State of the Union

Fear and Loathing in Guantanamo Bay

The Guantanamo Bay detention center briefly reasserted its presence in the public consciousness this month with the news that a single Navy nurse refused to participate in the force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike. Quietly feted by civil liberties advocates, the story quickly slipped off the radar. The Pentagon confirmed that the nurse “has been temporarily assigned to alternate duties with no impact to medical support operations”—in other words, the torturous force feedings, instituted in 2006, will continue unabated.

Gitmo currently houses 149 inmates. Fewer than 20 detainees have been charged, and 78 are cleared for release—a status some have held for more than half a decade. About 45 prisoners are scheduled for indefinite detention, never to see a day in court.

The tepid response to the nurse’s moral stand is not surprising. Despite the fervor of outspoken antiwar protesters during the Bush years, the broader public has never cared much about the welfare of those imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, innocent or no. Support for closing the facility peaked at 51 percent in early 2009. That high corresponded with the first inauguration of President Barack Obama, who took office trumpeting his intentions to put an end to Bush-era abuses like Guantanamo, which he labeled a betrayal of American ideals.

A year after the inauguration, the Obama administration’s now-extensive history of Gitmo excuse-making was well underway. “Political opposition” caused the President to break his promise. Temper your expectations, an anonymous White House official suggested, “The president can’t just wave a magic wand and say that Gitmo will be closed.” But of course—of course!—it’s still going to happen.

Come 2011, we found the President admitting that the facility won’t be closed in the near future. “[W]ithout Congress’s cooperation, we can’t do it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I stop making the case.” And that narrative—the “I really want to close Guantanamo, but Congress just won’t let me!” line—has persisted ever since, typically with a heavy dose of partisan undertones. As Obama moved an issue he once called vital to the restoration of the United States’ moral authority to the backburner, public opinion followed his cue. By 2010, only 39 percent supported closing the prison. Today, just 27 percent are on board.

What’s fascinating about this unwillingness to close Guantanamo Bay as observed in government and citizens alike is the way it encapsulates the charade of modern American politics: a GOP that abandons its support for limited government out of fear, and a Democratic Party whose civil libertarianism is built more on partisan rancor than ethics.

Let’s look at the Republican opposition first—for those partisan undertones in Obama’s narrative are two-faced but not unfounded. Led by hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), congressional Republicans have indeed worked to keep Gitmo open. Polling suggests they have the full support of their GOP constituents—no less than 81 percent want the detention center to stick around—and even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), perhaps Graham’s staunchest foreign policy opponent in the Senate, agrees with his South Carolinian colleague on this point.

But what about Gitmo meshes with the small government philosophy Republicans espouse? Each prisoner costs taxpayers $2.7 million annually, a massive failure on the fiscal responsibility front (federal prison, for comparison, spends $26,000 a year per inmate).

Even worse for conservatives should be the prison’s blatant trampling of constitutional rights. Read More…

Posted in , , , , , . Tagged , , , . 9 comments

Seven Reasons Police Brutality Is Systemic, Not Anecdotal

Darrin Manning’s unprovoked “stop and frisk” encounter with the Philadelphia police left him hospitalized with a ruptured testicle. Neykeyia Parker was violently dragged out of her car and aggressively arrested in front of her young child for “trespassing” at her own apartment complex in Houston. A Georgia toddler was burned when police threw a flash grenade into his playpen during a raid, and the manager of a Chicago tanning salon was confronted by a raiding police officer bellowing that he would kill her and her family, captured on the salon’s surveillance. An elderly man in Ohio was left in need of facial reconstructive surgery after police entered his home without a warrant to sort out a dispute about a trailer.

These stories are a small selection of recent police brutality reports, as police misconduct has become a fixture of the news cycle.

But the plural of anecdote is not data, and the media is inevitably drawn toward tales of conflict. Despite the increasing frequency with which we hear of misbehaving cops, many Americans maintain a default respect for the man in uniform. As an NYPD assistant chief put it, “We don’t want a few bad apples or a few rogue cops damaging” the police’s good name.

This is an attractive proposal, certainly, but unfortunately it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Here are seven reasons why police misconduct is a systemic problem, not “a few bad apples”:

1. Many departments don’t provide adequate training in nonviolent solutions.

This is particularly obvious when it comes to dealing with family pets. “Police kill family dog” is practically its own subgenre of police brutality reports, and most of these cases—like the story of the Minnesota children who were made to sit, handcuffed, next to their dead and bleeding pet—are all too preventable. Some police departments have begun to train their officers to deal more appropriately with pets, but Thomas Aveni of the Police Policy Studies Council, a police consulting firm, says it’s still extremely rare. In the absence of this training, police are less likely to view violence as a last resort.

2. Standards for what constitutes brutality vary widely.

“Excess is in the eyes of the beholder,” explains William Terrill, a former police officer and professor of criminal justice at Michigan State. “To one officer ‘objectively reasonable’ means that if you don’t give me your license, I get to use soft hands, and in another town the same resistance means I can pull you through the car window, [or] I can tase you.” The special deference police are widely given in American culture feeds this inconsistency of standards, producing something of a legal Wild West. While national legislation would likely only complicate matters further, local or state-wide ballot propositions should allow the public—not the police—to define reasonable use of force.

3. Consequences for misconduct are minimal.

In central New Jersey, for instance, 99 percent of police brutality complaints are never investigated. Nor can that be explained away as stereotypical New Jersey corruption. Only one out of every three accused cops are convicted nationwide, while the conviction rate for civilians is literally double that. In Chicago, the numbers are even more skewed: There were 10,000 abuse complaints filed against the Chicago PD between 2002 and 2004, and just 19 of them ”resulted in meaningful disciplinary action.” On a national level, upwards of 95 percent of police misconduct cases referred for federal prosecution are declined by prosecutors because, as reported in USA Today, juries “are conditioned to believe cops, and victims’ credibility is often challenged.” Failure to remedy this police/civilian double standard cultivates an abuse-friendly legal environment.

4. Settlements are shifted to taxpayers.

Those officers who are found guilty of brutality typically find the settlement to their victims paid from city coffers. Research from Human Rights Watch reveals that in some places, taxpayers “are paying three times for officers who repeatedly commit abuses: once to cover their salaries while they commit abuses; next to pay settlements or civil jury awards against officers; and a third time through payments into police ‘defense’ funds provided by the cities.” In larger cities, these settlements easily cost the public tens of millions of dollars annually while removing a substantial incentive against police misconduct. Read More…

Posted in , . Tagged . 49 comments