressing citizens. When protesters don't mention individual cases, they're criticized as too academic and told that racism is something from the Sixties.

Adam said...

I'm sure "Black Lives Matter" means different things to different people. I take issue with it when it's directed at cops and meant to suggest that they actually, consciously believe black lives matter less than other human lives. The phrase is more palatable if it's taken to mean that "the system" treats black lives as less important. In that sense the movement is directed at things like mass incarceration, felon disenfranchisement, etc., and I can get on board with all that.

Little known fact: the movement actually started after George Zimmerman's acquittal, so in that sense, the outrage was directed more at the justice system as a whole. [As an aside, I think much of that outrage was misplaced, but let’s not re-open that can of worms].

"BlackLivesMatter" has gained new life in the wake of all these police shootings. It is now appears to be an organization with it's own website, which states that every 28 hours in America, a police officer "murder[s]" someone. You don't get to that figure unless you assume every police homicide is a murder. And that's the kind of rhetoric that drives me up a wall. "BlackLivesMatter" is now used to imply that cops are killing innocent black people because they believe black lives count for nothing. I find that ridiculous. There a lot of good explanations for bad police shootings, the best of which involve flaws in police training. And as was discussed in another comment thread, there should be greater consequences (administrative penalties, civil damages, and--in the very worst cases--criminal charges) when officers screw up badly, so that officers will be deterred from killing innocent people. But I mean "deterred" in the sense that they'll be encouraged to slow down, be more cautious, and allow threats to more fully materialize before squeezing the trigger. Not "deterred" in the sense that cops need a reason to think twice before killing a black person they *know* to be innocent. But that's what a lot of people genuinely believe. And that's what they mean when they say "black lives matter."

Anonymous said...

" If you don't agree with the politically correct movement of the moment, the only acceptable form of disagreement is silence. "

"We need to have a conversation about ______ " fill in the blank, means shut the fuck up about it.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Language policing is a real problem of the left. (It's worse with the right, but no matter.) There are three reasons for this.

One is that language should be policed. There are some symbols that must be made completely unacceptable in the public sphere, such as the American hakenkreuz. They may be protected by the First Amendment, but the First Amendment only applies to state action.

Two, the language police have a warrior mentality way too often. There is a time and place for this, but it is a very limited one. Persuasion usually works a lot better than thugging. The move to gender-neutral language is one good example: the linguistic hierarchy of "African-American" (polite and formal) and "black" (less formal) is another. People tend to comply readily, especially when they're not too anxious about the consequences of slipping up.

Three, some of the language police are completely rogue. They're not trying to police language; they're trying to browbeat people in bad faith. This kind of crap is pretty common on college campuses and with gun and men's rights groups: on the left and right respectively. I don't think that the #BlackLivesMatters people fall into this category--they're more like warrior cops.

Peter Moskos said...

Interesting. Thanks.

Vidoqo said...

Atlantic to Sheridan on Louis Street? 2,000 feet and 20 homicides. How many people even live there? I don't know. A few hundred? There have been about 24 homicides within a few hundred feet of Bonsall Elementary School. Gosh, I wonder why their test scores are slightly below average? Must be the "soft bigotry low expectations."

God, thank you for this. I began teaching 10 years ago under the naive delusion that the solution to poverty and inequality were teachers who cared. After spending 6 years, first teaching kindergarten and then high school science in continuation and regular schools, the realization that I was up against something vastly larger slowly closed around me like an iron maiden. I blogged about it here: http://supervidoqo.blogspot.com/

Today, I can hardly read about education without squirming. I can hardly listen to conversations about poverty and race without squirming. Pundits on the left and right - people who one would hope would know better! - get it so wrong, so constantly.

I'm largely convinced that this is mostly a matter of the "chattering-class"simply not having had much exposure to the daily lives of the poor, or more specifically, the dysfunctional aspects of poverty. Even those who "come from poverty", I suspect were segregated within the ghetto, not really moving in the deeper circles from which so much of the actual dysfunction takes form - the drug abuse, poor parenting, mental illness, etc. Maybe in my career in social work and education, and now behavioral healthcare, I have an extra insight.

So thank you for your perspective.