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Predictably pre-conditioned police

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Black Lives Matter Sign - Minneapolis Protest
Black Lives Matter Sign - Minneapolis Protest
(Image by (From Wikimedia) Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Author: Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota)
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By Bob Gaydos

Most recent lockdown movie watched was "Minority Report," starring Tom Cruise. Talk about synchronicity.

Cruise plays a police officer in the mid-21st century who is part of a special unit that arrests people for "pre-crimes." That is, crimes they were about to commit. Usually, the "pre-crime" is murder.

The "pre-crimes" are predicted by pre-cogs three drugged human beings floating in a pool of warm water who are wired to a computer system that allows others (the police) to monitor what is going on in the pre-cogs' minds. Precognition. The three, one female and two males, can see the future. They predict pre-murder victim and pre-murderer, as well as date and time. Cruise has to figure out where and get there in time to stop the crime and make an arrest, even though no crime has been committed. The pre-cogs are supposed to be infallible. It turns out they're not. Cruise finds this out when he himself is named as a pre-murderer and has to prove his innocence before any crime is committed.

By now, the police in the film have become pre-conditioned to believe in precognition: This is what the precogs say, so it must be true. You did intend to kill this person. You are under arrest for the pre-crime of homicide. It's kind of like some police today have become preconditioned to believe that if a male is black, he must be guilty of something and is dangerous to boot, so use whatever force is necessary in making an arrest. And the system says it's justified.

Just as the pre-cogs' reputation for accuracy was based on a lie, so the preconditioning of some of today's real-life police officers is based on generations of lies. George Floyd's death in the custody of police in Minneapolis is the latest in a dismal series of similar incidents that entered my consciousness in Middletown, N.Y., in 1986. That the country and, in fact, much of the world has risen up to protest Floyd's death is encouraging, but tragically long overdue.

I was writing editorials for The Times Herald-Record, the local paper, when Jimmy Lee Bruce, a 20-year-old black man, died in the back of a patrol car near Middletown on Dec. 13, 1986. He and a group of friends from Ellenville, N.Y., had gone to a movie theater in a mall outside Middletown. The group became rowdy. There was drinking involved. Two white, off-duty Middletown police officers, acting as security guards, escorted the group out of the theater. A scuffle ensued. An officer applied a chokehold to Bruce and tossed him in the back of a police car, which had brought two on-duty Town of Wallkill police officers to the scene.

The police then drove around for 7┬Ż minutes looking for Bruce's friends. When they returned to the theater, a state trooper, who had also arrived on the scene, shined a flashlight in the back of the patrol car and noticed the young man was not responding to the light. Police rushed him to a nearby hospital, but attempts to revive him failed.

In my previous experience as a reporter talking to plenty of lawyers I had been told that any district attorney worth his salt could indict a ham sandwich. Apparently this was baloney. A grand jury considering the case ruled that Bruce's death was an accident because the officers had used a technique - the chokehold (they called it a "sleeper") for which they had not been trained and which actually was prohibited by their department.

There have since been too many similar stories between Bruce and Floyd, including Eric Garner, a victim of a chokehold applied by police on Staten Island in 2015. Excessive force used by a police officer resulting in the death of a black male and, most of the time, no action taken against the officer. You could almost predict it. Preconditioning.

Following Bruce's death, I wrote an editorial (later read into The Congressional Record on March 25, 1987 by Rep. Matthew F. McHugh) that said the grand jury that cleared the four police officers had actually indicted a system that had failed to properly train its police in handling such situations and for being slow to investigate the case, "raising suspicions of bigotry." Would that I had the pre-cogs available to me then.

The same factors, predictably, applied to the Eric Garner case 18 years later. Precognition? No. Preconditioning. Little had happened in the ensuing years to change the way most police departments recruit, train and discipline police officers. In fact, the situation was worsened by the giveaway of all kinds of military grade weapons to police departments. Without the proper training and handling of civil disturbances, such weapons will be used. And they were.

So now, in the face of massive demonstrations including in front of the White House where a cowering Donald Trump fled to the bunker in the basement, politicians and police officials are finally recognizing what needed to be done more than 30 years ago: Diversify police recruiting. Weed out applicants with sketchy records. Give recruits more training on how to talk to the public, how to de-escalate tense situations and how to use force properly. Make it their duty to speak out about improper use of force. Get rid of that military hardware. Stop dressing like storm troopers. Become involved in the community. Act swiftly and surely to punish officers who abuse their position. Reestablish justice department review of police departments whose behavior is challenged by the public. Educate all officers on the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly. Make the entire community part of this reconditioning process.

It's not impossible, not even difficult. It just needs a unified commitment to doing so. There have been moderately successful efforts in cities across the country to reform police departments in the wake of public outcry over the deaths, usually, of black males at the hands of police. Here in Middletown, police actually joined demonstrators recently in marching peacefully for reform.

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Bob Gaydos is a veteran of 40-plus years in daily newspapers. He began as police reporter with The (Binghamton, N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin, eventually covering government and politics as well as serving as city editor, features editor, sports editor and (more...)
 

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