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Djelloul Marbrook: What Farmers Can Teach Cops  

As farmers once were, police are isolated from the communities they are supposed to serve.

Farmers in upstate New York used to view Cornell’s agricultural extension services with suspicion. What did those smart-asses know? The farmers tended to view city folk with even more jaundice. But all that is changing.

In time the farmers figured out that remote middlemen were eating their lunch, driving up prices and telling them what to grow. They had to cut the middlemen out. But it wasn’t easy to put aside generations of misgivings about city folk, heirloom prejudices about The Other.

Self-interest is now navigating the minefield between country and urban cultures. It’s a process of socialization, never mind the political baggage of the word. The think-local movement is gaining traction as Americans recognize their governments at the federal and state levels are more interested in Wall Street’s health than Main Street’s.

As the great malls with their antiseptic discount anchors lose their allure, Americans are attending the rebirth of Main Street. These processes are accelerated by the locavore movement. Restaurants and individual consumers are demanding locally grown produce. And they’re asking questions about genetically modified produce. Roadside stands and small-town markets are sprouting up. Chefs are buying directly from niche farmers to meet the demands of their customized cuisines.

The farmers are learning firsthand what consumers want. They’re making friends with consumers instead of allowing middlemen to act as interpreters. Consumers and farmers are educating each other. Farmers have learned to trust extension agencies because they see that agriculturists help them meet specialized demands. Always closer to the land than most of us, the farmers see for themselves that climate change impacts farming, changing the growth season, favoring some forms of plant life and not others.

For example, corn smut, a pathenogenic disease that corn growers dreaded, is now in demand by locavore chefs who make such delicious offerings as smut quesadilla.

In New York State more acreage is under cultivation than at any time in the last 40 years. Fields that have been fallow for decades host bumper crops this year.

We now need to address this same tension between police and community. The socialization process that has revived independent agriculture is what the nation’s police need. As the farmers once were, the police are isolated from the communities they are supposed to serve. The police live in a Them and Us culture in which it’s all too easy to perceive the public as the enemy, especially when large segments of the public come from cultures alien to the majority of cops.

This isolation is reinforced by the government’s morbid ten-year-old program of arming the police with excess military materiel. The police have become special forces, and minorities are in their crosshairs.

The Rambo-esque mentality of the cops is nurtured by the film and television industries, which glorify the rogue cop and his sociopathic behavior. I know better than my superiors, I know better than the community, these rogue cops say:  I know that extra-legal violence is the answer to the criminal class. That is Hollywood’s message, and the reason the press has not pointed out this most obvious connection between filmic mythmaking and police behavior is that the press derives a huge portion of its advertising revenues from film producers. And this is to say nothing of the racist message in many films.

The federal government is much to blame for this elevated sociopathy among cops. As far back as the Nixon Administration the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (which morphed into the milder-sounding Office of Justice Programs) was trying to give tanks to police departments.

The concept is rooted in the evil Southern Strategy of the 1960s in which conservatives sought to win office by exacerbating racist sentiment while disguising what they were doing in such bafflegab as family values and moral majority. Minorities were always the target in this weaponizing of police constabularies, and the purpose remains as cynical today as it was when the late Lee Atwater enunciated it.

But as terrorism took center stage conservatives were able to hitch domestic racism to the immensely profitable war wagon. They were able to weaponize police in order to safeguard the populace. So the weapons program became a tool used to impose a surveillance state, which quickly morphed into a police state, as we saw in 2012 when cops looking more like cyborgs than humans baited and bullied the Occupy Wall Street movement in such cities as New York, Chicago and Oakland—to the delight of a now thoroughly corrupted press.

The Them and Us mentality pervaded our domestic as well as our foreign policy. American society had become militarized in the name of security. But it wasn’t about security at all. It was about marketing arms for Wall Street and suppressing dissent.

Military units typically live in barracks or on ships. Their culture is separate and distinct from domestic society. The founders of the nation desired our police to be public safety constabularies, not standing militias. But it was now being argued that the terrorist threat had changed all that and cops needed to become paramilitary armies. Predictably, this made the cops Us and the rest of us Them. It is inherently a socially isolating and polarizing force.

But it suits right-wing efforts to polarize the nation, to panic the populace into accepting a society for which they would not vote in a free election. The police are in the process of becoming the private militias of people who wish to characterize some Americans as not quite as American as others, and the consequences are potentially horrific.

We live in such a dumbed-down culture that the word socialization might well strike many of our politicians and people as a communist conspiracy. But few of the other terms we have applied to policing, such as community policing and broken-window policing, shed much light on what must happen to bring the police back into mainstream American society. The police have entered the heart of darkness, in spite of the best efforts of such organizations as the Police Foundation and several other private and federal agencies to bind them in a collaborative compact with the populace.

In many states there is a tension between urban newcomers seeking the virtues of country life and long-rooted inhabitants. There is a similar tension between second-home owners and locals. The locals often welcome the income but feel threatened by new ideas and attitudes. The revival of small agriculture is helping to overcome these short-circuits. If the farmers are beginning to see the benefits of serving urban areas directly and seeing newcomers expand their markets, Main Street is following suit.

Weaponizing the cops runs counter to this crossing of the Them/US bridge. It refreshes old paranoias. Many states addressed this problem at the same time that the federal arms program was moving in an opposite and destructive direction. In New York State, for example, the highly regarded State Police are well known to the communities they serve. They’re familiar and trusted members of the community. This is as it should be. New Yorkers tend to regard their State Police as reliably restrained but highly efficient. It is the result of a venerable and well thought-out policy.

Instead of military weapons the police need, above all else, training in the sociology of their communities. They need to understand, for example, that their job is not to protect whites from minorities but to protect everyone from rogue members of society. To do this they must be much more integrated than they are. Of 53 cops in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was slain by a policeman, only six were black in a city that is about 85 percent black [http://what-when-how.com/police-science/diversity-in-police-departments/]. That’s a formula for trouble [http://www.pennlive.com/nation-world/2014/09/some_police_agencies_not_racia.html], and it came with a vengeance.

Militarizing domestic police departments contravenes much of what the Police Foundation, a private non-profit organization, and the Office of Justice Programs have been trying to do. OJP makes grants to train police in community relations and other matters. The weapons program works at cross-purposes, although nobody in the federal government would admit it.

The problem of insularity and paranoia among police forces has become pathological in recent years, but the cause cannot be attributed to any failure or misadventure at the federal level so much as the failure of police departments to recruit more qualified people. All too often the high school bully is recruited. All too often men and women acculturated in a Them and Us milieu are recruited. Patronage and nepotism play strong roles. In many instances there is an underlying sense that recruitment has to do with holding the line against Them—the newcomer, the person of color, the recent immigrant. In smaller communities, all too often the latest recruit is the problem kid who needs a job.

The need for an enemy is not unlike the compulsion to be offended. Men and women with chips on their shoulders make dangerous cops. Whether sociopathy can be rooted out of practitioners is a question that will have to be addressed. But it certainly ought to be identified as a disqualifier for police service. No member of the public is the enemy until a law is actually broken, and even then it must be proven. But this not how many police departments operate. They operate on the presumption that certain communities are likely to break the law and therefore pre-emptive action is justified. It is in this pre-emptive response that the rationale for militarizing the police resides. The militarization of the police seems to sanction the idea of pre-emptive action.  Pre-emption should come from good relations and trust, not weapons.

Farmers have a strong incentive for crossing the cultural bridge. Profit is on the other side. The police have no incentive for crossing the bridge, and therein may be a clue as to how to redress the dilemma. Communities must explore ways to reward  cops for taking an interest in unfamiliar cultures, for establishing good relations with them.

Recruiting minority members does not assure that they will establish and sustain better relations with the communities from which they are drawn. They may in fact lord it over those communities as they are drawn into the once-alien inner sanctum of police culture.

The police by the very nature of their work gravitate to power, and it sometimes seems an insurmountable task to convince them that the powerless are entitled to their respect and protection. We saw that recently when the highly regarded New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton remarked that police are entitled to respect. It was a breathtaking if unintended revelation of an attitude that has led to pervasive abuses in New York City. The police are entitled to respect when they behave respectfully, and when they behave badly the community is entitled to correct them. If Bratton fails to get this after all these years of being celebrated as a reformer, Mayor Bill de Blasio should replace him. It is to be hoped that the mayor at some point said to the commissioner, What the hell did you mean, Bill? It is to be even more hoped that the commissioner’s answer was, It didn’t come out right, Mr. Mayor.

It will never come out right until and unless we bring the police back into the mainstream of the society they are supposed to protect.


by Djelloul Marbrook © Copyright 2014


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