84-year-old Kang Wong is recovering today from a brutal attack on the streets of New York City.
Wong’s attackers jumped him as he jaywalked across a busy street in Manhattan, threw him up against a wall, and left him with cuts all across his face that have since been sealed up with four metal staples.
The attackers then brought Wong to the nearest police station, where he was booked on charges of jaywalking and resisting arrest.
Kang Wong’s attackers, you see, were New York City cops.
That city’s police commissioner, Bill Bratton, has said that excessive force wasn’t used in his arrest, but that statement doesn’t really face up to much muster. It’s pretty clear that the cops overreacted.
Wong doesn’t speak any English, and if it looked like he was resisting the officers in question, that’s almost certainly because he didn’t understand a word they were saying.
Understandably, his family now plans on pressing charges.
Wong’s brutal arrest is outrageous in its own right, but it also speaks to the broader problem of police brutality in this country. In some places, police culture is very professional; in others it’s just plain militaristic.
I know this from personal experience.
Back in 1996, the Olympics were coming to Atlanta. Just like right now, with Sochi trying to ramp up their security, Atlanta needed more security for the Olympics than was available from just the local police.
At the time, I was writing a novel about a private detective, and shadowing an Atlanta PI, a now-longtime friend named DeWitt Wannamaker, who has held a variety of jobs in law enforcement.
The Georgia Police Academy had opened their doors to civilians that year with an “executive protection” training course for people who’d work for Olympic athletes and visiting VIPs, and DeWitt got me into the course. I ended up not only completing the course but getting licensed for two years as a private detective in the state of Georgia.
Most of the guys going through the course were small-town cops who’d never had any professional training at all, and what I discovered was that there are a lot of really good, really dedicated, and really smart people who aspire to or work in law enforcement.
I also discovered that there are a small number of yahoos who are just really, really excited about the chance to get a gun and a billy club and have the legal authority to kick the stuffing out of people. I encountered one of those guys in the “hand to hand” part of the Academy’s course, and still remember the bruises.
It’s cops like that who do things like beat up an 84-year-old man for jaywalking and it’s cops like that who crack open a protestor’s head at an Occupy Wall Street protest.
Part of this, I believe, has to do with how we talk about law enforcement in the United States. We don’t solve crime, we “fight” it; we don’t have a campaign to stop drug addiction, we have a “War on Drugs.”
We tell cops that they’re in a battle with crime, and then they act accordingly: like soldiers, not public servants.
It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that the number of SWAT team deployments – something unheard of when I was growing up – jumped from around one hundred in the 1970s to over 50,000 in 2005.
While we’ve turned our public servants into warriors, we’ve started to give up – at the federal level, at least – on the whole idea of community policing.
The federal Community Oriented Policing Services program, or COPS, which provides resources for local police forces around the country was initiated in 1994 during the Clinton administration as part of an effort to put 100,000 police officers on America’s streets.
The idea was to get officers out into the community where they could form relationships with everyday people and act more like teachers than soldiers.
Madison, Wisconsin Police Officer Katie Adler is a great example of the kind of person the COPS program was meant to create.
She is a neighborhood officer in the crime-ridden North Side area of Madison. Unlike regular patrol cops in Madison, neighborhood officers are put in at-risk communities to help make a difference and build relationships with citizens in the hopes preventing future crime.
Officer Katie, as everyone calls her, is beloved in the communities that she patrols, so much so that kids follow her wherever she goes. She’s even inspiring children in the communities to become police officers when they grow up.
But the promise of every neighborhood having an Officer Katie is becoming increasingly unlikely.
That’s because ever since the Bush administration, funding for the COPS program has been continually slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars.
In 2010, $792 million was allotted in the form of federal grants under the COPS program for local police forces across the country; by 2012, that number shrank to just $199 million.
We need to reverse this trend and ramp up funding for community policing.
Programs like COPS encourage law enforcement agencies to do more than just catch criminals. They encourage them to work with communities to create a culture of trust that breaks down the barrier between cops and civilians. They also encourage police officers, police officers like Katie Adler, to work towards solving the root causes of crime as opposed to just trying to stop its symptoms.
Not all police officers are bad guys. The vast majority, in my experience, actually want to do good by their community. But it’s clear that by turning our law enforcement agencies into battalions, we’ve created an environment where violence is both more acceptable and more likely.
If we really want to prevent people like Kang Wong from being brutalized at the hands of the people who are supposed to protect them, then we need to totally rethink what it means to be a police officer in America.
Part of this means drawing down wasteful and ineffective initiatives like Nixon’s War on Drugs that do nothing but alienate already vulnerable communities from law enforcement.
But we need to go bigger than that. We need to make a commitment to funding the COPS program so that police work is seen not just as a way to catch the bad guys, but as a way to serve communities all across the country.
We also need to pay police as professionals and hold them to professional standards just like we do other professions.
This won’t stop all police brutality, but it will definitely go a long way towards making sure that our streets become less of a battle zone and more of a place where we can all learn to live with each other in peace.