Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Our Contribution to Police Corruption and Gun Culture

Our Contribution to Police Corruption and Gun Culture

Whenever we loose the Great Way we get benevolence or righteousness.
Lao Tzu

1.  Policing

I know the feeling of power conferred by a gun, both in owning one and using it.  And I also know it's corrupting influence.

Two years out of the Naval Academy, while on a Navy Destroyer already in the combat zone off Vietnam, I got orders to become the executive officer of River Division 594 in Operation Giant Slingshot.  The Division consisted of 10 River Patrol Boats with 60 men on a base straddling the main Viet Cong supply route to Saigon.  I was scared from the moment I got those orders until the end of my tour when the plane crossed the Vietnamese coast headed home.  But it wasn’t until months after receiving those orders that I first truly experienced my vulnerability.

It happened on my last training patrol.  A Chief Petty Officer was the Patrol Officer, in charge of two boats and also training me.  Since I was still in training, I  had no actual assignment.  Suddenly we came under enemy rocket and automatic weapons fire.  Nothing I can say can possibly communicate the immense totality of the vulnerability I experienced in that moment.  I was standing exposed on the engine cover, with no weapon, bullets flying by, noise from every direction.  I experienced myself as a naked piece of meat that could be shredded in an instant; me, and all my dreams, could disappear forever.  It was the worst, most intolerable feeling I've ever felt.  But I didn’t have to tolerate it long (though it seemed so).  I found an unused M-16 and, though “shaking like a leaf,” I somehow managed to cock it, flip the safety and fire.  Although still experiencing my vulnerability, still aware I could be killed in an instant, I also experienced the immense relief that came from not feeling totally helpless.  I was doing something!  I had some power and that decreased the lived experience of my vulnerability.

When I left Vietnam I wanted nothing more to do with war, guns, or hierarchical organizations.  I wanted to live on a hill by myself in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  But that’s not how it turned out.  After awhile I rejoined society and pursued a graduate degree.  Eventually I married and had a son.  At which point vulnerability overcame me again.

It’s one thing to be willing to tolerate the possibility of my own death but with the birth of my son, right alongside intense love, came overwhelming vulnerability.  I could not then and still can't bear the thought of the possibility of his dying.  I strongly felt the need to protect him, both by taking care of myself and doing everything in my power to preserve his life and prevent harm to him.

The way emotions work is that when one is stirred, it also brings to mind other memories of our experiences with that same emotion.  So you might well imagine my experience of vulnerability at my son’s birth to have been amplified by my memories of combat.  And you might therefor not be surprised to hear that I reached for a similar solution.  I bought an M1 carbine from a neighbor.  I believed it provided an ace in the hole in case the world descended into chaos, as it sometimes feared it would.  I still have it.

It may be that I’m unusual, but I don’t think so.  In my thirteen years as a psychologist working with combat vets at Walter Reed Army Medical center I saw many veterans who always sat with their back to the wall in restaurants, wouldn’t go to malls, and slept with a hand gun under the pillow.  Who got intensely angry with their children and wives but had no idea why.  None of this is new, it’s well known by anyone who works with combat veterans, but I bring it to your attention because I believe the experience of combat veterans provide us a stark, clearly understandable example of dynamics that operate in all of us.  

“All human beings must come to terms with fear.”  Fear is ubiquitous and nearly constant even if mostly unacknowledged.  We are afraid of being criticized, of spiders, flying, talking (our blood pressure rises every time we speak to another person), public speaking, being left, intimacy.  The list is endless.  We are the inheritors of the ancient fear mechanisms that kept our tiny, tasty, early mammalian ancestors alive in the land of the dinosaurs. 

For the last two summers I’ve been training a wild lizard in my back yard to eat out of my hand.  It took awhile.  But what really impressed me was that even though she’s been doing so for many months now, if I make the slightest move too quickly, she flees immediately.  “Stupid lizard,” I would think, but over time, seeing it again and again, it has led me to have a deep appreciation of how central instinctive fear is to survival.  The ironclad rule: one mistake is too many.

I believe the lizard’s experience of fear is very similar to ours, both in the feeling and the inclination to act.  But our big brains allow us to know something the lizard doesn’t: the things we fear can kill us or cause excruciating loss.  (The lizard needn’t know of its mortality; fleeing when something moves quickly toward it suffices.) Thus, for us humans, instances of fear also stir recognition of our vulnerability to death and loss.  And, like combat vets, we, too, find that very difficult to tolerate.

We all devise, inherit, and/or adopt ways of coping with the daily onslaught of fear and vulnerability, be it denial, ignoring it, praying, believing our specialness exempts us, superstitions, substance abuse, obsessions, rituals, and on and on.  Anything that can dispel or diminish the experience of fear is itself experienced as relieving and very desirable.  You can easily convince yourself of this the next time you see an animal carcass on the side of the road.  Notice how quickly your eyes and thoughts slide elsewhere, preventing the recognition that you, or your loved ones, could become a similar pile of dead meat at any moment.  It happens instantly, below or just barely in conscious awareness.  Barely aware of the threat, you are also barely aware of the relief that came from being able to keep it out of consciousness.

It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that warding off the experience of vulnerability is a major focus of human activity.  That it’s the goal of many of our actions and much of our psychological process.   My goal is to explore here this intertwined, shared process in police, gun owners, and us.

Try an experiment:  Before reading further, allow yourself to imagine for a moment what would happen if we took all the guns away from the police. 

Did you have a vision of chaos?  Did you notice feelings of fear?  A recognition of vulnerability?  If you did, and you think it likely that others would too, this has, I believe, two important implications I want to consider here.  First, having an armed police force is one of the ways we ward off experiencing our own vulnerability.  Second, people who have reason not to trust police will be inclined to arm themselves.

Fear is a feeling, an emotion and, usually, feelings come and go quickly.  Vulnerability, on the other hand, is an unchanging, existential fact of life.  Loss and death are ever present possibilities of every moment, and recognition of this, with its attendant experience of vulnerability, is forever hovering somewhere on the far outskirts of consciousness.  The ability to keep recognition of our vulnerability at bay enables us to live and function in relative comfort, at least until some threatening event places the fact of our vulnerability front and center in our consciousness.  This suggests that the psychological function of an armed police force can be understood as providing a bulwark against the experience of vulnerability and its attendant fears.

It’s not common for us to think of things in terms of their psychological function.  When we think of the function of the police we think of providing law and order, deterring crime, protecting law-abiding citizens, apprehending criminals, etc.  Although we think of these as objective realities, the truth is that what really matters to us is our lived experience of them.  If harm or threats of harm from our fellow citizens are experienced very infrequently, if that’s our lived experience, then we see ourselves as inhabiting a crime free space where law and order prevail and the experience of vulnerability is kept at bay.  If, on the other hand, we are frequently assaulted with experiences that puts our vulnerability in our face then nothing will convince us that order prevails and the system works.  For many, but by no means all Americans, the armed police force is experienced as functioning well enough to enable us to generally feel comfortable with our level of vulnerability.  The barriers are holding and the level of fear tolerable. 

Being a "barrier" is tough anywhere but in some places here in the U.S. it's probably worse than my combat experience.  Policing in big American cities must feel a lot like being on the front lines of a war.  Officers must go to work knowing there is a real danger of encountering mortal threat every day.  Every encounter with almost anyone may feel like it has the potential to turn violent at any moment.  No matter how hardened an officer may become, having their vulnerability shoved in their face frequently requires effort on their part to cope with it.  I still experience occasional reverberations from my one year in Vietnam.  I can only wonder about the effects of years of this on big city police officers.

Historically, mainstream American society has held a very positive view of the police force.  The invaluable service police provide us by standing between us and violent lawlessness put us in their debt, we "owe" them.  We “pay” that debt by our “support” of the police in the courtroom.  Police testimony is almost always taken at face value and incontrovertible evidence is required before jurors will abandon their belief in police veracity.  We see them as doing a difficult job we need done, we trust them, and so we give them the benefit of every possible doubt.  As much sense as this makes, the truth is, however, that by our refusal to hold them accountable for their excesses, we have in abandoned them to corruption.  We have given them great power but fail to provide the checks and balances necessary to ensure the safe exercise of that power.

“Power corrupts,” we say, and it’s true almost always.  For the police officer repeatedly confronting potentially dangerous situations, the power of a firearm is an ever-present temptation.  They don’t have to tolerate those awful feelings of vulnerability.  It takes strength of will to resist that temptation and most officers do.  But for some, depending on their exposure and their history, the threshold for use of deadly force lowers to below dire necessity and firearms are drawn when they shouldn’t have been.  And when a gun is pulled, fear skyrockets, rational thought impaired, and mistakes made with deadly consequence.

We understand the corrupting possibility of power and that’s why our political system is based on checks and balances.  In policing, however, the system of checks and balances is severely compromized.  Having ceded to the police the power to use deadly force, we cannot, or should not, relinquish our responsibility for how they use it.  But the evidence suggests we have.  As more videos come to light, we have become aware of how unrestrained the police use of power actually is.  In these videos we clearly see the failures of selection, training, supervision, on-site oversight, and accountability that are directly attributable to our “washing our hands” of the whole business of policing.  In the interest of protecting ourselves from the harsh realities of policing (and the vulnerability it stirs in us), we have abandoned them to the streets, relentlessly exposing them to what we now call “moral injury” i.e., having done something they shouldn't have, something "immoral".  What this really means is the intense shame felt when our behavior radically differs from how we believe we “should” act, based on our idealized version of our best self.

The police live in a world where the myth of the “rational man” is shattered by the daily reality of how easily we are all overcome by fear, rage, shame, and distress.  In many of the videos we have seen, we frequently see a moment when the officer is suddenly overcome by some emotion.  We watch as in that second he or she abandons proper, professional conduct and, instead, acts out of their personal feelings stirred by the interaction.  They know this too and later will likely feel some shame about their own "failure."  But the defenses against feeling and acknowledging shame are every bit as well developed as those holding back vulnerability.  Plus, acknowledging mistakes on the job can get you fired or worse.  Then, add to that the estrangement from society that police feel when they are so often attacked and vilified and it's no surprise,that we rarely see police risking further vulnerability by admitting to mistakes.

In shielding ourselves from experiencing our vulnerability by ceding power to the police, we have also protected ourselves from knowing about the corrupting effect of facing life or death situations while having access to deadly force.  Watching the videos of police in action show us what happens then, and what could happen to us.  What’s new now is we are beginning to realize the price we pay for abandoning the police.  We see now, and are beginning to be forced to acknowledge, that their exercise of power harms some of our most vulnerable citizens, destroying the sense of equality and shared purpose necessary for democracy and civil society.  Unfortunately, we are at risk of disowning this new knowledge.  We see that when we either demonize the offending police officer, self-righteously calling for severe punishment, or when we make excuses for them, refusing to hold them accountable.  Either option is a continuation of our attempt to disown our own responsibilities in how power is exercised in our name.

This new attending to how policing is done is forcing us to recognize that policing stands at the nexus of fundamental issues threatening our democracy: income inequality, racism, mental health treatment, poverty, gun culture, drug use, immigration policy, terrorism, and the entire criminal justice system of courts and prisons.  Although police play a vital role in all these arenas, police forces - local, state, and national - are woefully under resourced, over tasked, and insufficiently supervised to be able to meet these multiple demands.  The citizens of the U.S. must transfer substantially more of their time, effort, money, and attention to the problems we have so recently become aware of if we are going to have a police force that protects and promotes democracy rather than one in danger of subverting it.  If we are going to have a police force willing to endure the vulnerability they must in order to truly serve and protect, we must become a society worthy of such a sacrifice on their part by owning our own duty to provide them the necessary and appropriate working conditions they need in order for them to be protected from the multiple risks and dangers of doing their job, including the risk of abuse of power.

The police, however, are neither the only ones experiencing vulnerability nor the only ones with firearms in our society.  In the next section of this paper I will examine how these same forces play out to produce our gun culture. To continue reading this section, CLICK HERE.

1 comment: