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Finding excuses for jackboots: ex-police chief McNamara "plays the race card"

by junya
Joseph McNamara (former police chief of Kansas City MO and San Jose CA, currently a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution) has often positioned himself on the "good cop" end of the spectrum of police spokespersons. His article "Finding solutions for Oakland" attempts to fall into that vein. But the article uses race-baiting that serves and protects the system of unchecked rampant abuse by Oakland police.
Joseph McNamara (former police chief of Kansas City MO and San Jose CA, currently a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution - home to Condoleeza Rice, George Schultz, Margaret Thatcher and others) has often positioned himself on the "good cop" end of the spectrum of police spokespersons, with powerful common-sense analysis of the flawed premises behind police militarization [1] and the so-called "drug war" [2]. His article Finding solutions for Oakland [3] attempts to fall into that vein, with an "elephant in the room" argument that appeals to a presumed common understanding of the problems of Oakland. But, in this case, what is presented as common-sense is, at best, debatable. I claim worse: it is a fallacy, feeding on a popular misconception, that serves the purpose of obscuring the real common-sense nature of the problem, and thus entrenches the status quo. In short, the article uses race-baiting that serves and protects the system of unchecked rampant abuse by Oakland police.

Reinventing Killing: To Serve and Protect

The article starts by presenting the police version of the March 21 Oakland killings as fact, rather than allegations:

On March 21, 26-year-old Lovelle Mixon, wanted for violating his parole after being released from a seven-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon, shot to death Oakland Police Sgt. Mark Dunakin and Officer John Hege, two veteran cops.

Police flooded the area and located Mixon hiding in a nearby house. After unsuccessful attempts to communicate with Mixon, SWAT officers moved in. Sgts. Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai were fatally shot by Mixon, who was killed in the exchange of gunfire in which a fifth officer was seriously wounded.

Here the neglected elephant is the Constitution and universal human rights: an individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Normally, if that judicial process is fatally preempted by police, the judicial process is still tacitly acknowledged by labeling the person killed as "the suspect", and prefacing the account with "According to police...". McNamara has scrapped that process entirely, and frames his discussion with a presumed common understanding that Lovelle Mixon was guilty of murder. And while playing fast and loose, he claims "a fifth officer was seriously wounded" - even though the officer was treated and released quickly enough for him to serve as a pallbearer.

McNamara then goes on to admit:

It will take some time before the details of the event are fully discovered and disclosed...

Yet that does not prevent him from asserting:

...the SWAT team knew Mixon had already shot two uniformed, armed police officers and wouldn't hesitate to shoot children and neighbors who the police were unable to evacuate from the area because of the setting.

With this presumptuous assertion, McNamara imparts knowledge to the police that the police themselves did not know they had: police say they have no idea what Mixon was thinking:

"This is a strange one," said Oakland police Capt. Steve Tull, who is overseeing the investigation. "We don't know what his motivation is." [4]

But this leap of faith sets the necessary premise for his segue from hyperbole to pure fantasy:

The two SWAT officers were killed trying to protect the lives of innocent people in the line of fire.

Absolutely no substantiation is provided for this wild claim. While such demagoguery is not unexpected of a police chief (or any public official), it's notable that McNamara is now ranting under the guise of academic credibility - and that should be an embarrassment to the Hoover Institution and Stanford.

Police are not the problem - the perspective of the community is the problem

Now that he has led the reader into the emotional realm of hero worship, McNamara is completely freed from the restrictions of even a minimal need to base his claims on fact or reason. It's the perfect opportunity for him to explain away the long-standing notoriety of the Oakland police - who are currently flouting a consent decree that gives a federal judge oversight over the department. The decree was part of settlement of the "Riders" lawsuit, which claimed that Oakland police filed false police reports, beat suspects and planted evidence on residents to trump up arrests. To help you imagine Oakland police who "protect the lives of innocent people", McNamara needs to "play the race card":

Yet the 2-ton elephant in the room is the strained racial relationship between the police and minority communities in Oakland...many African Americans spoke in sorrow about the death of the officers and offered sympathy to their families. Yet a group of other African Americans voiced criticism of police harassment and characterized Mixon as a victim.

Consequently, racial uneasiness already present in this high crime city has worsened... In response to the high crime rate and citizen pressure, the police have been aggressive. Unfortunately, distrust has led much of the population to view police crime-prevention efforts as discriminatory.

This serves the purpose of diverting the concern from police atrocities to the less tractable problem of "race", and black-and-white issues - a quagmire that the US seems determined to sink further into for the foreseeable future (McNamara unwittingly shows us the illogic of race discussions in the US, as he referred to African-Americans as a "minority community" in Oakland, even though Oakland's 2000 census results showed 35.7% identified themselves as black or African-American while only 31.3% identified as white).

McNamara's diversion is completed by a puff piece that portrays his regime as leading San Jose to regain its peaceful beauty for everyone, to become "the safest large city in America" - a claim, incidentally, the FBI flatly rejects [5]:

Each year when "Crime in the United States" is published, many entities - news media, tourism agencies, and other groups with an interest in crime in our Nation - use reported figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rankings, however, are merely a quick choice made by the data user; they provide no insight into the many variables that mold the crime in a particular town, city, county, state, region, or other jurisdiction. Consequently, these rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents...Until data users examine all the variables that affect crime in a town, city, county, state, region, or other jurisdiction, they can make no meaningful comparisons.

Equal access to police brutality?

But is discriminatory policing the fundamental concern? Have any voices cried for police to shoot more unarmed white females? No. And civil and criminal cases rarely allege discrimination - that's too difficult to prove. The fundamental concern (McNamara's "elephant in the room") is not discriminatory policing, but both indiscriminate and systematic police violence that, unchecked, leads to human rights abuses: disproportionate force, torture, degrading treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention. While there is ample evidence that suggests that this abusive policing is frequently based on perceived ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, or "mental health" (e.g., see [6]), that is a different problem that aggravates the main problem of brutal police practices. To put it another way, no one is asking for equal opportunity in US police brutality. Conversely, if US policing had a reputation for being biased but otherwise humane and accountable, how many would still have the issue of police practices on their agenda? Members of marginalized communities in the US face discrimination every hour of every day - and deal with it. The tension in the community comes not from only a "strained racial relationship". That relationship merely fans the flames ignited by a police system of unchecked brutal power, that can abduct, torture, and kill at will.

The issue of human rights abuses of US police is not a "controversial", "adversarial", or "confrontational" issue, to be solved by "good faith on both sides". It is neither a moral issue nor a police/community division. US policing simply does not meet international standards of law enforcement practices set in covenants agreed to by the US, particularly Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. [7] The human rights record of US law enforcement agencies is far below that of other developed nations. [8] And, as even casual browsing of YouTube will show, the brutality of US police took its toll on ALL kinds of people - especially when they are organized in dissent. In fact, six years ago Oakland police responded to a peaceful anti-war protest at the port of Oakland by firing concussion grenades , wooden bullets, and beanbags full of metal shot that injured scores of people, including six onlooking workers. Photos of the protest and the injured suggest that protesters were predominantly white, so McNamara's racial analysis of Oakland's police troubles falls flat. [9] A 2004 report of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights expressed concern "that excessive force may have been used against persons exercising their right to protest human rights concerns." [10]

As shown in the photos, when teen anarchists held a "Reclaim the Streets" party in 2005, local police bared their paramilitary fangs in view of shocked shoppers in upscale Palo Alto, just a mile from McNamara's Stanford workplace:

...with dozens of onlookers more horrified by the sizable police presence on hand than were frightened by the protesters...

More than 300 officers from every Santa Clara County law enforcement agency were called in by Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson. Among the police forces were a horse-mounted crowd control unit and a helicopter from San Jose.

Police were dressed in full riot gear and carried automatic rifles, tear gas guns, shotguns, Tasers, and wooden katanas...

Agnes Heslin, of Menlo Park, said, "I don't feel protected, I feel intimidated (by the police). It's an overwhelming force."


Does McNamara attribute this to the "strained racial relationship" between police and white teen girls in Palo Alto? Surely this overwhelming force cannot be claimed to be in "response to the high crime rate and citizen pressure" in Palo Alto? But if McNamara uses race to explain away Oakland's outrage at decades of police "strutting around like an occupying army" (McNamara's description of modern SWAT teams in [12]), yet must find some other excuse when Palo Alto expresses displeasure when the occupying army comes to that town, then isn't McNamara using a double standard of policing? Doesn't that make his "solution" for Oakland actually part of the problem of discriminatory policing? Using race to explain outrage against police in Oakland is divisive race-baiting. But since Palo Alto, like other US cities, has had its taste of unrestrained police repression, empathy for Oakland becomes possible when the focus is on abusive police rather than race.

Until the rampant killings, torture, and humiliation by police end, targeted communities such as Oakland cannot conduct meaningful dialogue with police. There can only be the tense groveling that comes when a gun is pointed at your head. That is an unsustainable and potentially explosive relationship that McNamara and the community he speaks for need to start recognizing as the real elephant in the room.


  1. The Militarization of 'Mayberry'
  2. Revisiting Ronald Reagan on the Drug War
  3. Finding solutions for Oakland, SF Chronicle, Apr 3, 2009
  4. Killer of 4 officers wanted to avoid prison
  5. Caution against ranking
  6. Operation Ghetto Storm: The Rise In Paramilitary Policing
  7. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials
  8. Close To Home: Measuring US Respect For The Human Right To Life (Part 2 of 2)
  9. Oakland Police Open Fire On Peaceful Protesters And Dock Workers: Mayor Jerry Brown Backs Police Use Of Force
  10. United Nations Report on the Oakland Port Protest
  11. Anarchists cause spectacle
    Palo Alto Daily News, 6/26/2005
  12. Are police too quick to call SWAT team?
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