Sunday, April 19, 2015

I Used to Like the Police--Until I Stopped Working For Them

The television show Girl From Uncle, one of America's first female law enforcement protagonists, was the bomb when I was growing up.  Stephanie Powers was the coolest woman on the planet, as far as I was concerned. I remember pretending to have a Walkie-Talkie (sounds funny, now, doesn't it, given smart phones), talking loud enough so my colleague, Donald, another kid with a vivid imagination, could hear me through his own device around the corners of the neighborhood houses where we'd hide out, going after our invisible prey. I'm not sure what we held in our hands. It wasn't Walkie-Talkies.  It might have been cardboard candy boxes. Who knows.

Back then in 1966, my family and I were living on 41st Street, close to downtown L.A., where, one evening, I sat outside on my grandparents' porch with my friend, watching the flames from a local riot nearby light up the sky a deep orange. I didn't know what was going on. Apparently, it was a left-over remnant of the Watts riots, a release of pent-up anger of the infamous mostly White police control over a poor Black community.

My family hailed from a college town in Ohio, a bastion of interracial marriage and co-ed education, and were thrust into an all Black environment, something quite alien to the six of us kids. Our new peers in L.A., thought we were from England because of our mid-Western accents, and we found them to be a rowdy for our Northerner bookworm tastes. But I knew to love my black brethren, because we were all living under a yoke none of us asked for.

For many years I did play de facto real life "detective" as an attorney for the federal government, where I learned close hand how law enforcement works.  Or doesn't work. I left when I realized that I was feeding into a system that was propagated to pursue only the most vulnerable, not the most criminal.  Drug dealers were being set-up for capture while corporations were getting away with untold criminal acts; monied interests were untouchables, their schemes too difficult to comprehend.  So, I took an interest in white collar crime cases.  Ironically, notwithstanding my biases against the rich and infamous, my work led me to assist in prosecuting Africans, which I felt duty-bound and compelled to do because Americans were being bilked out of millions of dollars.

I had become the go-to person for handling international inquiries concerning Nigerian organized white collar crimes. I had created a task force among federal government agencies to tackle those letters from Nigeria--you know--the ones from "Prince Okoye," inviting the recipient to provide bank account numbers and permissions to deposit alleged millions into the lucky American [sucker's] bank accounts.  Those letters were called "419" in Nigeria, and advance fee fraud here in the U.S.  From rocket scientists to retirees, the American victims' love of money caused them to conspire with faceless Nigerians with the smarts to know Americans' obsession with being rich. 

My work had garnered me an Atlantic Fellowship in Public Policy, an appointment by United States Attorney General Janet Reno, which allowed me to live in the UK for a year.  My thinking was that by isolating Nigerians from other Blacks in the diaspora, law enforcement would learn how to distinguish them from other Blacks, instead of painting all of us with the same brush stroke. It was a burden for all Blacks to be responsible for every other Black persons crimes, because the only definition of a suspect might be that s/he was "Black."

Publicity wasn't stemming the tide of Americans who were "corralled" by the Nigerian scammers. When I suggested that prosecutions of Americans for being co-conspirators (aligning themselves with individuals who were conspiring to secret money away from coffers in Nigeria to the U.S.) would be a good deterrent, that fell on deaf ears. The inference in the push-back was that law enforcement did not want to have to prosecute White people.

Criminals were criminals, I thought.

Not in America.

Criminals are Black, in America.  We are drug dealers, thieves and sexual predators, a perception drilled into the American conscience by Hollywood.  Are Blacks innocent of all those negative labels? No more so than any other group or nationality. But, like cowboys on horseback killing Indians, back in the day (well, centuries ago), going after Black people is today's bloodsport; only the horsepower is an automobile.

The people in law enforcement with whom I worked were good people, overall.  They carried out their duties diligently. They believed in their mission.  I was never treated with any disrespect. In fact, I was feted by the government agencies with whom I worked.

The problem with American law enforcement is that those tasked with investigating and nabbing criminals are trained to do only that.  They are not trained in the bigger picture history, or in other techniques and methods--only those missions championed by their own. They are like guard dogs whose job is to find the culprit, and are rewarded with a dog biscuit in the end: a bonus, a promotion.

When I worked with Scotland Yard, I was impressed with their level of investigatory research. They knew they were dealing with people, and they sought to learn who those people were. Their charts and graphs of operations were truly phenomenal (before computer technology could create sophisticated graphs).  I can't say the same for law enforcement in the U.S, because I was an attorney, as opposed to an agent, so I wasn't one of them, and never learned their operational tactics and techniques. But the Secret Service agents were eager to learn from Scotland Yard, and we traveled there and Nigeria. One White agent, Tom Johnston, was exceptionally engaged in understanding Nigerian crime and, eventually, used my policy paper for a class he taught at a local college in Georgia. He had a heart attack after returning to the US on a family emergency, after traveling on assignment in Nigeria to work closely with Nigerian police.

Mind you, I worked for federal law enforcement, which has a more amorphous mandate than going after bad guys on the street. The agents I worked with all had college degrees, as was required for the types of cases they were investigating. My focus was white collar crime, sophisticated crimes by highly intelligent and charismatic suspects who, under the guise of business, would take your home from under you (sound familiar?).  That Nigerians were as sophisticated as the average American businessman was a real quandary for law enforcement, and they didn't know what to do about it. This was before the terrorist attacks when America was still innocent, gullible, and without much knowledge of international crime except for the Mafia and Mexican drug lords.

When I asked for and was denied leave without pay to finish my report, after seeking three additional months to complete my assignment, I left the government and completed it. I believed my research was more important to the British and U.S. government than my being employed. I had several recommendations that I offered, but know not which, if any, were implemented. The essence of my paper was that the whole world shows acts of criminality; we must come to grips with our own criminal pasts before we accuse another people of being perpetrators. 

Since leaving law enforcement in the late 1990s and witnessing what's happened to the world post-2001, when the World Trade Center towers were struck down, I'm at a loss to explain what has happened to our country. The attack on New York has had an indelible blow to the greatness of our crime-fighting apparatus. Instead of preventing the occurrence of the attacks, we unleashed our angry bulldogs on the world, suspicious of anyone who is foreign-looking, foreign-sounding, and non-Christian.  The militarization of our police, untrained in warfare, but given the powerful tools to wage it, has created a police state in our own country that has made Americans afraid of those sworn to protect. This professor's compelling essay explores the phenomenon of private funding of police as a new development in explaining our current problems.

And given the rash of news of minorities under siege, it would appear that our own police have taken sides and believe that we Blacks are the terrorists among us.  So the local police are the new investigators of all things suspicious. Forget that this weekend is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, where a White terrorist killed Americans on our soil -- it is still the brown-skinned who have scarred the American psyche.

I am neither male nor White, but I know that for centuries, they have grown up believing they are the good guys. This facile explanation of American crime-fighting, "good guys versus bad guys" is also a problem. When people are reduced to those descriptions, there are bound to be consequences.  What happens when the prosecutors are the bad guys? What happens when the police or agents are the criminals who, until the advent of the smart phone, have gotten away with it and live their lives among us as upright citizens?

Official NRA Police Target

This country has always hunted Black Americans, as slaves, and not only in the South:

[A] legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.

The moral of the story is that there is no race immune to criminality.  But for Blacks in America, we all hope to not be stopped by the police. It is easy to see how a Black man's instinct would be to run, because chances are he will be beaten, shot or strangled to death--while handcuffed.

Better to die a free man than in custody.

This link is not necessarily an endorsement, but definitely gives us food for thought:

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