Time to Fix the Police

Maybe twenty years ago, a man who had nowhere to go was sleeping on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. He had duct-taped a knife to his hand.

My memory’s vague on this, but I think he had some trouble with his hands, which was why he used the tape to keep the knife handy. I know why he had a knife: he was living on the street and trying to keep himself safe.

Park police officers came along and woke him up, probably not gently. He jumped up, likely disoriented, knife in hand. He didn’t attack anybody, but he waved the knife.

The cops yelled, “Drop the knife,” but of course, he couldn’t drop it.

So one of them shot him. Killed him. Killed him for nothing more than sleeping in a public place and being prepared to protect himself.

I imagine the cop who shot him was scared that the man might attack him or someone else. I doubt this was a case of a cop killing someone just for the hell of it; it sounded more like the case of a cop who didn’t know what else to do.

The cop had a gun. He’d been trained in the use of a gun. He really didn’t know how to respond with anything but a gun.

Remember the old adage about how to a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail?

To a cop with a gun, everything looks like an excuse to shoot somebody.

(I wish I thought that last sentence was an exaggeration.)

The reason I remember so much about this story is not because it was unique. It wasn’t unusual even then. I read such stories, get outraged, and then let them slip into the vagaries of memory.

But I remember this one because my Aikido teacher in D.C., the master instructor Mitsugi Saotome, was outraged by what happened.

We were having a seminar that weekend and he spend an entire two-hour session teaching us ways to disarm someone with a knife without getting hurt or harming that person.

Most of the lessons involved using the jo, the short staff, a useful weapon that allows you to keep some distance from the other person.

The physical training was interspersed with lectures on how the police should be trained to handle people and explanations of how Japanese police might deal with such a situation.

Which is to say, the lesson was not about technique, but about the reality that there are many ways to handle someone who is having a crisis and could do something dangerous besides killing them.

Despite all the money we spend on police — and here in Oakland it is more than half our city budget — the police have been trained so badly that all they know how to do is bully people who aren’t cops and kill anybody who makes them mad or scares them.

Elie Mystal had a great article in The Nation this week on the travesty of recognizing the families of those killed by police in outrageous circumstances. As usual, his article included many quotable lines of outrage, but here’s the sentence that really stood out for me:

The institution of policing must be rebuilt from the ground up.

That’s the crux of the matter.

How to do that properly is a subject for a book — probably many books — not a blog post. And I’m no expert. But I have one useful suggestion: Require those who want to be cops to train in Aikido. I don’t mean just pick up a few techniques, though there are a number of physical techniques that are useful.

I mean train long enough to start grasping the deeper concepts, to get to the ideas about resolving conflicts without harming anyone, to approach a crisis thinking “how can I make this better?

We don’t need people who want to be bad asses as cops. We need people who want to resolve situations and take care of others.

If you’d like to look at some other useful material on our out-of-control police in the United States, I recommend subscribing to Alec Karakatsanis’s Copaganda Substack. He focuses on news reporting about police, but that’s a good view into the whole picture.

I’d likewise recommend the new book by Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston, The Riders Come Out at Night, which is about the history of abuse by the Oakland police. I will note that while I have a copy, I haven’t read it yet, because my sweetheart grabbed it the moment I brought it home and I haven’t had a chance at it. But the bits he’s read me help me understand why things are so had here.

Modest reforms and “more training” will not solve our police problem. We need to change the entire system.

Kind of like we need to change our health care and public health systems, but that’s another blog post.

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