Stephen Gottlieb: To Reinvent The Cops, Disarm Them | WAMC

Stephen Gottlieb: To Reinvent The Cops, Disarm Them

Jun 16, 2020

The Governor wants us all to reinvent policing in our own communities. Let’s pull that apart. He wants each separate community to have a conversation about policing and reset everything. Sounds good. Community is a lovely warm word. But I think the reality is a lot different than it sounds.

Lots of folk assume what academics say is just theory. But the difference is addition. Academics add up all the examples. They take what Google calls the satellite view. They don’t necessarily interview people like cops and lawyers. They want the big picture – what’s happening. And when you do all the examples and add it up, what you discover are vast numbers of communities engaged in keeping everybody else out – using everything from acreage requirements to zoning. So, Governor, are you telling us all to rebuild segregation by having each of our communities use policing to keep everyone else out? “Looks like he doesn’t belong here; get rid of him.” Some communities will try to protect everyone, but they’ll be surrounded by rules and cops that say keep out.

So I don’t expect anything constructive to come out of the Governor’s mandatory conversations. Breaking us down into our little private sanctuaries, the game is already stacked.

Forgive me for repeated something I’ve said before, but guns should need an excuse and a warrant before they’re pulled out in public, because guns make bullies of us all. My cure for police misbehavior? Firearms aren’t always used, but to change the culture, to motivate people to use their heads, I’d put an unarmed force between the police and the public and call for arms only when necessary. Guns and ammunition can do a lot of harm – even if only by intoxicating the officers with a sense of power.

An unarmed force would need to use their heads, to de-escalate conflict instead of aggravating it with belligerent language and a show of force.

I was asked to speak to a group of high school students alongside a policeman about relations with the cops. He told them to show respect and everything would be OK. What about the adult? The police also have an obligation to show respect for people, old and young, upset or calm. Those guns make bullies of us all – cops included.

I have no objection if the cops think wireless video connections should be provided so the department could rush help if there really is any danger. But a video stream would be more effective than a gun in convincing people to cool it. I’d put officers on the street without their guns.

I helped do a memorial for a friend a few years ago – we were both on the NYCLU Board when Jerry died. Forty years before that he was in charge of a group of attorneys in Mississippi during Freedom Summer 1964. A historian, Thomas M. Hilbink, had done a study of that group of lawyers and, reading his paper while preparing for the memorial, I discovered that Jerry had been in numerous life or death situations. Down there, by the way, the police were closely allied with the Klan. But Jerry came back healthy and strong – one of the best litigators the Civil Liberties Union had. He used his head. He de-escalated. And he protected everyone working with him.

OK, Jerry was extraordinary. So was Mississippi that summer. Jerry was truly brave, not just filled with the bravery of firearms. And he wasn’t so foolish as to pack or pull heat.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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