AG Lynch on crime and counting our dead | #BlackLivesMatter on Blog#42

AG Lynch appeared at the Aspen Forum/The Atlantic Washington Ideas Forum on October 1st.

As I finished watching her interview, the thought didn’t escape me that is was so ironic that, of all people, she would give this particular interview to Chuck Todd.

Why was it ironic that Chuck Todd did the interview? For those of you who don’t remember, just a few short weeks ago, he was at the center of controversy involving his choice of approaches on race and incarceration just as the Charleston massacre had happened.

As is my habit, I watched the entire interview and then transcribed relevant portions for myself; the segment on data collection of police shootings and rising homicide rates. I highly recommend watching the entire interview.

To put it bluntly, AG Lynch’s neoliberal approach to accountability in policing was quite infuriating to watch. She completely avoided dealing with the central issues: the imperative for a full accounting of police killings, and the real problem of bad cops killing innocent citizens. If her lack of a forceful endorsement for the need to count our dead wasn’t bad enough, she was never able to bring herself to assign any blame on police for any of the unjust killings this nation has witnessed in recent months. Lynch’s mention of police as the face of government taking the brunt of a community’s frustration was rather curious.

Was the expression of community frustration behind the NYPD officer choking Eric Garner to death?

Was community frustration behind Officer Michael Slager’s killing of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina?

Was community frustration behind Utah police’ killing of Darrien Hunt in Utah? That killing was deemed justified.

Tony Robinson in Wisconsin? There will be no charges against the officer.

How about the Cleveland, Ohio couple shot no less than 137 times for a car whose engine backfired? Those officers were acquitted.

These are but a few of the cases we’ve seen in the past two years. Not only have the communities of these men had to suffer through the traumatic ordeal of having these killings happen, but justice has been denied these men after their deaths, with the exoneration of officer after officer involved in these murders. But AG Lynch talks about counting these dead in terms that are incomprehensible:

When posing his questions to Lynch, Todd made specific queries on how her department could mandate the uniform collection of data by all police departments, collect it itself, or even asking Congress for a law. But Lynch never gave an answer and, instead, responded by mounting a defense for not mandating a count so as not to place the onus on understaffed small police departments and overburdened municipalities.

“But it illustrates the root cause of a lot of the feeling of disconnect that many minority members of the community feel towards the police because the police are often the only face of government that they see and so, very often, the police get the brunt of a lot of the frustration and the anger and confusion and dissatisfaction over municipal policies such as we saw in Ferguson. This exacerbates this divide and mistrust. One of the things we are working on. But when we have a consent decree, or even collaborative reform, we do impose record keeping requirements on police departments and what I will say is, no one likes extra paperwork. I hear that all the time. But, they find it extremely helpful to, as you pointed out, Chuck, to be able to indicate how many times a police officer simply interacts with a member of the community? How many times does that interaction result in a ticket? How many times does it result in the officer having to draw their weapon? How many times does it result in shots being fired? And there actually are some police departments out there that do an excellent job of recording how many times a shot is fired if a weapon is discharged for example.”

Her response defies logic for multiple reasons, including the simple fact that any officer who is involved in a shooting necessarily fills out paperwork. That paperwork is then input into that department’s system and, at that point, is either transmitted to the FBI in one of two cases: the shooting was deemed wrongful, or the department chose to report it. For her to intimate that only departments under a consent decree should be made to report is nonsense and precisely what Black Lives Matter work groups want to reform. No community should have to wait decades after a spate of police killings for the Department of Justice to take over its authorities and a modicum of reporting to be required. It is also inconceivable to hear this nation’s Attorney General saying such things when, earlier in the week, FBI Director Comey released a statement on data collection that included this quote:

“…without comprehensive data only stalls meaningful conversation and fuels empty debates, both within law enforcement and in the communities we serve[.]”

Earlier this year, in a widely reported speech in February, Comey said this:

“Not long after riots broke out in Ferguson late last summer, I asked my staff to tell me how many people shot by police were African-American in this country. I wanted to see trends. I wanted to see information. They couldn’t give it to me, and it wasn’t their fault. Demographic data regarding officer-involved shootings is not consistently reported to us through our Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Because reporting is voluntary, our data is incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable.”

Technically, all government agencies are supposed to champion the welfare of the public in its entirety. When local governments fail the public they are supposed to serve, the last bastions of justice are supposed to be this nation’s Attorney General and the FBI. But here, those last bastions are at cross-purposes, with the nation’s advocate in chief not only siding against the aggrieved when it comes to transparency, but also assigning blame for these killings on a lack of communication between the community and its government. The vast majority of the men and women who were killed by police in the last three years were profiled and killed based on their race out of a reckless disregard for life on the part of the officers who killed them. To couch the problem of police brutality any other way is callous, to say the least. Furthermore, AG Lynch’s depiction of community sentiments shows a latent disdain for those Americans who’ve long been ensnared by the institutionally racist municipal level deprivation that has stunted individual and communal progress through the distribution of resources and the police departments that ensure they remain in their poverty-stricken communities through over-policing and over-prosecution.

And, indeed, we see the neoliberalism in Lynch’s approach in the next segment dealing with a rise in crime:

CT: Let’s talk about the rising crime rate. We’ve seen it here, you know, a select number of cities here where it’s just up significantly, including right here in Washington (D.C). Milwaukee 76%, St. Louis 60%, these are murder rates, Baltimore 56%, Washington 44%. Have you found a trend yet? […]

LL: Well, you know, I think every loss of life is a tragedy. I don’t think we can consign anyone’s death to statistical noise, to be frank. We’re looking at this issue. We’re looking to see if we can find the root causes of it. Crime overall is down. Violent crime overall is down. But we have these persistent pockets where we see at times a resurgence in the violent crime rate and the homicide rate as you noted. […]

CT: There is a huge heroin problem. I mean right now, the presidential candidates are hearing about it front and center because New England and New Hampshire, specifically, has this huge heroin issue.

LL: Absolutely. Heroin, and frankly opioids in general, the prescription drug epidemic of a few years ago is really still with us. So I’ve asked the US Attorneys to talk to their local law enforcement. Is that the issue? Is it an issue arising out of gang violence? You know, it’s going to be different for every jurisdiction.

The six areas identified by Todd with crime rising correlate to some of the poorest areas in the nation. We saw reports, this summer, about third world-like poverty in Baltimore. Last year, as events were unfolding in Ferguson, we saw reporting on the abject poverty in many of those areas. AG Lynch makes no mention of high unemployment rates and chronic poverty as possible causes. Gangs and drugs, though, were brought up as a first means of explanation for “persistent pockets.” Those “pockets” have existed for decades, in communities that have long been deprived of economic development and adequate education resources. In an economy that is still largely depressed, what are people to do?

The last question and answer of the segment, by an interviewer with bias issues and an interviewee who accommodates:

CT: As police have gotten a bad rap this year, do some criminals feel empowered?

LL: Well, I can tell you that when I’ve gone out and talked to police departments, specifically the six departments I’ve been to, and they’ve all talked about the increase in community policing, the steps that they are taking for de-escalation, they’re all in cities where crime has gone down. So, I think, frankly, that police involvement is a helpful thing overall. That’s what we’re seeing.

It is clear where Lynch’s preferences lay. It isn’t with poor communities whose residents’ civil and human rights are being violated and daily lives a recurring nightmare of terror.

Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.

James Baldwin
No Name in the Street. 1972.

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