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Police Violence From A Novelist’s View.

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              I conduct lethal-force certifications for law enforcement agencies, so I know lots of cops. Right now, I wouldn’t want to be a cop because for many of the people who are demonstrating against police violence, it’s payback time.

              I just finished reading a new novel by Joyce Carol Oates, NIGHT. SLEEP. DEATH. The STARS, which is a stanza from a Whitman poem.I love her books. I read some of them again and again. I write non-fiction but I read fiction and her works are always at the top of my list.

              This novel opens with John Earle ‘Whitey’ McLaren driving down the highway outside of Hammond, New York and passing two cops who are whomping the shit out of some Indian guy. Later we find out that the Indian guy is a doctor at the local hospital.

McLaren pulls over on the shoulder, starts walking towards the cops to find out what’s going on, and the cops start whomping the shit out of him too. They knock him down, hit him with multiple tasers, and the sixty-seven year-old former town Mayor who has just attended a meting of the Trustees of the Public Library, suffers a stroke from which he succumbs ten days’ later without ever regaining full consciousness.

              He leaves behind a widow, Jessalyn, and five grown children, along with a successful business run by his eldest child, Thom. There are three daughters – Beverly, Lorene, Sofia, and another son named Virgil.  The novel is another example of what makes Joyce Carol Oates such a remarkable storyteller, which is her uncanny ability to create a portrait of a family whose members are in some way or another adrift from each other and from themselves.

              I am not a literary critic of any sort, so I’m going to leave an analysis of the book’s text to others who are much more versant in judging fiction than myself. What I want to talk about is the incident of police brutality which starts the book off, given how this issue has come to dominate so much of our public discussion today.

              There is no question that much of the anger and public, mass demonstrations following the death of George Floyd was due to the response, or I should say, lack of response from Donald Trump. Even Rush Limbaugh came out he next day and expressed shock and concern about the video showing  Black man on the ground with a White cop using his boot to crush the poor guy’s neck.

              It took Trump almost a week to say anything about the event, no doubt he was waiting to hear the reaction from a couple of focus groups before saying anything about what took place. In fact, what he began doing almost immediately was going back to the usual racist playbook which included re-tweeting the most disgusting comments from Black conservatives like Candace Owens.

              But now back to the novel by Oates. What happens is that the eldest son decides to go after the cops who killed his father and runs up against the usual resistance of local officials and the police union to redress the situation at all. I’m not going to go into details because the novel needs to be read word-for-word, but what happens in this instance is probably what happens in most instances of police brutality when the cops do something stupid or brutal in any town and nobody’s standing there with a video camera to record the details.

              The strength of this novel lies in the endless twists and turns of family members whose lives all change when the individual around whom the family created and maintained its identity suddenly disappears. But the issue of police brutality is also handled in a deft and nuanced way because we need to remember that when something unnecessarily violent happens to anyone, the violence reverberates far beyond the immediate circle of family and friends.

Just Because Cops Like Guns Doesn’t Mean They Oppose Gun Control.

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During the campaign one of Trump’s poster-boys for getting out the gun vote was Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who has been a featured speaker at the national meeting of the NRA. America’s oldest civil rights organization has long promoted the alleged support of law enforcement when it comes to protecting gun ‘rights’ and solicits and receives pro-gun homages from many of the nation’s sheriffs.

cops Why sheriffs?  Because they are responsible for law enforcement in just about every part of the country outside the larger urban centers, and in case you didn’t notice it back on November 8th, rural areas and small towns usually vote red. And since sheriffs, as opposed to police chiefs, are elected not appointed, the political views of most American sheriffs tend to reflect the political views of the people they are sworn to protect. It’s hardly a surprise, for example, that more than 50 sheriffs sued Colorado’s Governor, claiming that the state’s new gun laws were unconstitutional. The suits went nowhere, but it gave the sheriffs something to do besides running down to Dunkin’ Donuts to bring coffee back for the boys.

There are somewhere upwards of 765,000 full-time law enforcement officers working in the United States, along with some 400,000 part-timers.  Roughly half are attached to departments that number 10 sworn officers or less. Not only do law enforcement personnel in these smaller agencies patrol wide swatches of underpopulated territory, they usually come from the same community themselves. Which means that their views on all subjects is often no different than the views of the people whose neighborhoods they patrol.  And let’s not forget that the further you move away from cities, the higher is the per capita ownership of guns.

To quote an officer serving in a small, rural department: “I grew up in a rural county, so everyone hunted. I’ve been around guns since I was a kid.” Another officer from the same department said: “My views are shaped [by rural life] because that’s how I was raised—around guns.”  These and other comments by members of a rural sheriff’s department appear in a remarkable article written by Rachael Woldoff, a sociologist at West Virginia University who, with the help of researchers from Washington & Jefferson and the FBI, spent several years conducting detailed interviews with 20 members of a rural sheriff’s department to better understand what she refers to as ‘complex views’ on gun control held by these cops. [Download the article here.]

And what she learned and has explained in impressive detail is that, when it comes to views about guns, police both reflect the views of the communities in which they were raised and served, as well as separating themselves from some of those views because of the nature of their work and experiences.  She refers to this process as the ‘multiple identities’ that police in rural areas must learn to incorporate into their work even if they tend to come on the job from a pro-gun background.

What does Woldoff mean by a ‘nuanced’ view on guns?  She learned that rural police overwhelmingly rejected the concept of ‘gun control’ while embracing the notion of ‘individual rights. Nevertheless, these same officers supported expanded background checks and mandatory, pre-licensing training prior to concealed-carry issuance.  Here again, the multiple identities that these cops must fold into a ‘police identity’ is reflected by the fact that they view rural gun owners as responsible gun owners, “but also as unsafe and insufficiently trained to own and use firearms.” Wow.

This article is a very serious academic effort and the reader must work through some lengthy discussions about identity theory and other sociological methodology, but it’s worth it.  The fact that these cops unstintingly line up on the side of rural gun culture doesn’t necessarily make them averse to supporting reasonable measures to curb gun violence.  And advocates for gun violence prevention shouldn’t take anyone for granted in terms of pushing their message as far and wide as they can.

Shouldn’t Docs And Cops Work Together When It Comes To Guns?

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Down in Brazos, Texas, two ER doctors made local headlines by donating a pair of Mossberg shotguns to the local County Constable office.  The guns were donated in memory of Constable Brian Bachmann, a 20-year law enforcement veteran, who was killed while attempting to serve an eviction notice onan enraged individual, the latter after shooting Bachmann then shot and killed a civilian, and wounded two other police officers before being killed himself.

What caught my eye about this story was the fact that it highlighted the relationship between law enforcement and medicine when we think about violence perpetrated with guns.  After all, if we use a phrase like ‘gun violence’ to cover every incident in which someone suffers an injury from a gun, then three-quarters of all violence involving guns also happen to be crimes. In 2013, hospitals treated roughly 60,000 people who were victims of shootings and treated 135,000 victims of stabbings and other serious assaults.  But the resources required to deal with gun assaults is probably ten times higher than what’s needed to deal with stabbings or cuts. And every one of these costly gun crimes also creates significant costs and resource use for the cops.

mossberg                The bottom line is that physicians and police are the two groups which must respond to every, single act of violence committed with a gun.  That being the case, how come we have so little interaction between law enforcement and medical communities when it comes to figuring out how to deal with guns?  Back in 2013, three of the leading public health gun researchers published a truly seminal article calling for more engagement between physicians and public health researchers to figure out how to respond to the risks posed by guns.  But shouldn’t this dyad actually be a triad by adding criminology to the mix?  Because if, as the public health authors propose, people buy and carry guns out of fear, don’t we need to know what makes some people then use these guns to commit crimes?

I think the absence of criminology from the public health – medical gun conversation has only served to make it easier for the NRA and other gun promoters to advance the stupid notion that gun ownership is a prima facie way of dealing with crime based on the equally-stupid notion that every illegal gun use can and should be responded to by simply taking the guns away from the ‘bad guys’ and locking them up for long periods of time.  The fact that public health research indicates that guns first appear on the street in the hands of young teens, many of whom might still be guided into non-criminal pursuits given the proper social and therapeutic interventions, is a response to gun violence that the NRA and its cohorts simply ignore.

The NRA reminds its membership every day that being pro-cop and pro-gun are one and the same.  But their relationship to the law enforcement community is ambivalent at best.  For every Western (and some Eastern) sheriff who says he won’t enforce expanded background checks or other gun controls, there’s another police official arguing against laws to weaken CCW or allow college students to walk around armed.  Lots of cops are gun guys, and the average cop will tell you, and he’s right, that law-abiding gun owners are never a problem when it comes to violence caused by guns.  But these same cops also know that most, if not all the guns they face in the street were stolen from a law-abiding gun owner who forgot to lock his guns away.

Take a look at gun industry promotions and you’ll notice that the term ‘gun violence’ is never used.  In fact, the standard mantra among pro-gun criminologists is that guns actually reduce violence because the ‘good guys’ are carrying so many of them around. The real challenge for public health researchers is not disproving this cynical and self-serving nonsense one more time.  It’s making common cause with all the stakeholders who want to advance sensible solutions for the problem of guns.

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