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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Becoming The Monster: Problems With Proactive Policing

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. -Friedrich Nietzsche

One of the more recent trends in policing is the use of nearly autonomous elite police units that are trained to be more aggressive than regular officers and are sent into higher crime areas of cities to do whatever it takes to make arrests. Sometimes referred to as "proactive policing teams" because their mandate is to "go out and arrest criminals before they commit crimes", these units work with very minimal oversight and are encouraged to use whatever tactics they can get away with in order to get results.

While it's difficult to argue against their effectiveness in reducing crime rates, the no-holds-barred methods they use are starting to cause headaches for many municipalities, so many in fact that several have been disbanded in disgrace in recent years.

Most of these problems should have been foreseen because of their very nature; being close-knit and insular teams of officers trained to use highly aggressive tactics who have very little oversight, these elite teams have been prone to corruption by nature and are shown to have little problem with punishing the innocent and guilty alike... but because of their effectiveness city governments were all too willing to overlook the numerous complaints of brutality and corruption that continuously racked up against them.

After several scandals involving these elite police units have surfaced across the US, people are starting to ask questions about how these units are proactive, how they make determinations of guilt that are not based on hard evidence and fact, but on presumptions and profiles instead. Also in the magnifying glass are how insular and unaccountable these teams are and how this predisposes them to the corruption and other color of law abuses that have been forcing cities to disband their elite units. People are wondering whether these elite and aggressive units might just be turning into the very monsters they seek to fight.

For example:

Chicago Illinois, Special Operations Section (SOS)
In the city of Chicago, the now infamous Special Operations Section (SOS) units were disbanded after serious allegations of corruption and color of law abuses that included brutal assaults, falsifying information on reports, home invasions, theft, and even a plot to murder fellow officers who were suspected of turning them in. All this after the infamous Area 2 torture scandals that are still leaving the CPD in a tainted legacy of low morale and intensely poor community relations... as well as numerous dropped prosecutions and millions of dollars in settled and pending legal actions.

Greensboro North Carolina, Special Intelligence Section (SIS)
Another elite proactive anti-crime unit similar to the SOS was disbanded over charges of racism after it was discovered that they were targeting black officers and kept a "black book" that they used to specifically target only black officers in attempts to implicate them in various crimes within a mostly white police department.

Los Angeles California, Elite Metro Unit May Day Scandal
These elite anti-crime units are specially trained to use aggressive tactics and fall back quickly on use of force that goes counter to any standardized use of force continuum that dictates when and what type of force is appropriate for a given situation. LAPD's Elite Metro Unit is an example of this when televised video showed they opened fire on civilians and reporters at a peaceful immigration protest on May 1st. These units have been disbanded and investigations are ongoing after the city initially defended the unit's tactics until the videos of the unprovoked attack surfaced.

Los Angeles CA, The C.R.A.S.H (Rampart) Scandal
Probably the most infamous elite proactive police unit scandal in US history involved the LAPD's elite CRASH unit whose officers were charged with regularly making false arrests, giving perjured testimony, framing innocent people, and even for murder and other criminal activities so much so that they seemed as if they were no different than the criminals they were supposed to be fighting.

Toronto Canada, "Team 3" Scandal

Problems with autonomous elite police units aren't limited to the US. In Toronto an elite unit called "Team 3", aka "Johnny's Boys", had been disbanded after investigators found drugs at one officer's house, along with guns, knives and a ledger that appeared to be a record of a "slush fund" of personal and business expenses. Additionally, there were also allegations that officers had threatened one potential witness and bribed another, and that some had lied in court about their investigative techniques. All this led to charges of theft, forgery, and fraud against 8 officers that were dropped after prosecutors took too long turning over evidence.

Seattle has it's own elite proactive police units, the "Anti-Crime Teams" or ACTs. They too have had a growing number of complaints piling up against them, they have been the subject of some very high profile cases of abuse and have also demonstrated a willingness to punish the guilty and innocent alike. We wonder, in the process of the city defending these units at all costs and refusing to reign them in if Seattle might be building it's own tragic scandal to match those of Chicago and Los Angeles and all these other cities who ignored the warning signs in exchange for political quick fixes and expediency.

We wonder... In comparison, just how bad will Seattle's scandal be in comparison to the others that have come before it... the others that have left lessons in their mistakes and follies for those who are smart enough to learn from them?

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