Knee Jerk 6/9/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

There has been a lot of interesting news today with regard to the protests, and news that should be of concern to us all. There’s an old protest song (“For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield), part of the lyrics of which are “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” The story behind the song (as I understand it) is that the band came upon a protest in the sixties between basically kids (teens with angst) and adults that had spilled out into the streets. In their opinion, the kids were overreacting to something that they felt was inconsequential, and the adults were putting up a fight for no apparent reason. The song basically called for people to retreat, think, and talk.

There is good news today. It feels as if people have gotten the message, as city councils, governors and even officials elected to Congress are trying to figure out the changes necessary to bring about the much-needed improvements. But the sad reality is that they are all doomed to fail. Changes made in the heat of the moment are usually disastrous. There are two stories in particular that are so extreme that they scare me.

First, in Minneapolis, the city council apparently has the votes necessary to dismantle the police department. With control of the city budget, they can basically starve the department until it atrophies and dies away. Before you cheer, though, think about this for a bit. While it’s a superb acknowledgment of the problems inherent in the system, what is the plan to replace it? By dismantling the department, a few citizens will take advantage and wreak havoc in the city feeling safe that there won’t be a police force to rein them in. I have called the police myself, usually not for anything significant, but I requested a “welfare check” on a former colleague that was living in another city who had contacted me explaining why he and his wife will be dead in the morning. I called another time when somebody had broken into my car, and while I wasn’t upset (there was nothing in the car of value anyway), I feared it might be young kids and wanted the police to be aware before this petty theft could transform into more significant crimes. I can tell you that the police work hard to stamp out meth labs as fast as they can, because if they ever get a foothold the recipe is just too easy and they can be expected to pop up in clusters. With NO police, who will take care of these problems?

Congressional Democrats have passed a bill in the House calling for a ban on choke holds (which certainly have been the root of several of these unnecessary deaths). Additionally, it would allow state attorneys to create independent processes to investigate misconduct including excessive use of force and make it easier for citizens to sue for damages when civil rights are violated. Republicans, of course, oppose the bill, and as much as this might shock my readers, I kind of agree with them. We need sweeping reforms, we need oversight, and we need accountability of both individual officers and departments, but this isn’t the way to do it. For example, State Attorneys are friendly with police departments. Even if the oversight were legitimate and executed faithfully, it would have the appearance of bias and this isn’t helpful. Holding police accountable is a good start, but in an already overburdened justice system, civil lawsuits (which should be permitted, I agree) is probably not the way for sweeping reform.

The problem with both of these (and a couple of other ideas that I’ve read) is that they are knee-jerk reactions to a very serious flaw in our system that has been festering since, well, frankly since the Constitution was written. Passing legislation so quickly means that much will be overlooked. These are “feel good” resolutions, but either go too far or are simply surface level modifications failing to seek out and address the root problems. Yes, problems, plural. Dismantling the police without a plan to replace them is as reckless as the concept of dismantling the Affordable Care Act before there is a plan to replace it. While I recognize the need to fix the institution, we still need our police. I’ve even heard of one city that fired their entire police department and forced them all to re-apply for their jobs regardless of seniority. Great idea, and while over ninety percent of the officers did get their jobs back, it helped ween out the trouble officers. Unfortunately, the system that allowed the bad officers to remain long enough to require such a dramatic action is still in place.

We need a few things right now. First of all, we need a firm commitment from all parties involved (Congress, police departments and unions, the court system and even the protesters and protest supporters like me) to find and enact the changes necessary to get out from under this cloud. It won’t be easy, nor will the process be quick which is the real danger of these knee-jerk responses. With these quick fixes passed and in place, people will feel as if there has been a victory when the root of the problems remain. We need dedication to remain in the fight long enough for the significant and lasting changes to take root.

Second, we need communication. Honest, face-to-face, calm and sober communication. During the protests, we cannot expect calm and collected discussions from either side. We need to identify true civil rights leaders and set up a mechanism for them to sit down with congressional leaders to identify the roots of the problems. Until we can truly identify these roots, all we’re doing is taking off the top of the weed, but it will grow again.

Finally, we need plans and decisions based on science. We need academicians, sociologists, psychologists, statisticians and more who know how to research problems to get to the answers. This requires more commitment, because we need that commitment to respect their findings and act on them in good faith.

Does this sound like it can be done in the time it takes Congress to write and pass a bill? Because it certainly sounds like a longer process to me. Making changes along the way is a good thing; if we can identify some problems and change them now, we need to do that. This bill by the Democrats is a start, but I would hope that the bill would be modified to commit to a long term commitment to institutional change, and a plan to identify the issues that have lead to the problems we see today.

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