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A Return to Mayberry?

06-28-2020Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

One of the problems with the current state of policing is, well, policing. And the problem isn’t really so much with the police as it is with the politicians who direct the police on how to police. At some point, I think it was around the time when the “war on drugs” began, but the manner of policing went from having police function as Community Peace Officers to being strictly Law Enforcement Officers. So, for those who don't have criminal contact with police the contact is about tickets, fees and fines. And the more police are pushed by politicians to sell quotas of tickets, fines and fees the more the municipalities are able to supplement their tax revenues.

The 2014 case of Eric Garner in NY, the man who died while police were arresting him was not just about the appropriate use of force but code enforcement. He was being arrested for selling loose cigarettes. Mayors don't like anyone selling loose smokes because no tax is collected. It was the elected leaders who told police to go after such civil violations. Add to this the fact that local police have been given military grade weapons and the training that goes with having them and the police today can be very intimidating which makes it harder for them to be a trusted Community partner. It creates a bad vibe between police and residents.

For an elected official, using police to generate more revenue has become a budget item. Take for instance the issue of civil asset forfeiture. This is when police can seize property and money, they believe that was generated through criminal activity. So that fancy car you drive, if the police suspect it was purchased with the pro$t from illegal drug sales, they can seize the car and keep it. They don't have to prove in a court of law that it was ill-begotten but you have to prove it was not, using a very expensive byzantine system that will cost you more than the car is worth. On the Federal level this policy has been stopped unless it can be proven in a court of law that the property was ill-begotten. A few weeks ago, the AZ Legislature voted on a Bill to change the civil asset forfeiture process by requiring a conviction and guess what? All the Democrats with help from eight Republicans voted against it. As one State Legislature commented, it would hurt “agencies that rely on the revenue for their budgets.” The system provides a perverse incentive for taking property and antagonizing community members.

Or take the case of the arrest of Roger Stone, someone I know nothing about other than he is an old guy who lives in Florida with his wife and was under Federal investigation for lying to Congress. He had been tracked and followed for months, had no prior criminal or violent history. The police knew what if any firearms he had purchased and yet when it was time to arrest him, Federal police showed up with a heavily armed SWAT Team, with a helicopter and a police boat in the middle of the night. Why such a display of force when the prosecutor could simply have called his attorney and told him to have his client turn himself in. The military-like tactics could and often end up poorly but they also make your average citizen less likely to trust the police.

As a result of the decades change in the manner of policing, for most people their interaction with police starts off negative. And it also produces incentives for some police to antagonize and prey on citizens to sell their quota of tickets and arrests. It’s not, “happy to see you officer Lopez” but “what’s wrong, or what did I do wrong?”. It’s like getting called into the Principal’s office; it’s not for a friendly chat. And I doubt the police like policing in this manner. But mayors and governors do since it adds cash to their bloated budgets.

So, am I suggesting a return to Mayberry? Well yes in fact, I am. What would it look like if we allowed police to return to being Community Peace Officers? What would it be like if the police on a regular basis stopped in the local business or the Parish office or the local community centers? Well we might actually get to know them and probably like them and more importantly probably trust them. It would also allow the police to keep a pulse on the community, what problems are boiling up, what tensions exist in the community and then use other community leaders to help lower the temperature, reduce the tension and find solutions to problems before they become criminal. Think of it, do you know the names of any of the police that patrol your neighborhood? How about the name of the captain of your Precinct? If you don't, I suggest contacting your local police precinct and at least in Tempe, you can take a tour of the Precinct, ask about how things work, take a ride during a police patrol and get to see things from a different angle. And become more informed about the changes that are needed in our system of policing.

The more we get to know our Police officers the less likely our encounters will be negative. Also, the less likely we are to judge them rashly when things go south and they are involved in a messy situation. And we can also send a message to our elected leaders to stop making policing all about law enforcement and generating revenue.

But the world is a dangerous place these days, drug cartels, terrorists and gangs. What about that? Well let the DEA do the heavy work with the cartels and gangs and DHS deal with the terrorists. The local police can provide good intelligence to these agencies without turning the local police into a para-military force.

The Police today are getting bashed for doing the job the people we elect tell them to do, with the policy and procedures and collective bargaining agreements that are signed off by the same elected officials. Maybe the change should start at that level first. If there is a problem with individual police, we can beef up our screening and training to get better ones. But we also have to allow the Police to get to know the community and change the way police officer’s performance is measured, not by the amounts of tickets and arrests but by other outcomes.

Love,

Fr. John B.

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