Will Justine Damond’s killing change police culture in the US?


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Minneapolis: She was such a free spirit, it’s hardly surprising that Justine Damond’s exit from this life shreds conventional wisdom on cop killings in the US – blonde, beautiful and beloved, hers is a new name on a victim list that is mostly black, brown and seen as bothersome.

The 40-year-old Australian was a beacon in life – one day, donating her eggs to a friend who can’t conceive a child; and on another, clambering into a stormwater drain to rescue a duckling brood.

And every day, she’d very sensibly order almond milk with her vanilla latte. A social media friend describes Damond as a “sparkling sunbeam”.

So what was the Black Lives Matter crowd doing at her home in Minneapolis’ Fulton quarter, in the bewildering aftermath of Damond being gunned down late last Saturday night, in the alley behind where she lived – by a cop who was responding to her 911 call for help, for a woman she believed was being sexually assaulted?

That’s just it. Nearly every aspect of Damond’s death rewrites a script that too often shunts victims of police violence to the fringes of the day’s news agenda – as a victim, she wasn’t meant to be white or middle class, or to come from a well-heeled neighbourhood.

She wasn’t meant to be such an endearing foreigner, whose death would focus international attention on the dark underbelly of social injustice in the US; and her killer wasn’t meant to be a black Muslim cop who doubled as a hero for his immigrant Somali community and a diversity poster boy for the city.

Damond’s friend Letta Page, a political progressive, is struck by the extent to which lines are being crossed – as much by herself as by others.

Minneapolis has an unenviable record of high-profile police killings, vigils and protests, but Page’s attendance at a memorial for Damond was a personal first. In the past, the extent of her involvement was to send pizza, with particular instructions for the delivery guy to hand the boxes to the “people holding placards” – not to the cops watching them.

In one breath, this 37-year-old editor of journals on sociology gets it – cops do amazing work. But then she tells Fairfax Media, she was so offended by the presence of the cops, observing a vigil that was a response to one of their colleagues killing Page’s friend and fitness buddy, that she locked eyes with one of the officers and stared him down.

“What shocks a lot of people in this equation is that Justine is the tiniest sliver of a pie chart that is overwhelmingly black and poor. I understand that well-meaning white people in Minneapolis care about this issue – but till now, they didn’t have a stake in it.

“And if that’s what it takes to get them personally involved, I’m all right with that. If it takes a victim like themselves for them to better understand, that’ll be a good outcome from a terrible situation.”

Here Page draws a careful distinction. Yes, the Aussie motivational speaker, yoga teacher and healer was an exceptional person, but the circumstances of her death are very unexceptional: “Lots of other communities go through the heartache we’re experiencing and all victims of violence are exceptional to those who knew them.”

The victims are many. By the count of The Washington Post, Damond is the 541st person to have been killed by police gunfire in the US this year. And nine more have been killed in subsequent days – with none getting any of the wall-to-wall media attention lavished on Damond.

Minneapolis knows some of the victims too well. Before Justine Damond there was Philando Castile, in July 2016; and before Castile, there was Jamar Clark, in November 2015. These three died in a span of less than three years.

Mohamed Noor, Damond’s killer, is refusing to be interviewed – by investigators and by the media. But coming just weeks after the acquittal of an officer charged with shooting Castile in July 2016 and with observers pointing out that Clark’s killers weren’t even charged, the Damond death continues a narrative that punctures claims by Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges that her city gets it and is reforming.

“I’ve learned a lot of lessons,” Hodges said this week.

The city, she claimed, had been into police reform since before the wave of protest sparked by Clark’s death, adopting body cameras; improving training and policies; embracing community policing, to increase public safety and trust in the cops.

“There’s not another city in this country that has done more and is doing more to advance 21st-century policing,” she told Fairfax Media.

But the first Somali-American elected to the Minnesota state legislature, Ilhan Omar, begs to differ, arguing that a response to Damond’s killing that narrowly focuses on the failure of the cops to activate their body cameras won’t solve “inherent” problems.

“The current officer training program indoctrinates individuals of all races into a system that teaches them to act first, think later, and justify with fear,” Omar said. “It’s time we explore solutions beyond improved training and [the use of] cameras to capture evidence. We need to look at a complete shift in the culture of the police department, away from the use of lethal force and deadly weapons.”

And where Hodges sees an embrace of the Obama administration’s “six pillars of reform”, Christy Lopez, who served as deputy chief in the Obama Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, sees a police department that wants to change being confronted by its own entrenched culture.

Asked about the spread of police killings in Minneapolis, Lopez told Fairfax Media: “It underscores how difficult it is and how long it takes to reform, and how the hardest parts are the ones that make the greatest difference – and are the ones that don’t get done.”

And at Georgetown University’s Law Centre, Professor Rosa Brooks puts the ongoing police killings crisis in a more multi-dimensional policy framework, which she describes as “brutal and racist”.

Chiding the media and others for a “too simplistic” focus on police killings, she wrote in Foreign Policy last year: “A closer look at the data suggests that America does not, in fact, have a problem with [just] racist police violence … America has a violence problem, and a racism problem, and a policing problem.

“Too often, all three problems intersect, with results inscribed in blood.”

Incredibly, the US has about 18,000 separate state and local police departments and 73 federal law enforcement agencies – all of which, pun not intended, are a law unto themselves, with their own policies on recruitment, training, discipline, equipment, weapons and operating procedures.  

So the rate at which police kill people in states with thinly scattered populations like Wyoming, New Mexico and Oklahoma is as much as 10 times the rate for some of the most populous states, such as New York. In Oklahoma City, the number of killings by police in 2015 was almost identical to that for New York City, where the population is almost 14 times greater.

And in the 10 years to 2014, Chicago paid a staggering $US500 million to settle claims of police misconduct – and hundreds more cases are pending.

Surveys of cops produce a litany of reasons for what’s gone wrong – the media gives them a hard time; people don’t appreciate the risks they take; too much is expected of them, particularly in dealing with social problems; and too many people resist arrest – none of which appears to be applicable in the death of Justine Damond.

Bravery means different things from one department to the next. Cemented in Minnesota lore is the story of the medals given to the cops who staged a massive raid on a Vietnamese family who returned fire – before the family realised the attackers were cops and before the cops realised they had the wrong house.

Reform-minded police chiefs come under intense pressure – from the rank and file, from police associations and from politicians who hew to the bare-knuckled law and order tropes of Donald Trump.

There is a suspicion that recently sacked police chiefs in Salt Lake City and in Cincinnati were let go because of resistance to their reform efforts.

And before his resignation last year, Dallas police chief David Brown was under the hammer, despite impressive results from reforms in his six-year tenure – excessive use of force complaints dropped by about 90 per cent and assaults on cops and police shootings were down markedly.

Brown rooted out his bad eggs – sacking the cop who beat a detainee with a flashlight, sprayed him with mace and kicked him, all while the man was restrained. And he used social media to shame others who were fired for misconduct.

After a wave of police killings and retaliatory attacks last year, one of which took the lives of five of Brown’s officers in Dallas, University of Virginia law professor Barbara Armacost wrote of the “remarkable unanimity” in more than a century of academic research and investigations on policing. But then she quoted University of South Carolina criminology professor Geoffrey Alpert: “We know what needs to happen next but we just keep studying the question instead of doing something about the answers we’ve arrived at.”

Armacost urged police chiefs to get on board with reforms. Pleading that instead of falsely blaming “rogue cops” for embarrassments, she said only “top-down, systemic” reform of police departments would work – community policing; training in de-escalation and the use of non-lethal tactics; more diversity recruitment; and improved data collection and transparency.

One of the Trump administration’s less apparent efforts to undo the Obama legacy is Attorney-General Jeff Sessions’ war on a series of ground-breaking deals under which the Justice Department extracted commitments from dozens of dodgy police departments to reform – under judicial oversight and with threats of punishment for any backsliding.

Places like Ferguson, Missouri, signed on, in the wake of national protests after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, who was unarmed, black and young. Chicago and Baltimore, law-and-order black holes, were wrapping up similar deals when Sessions moved to block them – creating a bizarre turnabout in which cities are fighting a Department of Justice bid to remove reform programs imposed by that very department.

Sessions denounced the Obama administration report on which the Chicago reforms are based as shoddy.

And he railed against the type of investigations that produced the report as “dangerous”, claiming they vilify the police and weaken departmental morale. And despite challenges by criminologists, Sessions continues to argue that the reform agreements will spark a spike in serious crime.

As the Obama reform program is derailed, the Carnegie Foundation’s Rachel Kleinfeld, an expert on democracy and the rule of law, pours cold water on hopes that Damond’s death in Minneapolis could be a catalyst for change in a situation that chiefly affects black Americans.

Activists are heartened by a hoped-for parallel with drug abuse – when blacks were the victims of the 1980s-1990s crack epidemic, addicts and dealers were thrown in jail and no one seemed to care. But with white, working class Americans as victims of a current opioid abuse epidemic, Washington and America have become compassionate.

“[But] history shows that police brutality and shootings doesn’t stop until the middle class decides it’s had enough,” Kleinfeld told Fairfax Media. “And, yes, in this case Damond is middle class, but she’s not American – so there won’t be that galvanising effect … you need leaders who can make an incident like this into something, who can turn a tragedy into a movement.”

Letta Page cradles her coffee, ruminating on Kleinfeld’s logic. Page says that Damond was troubled by the culture of violence in the US: “Justine talked of people caring for each other and all the violence upset her, it offended her”.

Undaunted, Page checks off challenges that are bigger than any single police department: millions of guns in the community, increased surveillance and tighter security.

“None of it makes us safer,” she said. “But tectonic plates do move. I know we won’t get to dismantle the institutions of US policing and to rebuild from the ground up. But we’ll get meaningful change – and just because it’ll be in fits and starts won’t make it less meaningful.”

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