Protection Racket

Back when I ran a non-profit law firm in D.C., we used to get fundraising calls from an organization that represented itself as a charity supporting the police. I was surprised to learn that we had made donations to them in the past. Our office manager explained that contributing made the police more amenable to helping you and seeing you as friendly.

Now I didn’t think this was true. Such charities are usually scams or something very close to that and rarely even do much for police officers. But I know my office manager believed it was true and so did lots of other people. Those organizations preyed on that belief.

In the wake of the change in the national dialogue about the police that has come about with the protests over the murder of George Floyd, I’ve come up with an institution that’s doing something similar: police unions. They look more and more like the gang-run protection rackets of old. “You’ve got a nice little city here. Be a shame if something happened to it.”

It’s not the unionizing I object to. I’ve got a pension and savings due to having a good union. But unlike damn near every other union contract I’m familiar with, it seems the police unions have been able to negotiate terms that put them in control of the city officials who should be running the police department. Any time a mayor or council tries to assert control, they get shut down.

I mean, in New York City the cops keep turning on the mayor even though he’s not doing a damn thing to rein them in. If he did try something, they’d probably all do a sick out.

Like I said, protection racket. Except that these days I’m starting to wonder if we all might be safer if the cops didn’t come to work. Certainly most of the so-called “violence” of the recent protests was a direct result of police over-reaction.

And because of excuse provided by that police violence, we now have untrained federal officers in the streets of cities adding to the violence. This is outrageous, and likely both illegal and unconstitutional.

People are standing up against this, but a lot of people are going to be hurt by it. It seems that those charged with public safety aren’t very interested in keeping people safe.

In my weekly meet up with other Aikido practitioners on Tuesday, we discussed what it means to be a warrior. One of the ideas we discussed was respect, and by that we didn’t mean respect the warriors or the authorities (which I think is the way all too many police officers think of that word), but rather that a real warrior treats everyone with respect.

A couple of stories were shared. One was about Frank Doran Sensei, who has taught Aikido for many years in California. As I understand the story, he was working in a police (or perhaps military police) situation when he had to deal with a man armed with a gun who was behaving wildly and threatening those around him.

He approached the man and spent a lot of time talking with him. The situation eventually ended up with him next to the man, both of them leaning up against a wall. The man reached over, touched him and handed him the gun. The situation was resolved. No one got hurt.

That’s what a warrior can do.

We’re talking a lot these days about defunding the police. If you look at city budgets, you find that way too much is being spent on policing at the expense of a lot of other services the citizens really need.

You don’t need police to handle issues related to homeless people or mental health breakdowns if you have places for people to live and robust services for those who need mental health care. But our cities have sacrificed those things and replaced them with tanks and helicopters.

We need to completely re-imagine and restructure our public safety systems. There is probably a need for a small number of armed officers to handle gun violence in our society, but most of the problems we face would be better managed by unarmed people who know how to de-escalate conflict and who treat all involved with respect.

We also need some very well-trained people who can deal with online crime, just to mention one thing that has not been well-handled by most police departments. And in fact, if you look at the crime solution rate in most cities, it’s pretty obvious that we haven’t put nearly enough resources into dealing into that.

I suspect changing the structure of the departments so that they’re not set up in a quasi-military form would be a good starting point. And certainly every safety officer should have martial arts training, not so they can beat people up, but so that they know in their bodies that they have physical skills should they need them. It’s a lot easier to be calm and confident, and therefore successful, in dealing with a difficult situation if you know you can handle it physically should you have to. All the best martial arts stories I know involve someone dealing with a situation without fighting.

I’m just tossing out a few ideas here to add to the ongoing conversation. I haven’t even mentioned the incredible racism that underlies our current system, though the fact that racism can no longer be papered over is why this has become so important right now.

The point I want to make is that the way we’ve conceived of policing and public safety up to now isn’t working. We need to look at its flaws deeply and come up with a much better system. Reforms and even civilian review are no longer enough.

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