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Indybay Feature

What is a Crime Wave? (first of a series)

by Steve Martinot
As police demand equipment to deal with a crime wave, they are one. Their use of surveillance technology is part of that. This article is a brief analysis of how.
A general concept of crime
When we consider crime, we generally think of actions taken by specific people (individuals or intentional groups) against certain targeted others (either for who they are, or for what they own). An action will be recognized as a crime by the injury it imposes on its target. That injury could be damage to one’s body, or a loss of possessions or money, or a total abrogation of one’s personal autonomy. Insofar as such an action occurs against one’s will, and against which one is unable to defend oneself, one is reduced to victim status. Crime is generally conceived in terms of a perpetrator-victim relation. When the perpetrator is an organization, then it can also occur in terms of social control, and may involve turf wars, such as struggles for control of rackets, drugs sales, gambling, the commodification of sex, etc.

Because we look to government to protect us against crime, we often ignore the ways that government actions fit its description. One way is the existence of “victimless crime laws.” They are laws that prohibit certain personal behaviors that produce no injurious effect on other people. Hence, there is no discernible victim. It is only the enforcement of such laws that produces a victim in the person of the defendant. It can lead to arrest and conviction, loss of autonomy, abrogation of self-defense, captivity in prison, etc. And the police have impunity in doing so. Since, for a victimless crime, there is no complainant, the police can play that role and say what they like about their victim.

Another area is the prison system itself. Its purpose is to punish an injury done to others by doing something similar to the perpetrator. To respond to an act of violence (and all acts that produce a victim are acts of violence) with another act of violence is to engage in vengeance. Imprisonment is a system based on vengeance. To respond to injury through vengeance is to obviate justice, insofar as the avenging act is itself criminal. Vengeance (imprisonment) doubles social criminality and social violence; it does not eliminate it. And when government grants itself immunity from being considered criminal (in its acts of vengeance), it creates a special form of criminality, one in which the suffering and bereavement of its victims are wholly without recourse.

It is precisely this immunity that has become a national scandal. When police actions injure or dispossess (through asset forfeiture) or kill a person, those acts fit our description of a crime. Should a motorist refuse a police command during a traffic stop, that motorist can be dragged from their car, thrown to the ground, beaten and arrested. The police power to do this is proven by the absence of any sanction against a cop who has done it. The enormous injustice attendant upon such police violence is tripled. Not only is violence done to a person, and not only are they deprived of their autonomy by law (which bars all self-defense against the police), but they are taken into custody (captivity) as immediate punishment for having been attacked and victimized. (The Sandra Bland case became famous in this respect.)

Crime and surveillance technology
As private individuals, we act to forestall criminal activity against us. We lock the doors to our homes, and to our cars, among many other things. We try to pay our taxes, as well as our ever increasing fees for driver’s licenses, and we obey police commands that may nevertheless seem entirely unreasonable. If we manage to forestall crime by these means, then those who might intend to act criminally toward us face the necessity of planning ahead. “Second-story men” will case a house before robbing it. One investigates a person’s habits and daily pathways in order to plan where and when to attack them.

With respect to the police, surveillance technology can play that role of "casing" a person’s habits. That is not far-fetched once we recognize that one purpose for the insistence on obedience to the police is precisely to create the opportunity to criminalize a person when they disobey. Disobedience to the police is one of those victimless crimes (mentioned above) that can be, and routinely is used to criminalize (victimize) a person.

Surveillance data may sometimes make it easier to name a suspect for a crime already committed. But in the long run, the study of the daily habits of people is one of its unspoken purposes. Though government may say that its technology is for our protection, we know that is rhetoric. In collecting data about our social activities, it does not care who we are. Its use of that data remains unspoken. When it studies personal habits, whether to plan an attack or not, it is compiling a future-oriented store of knowledge. Its use will ultimately depend on decisions made by people we don’t know, in a future we do not envision, and against which we will have no defense.

Civilian defense against the use of surveillance is a serious consideration. There are no doors to lock against its presence. Legal remedies against its abuse would have to be in place before the technology was installed. For us in the US, it is already too late for that. The US government, in association with others, such as NATO, have established a massive program to archive all electronic communications in the world. The project is called "Echelon." It records all phone conversations, emails, electronic writings, broadcasts, zoom meetings, and the data acquired by license plate readers, cameras in parks, surveillance equipment on commercial establishments, etc.

Insofar as one’s conversations, associations on the street, habits of movement, stores frequented, etc., are known and compiled, a certain knowledge of each person is acquired. It is not knowledge about personality, or intentions, or one’s emotional life, except as recognized through its data. It has nothing to do with "who" we think we are; it draws an outline of "what" it thinks we are. It categorizes through a matrix of key words. Data is amassed by extraction from social behavior, used as threads to weave a fabric of institutional logic. Its product is something that power may someday use in the interest of social control.

None of it may be of particular importance to the government at present, but it will be there in the future if policy changes call upon it. It is not its existence that would make it useful. It is its future political context that will make its existence useful. Insofar as it provides for actions by government toward us over which we have no control, it constitutes a loss of autonomy that crosses the line into the domain of crime and criminality.

Berkeley’s crime problem
Recently, the police have been giving us warnings, complete with data, about our “crime problem.” The term “crime wave” gets used, and appears in City Council proposals for more surveillance technology. In the face of civil rights groups and social justice movements demanding alternative responses to non-criminal events, such as mental health situations, emotional trauma episodes, and domestic disputes, the police have shown that they do not want to relinquish control. Though people in personal crises do not benefit from a response by “men with guns,” which generally aggravates the situation, and while the movements argue that people undergoing emotional episodes are not criminals, and primarily need kindness and human caring, police opposition to such “special care units” composed of social workers remains strong. (In Portland, Ore., however, the use of such units has become a precedent, with significant success.)

The police have started to modify (or sanitizing) their rhetoric, calling their power-preserving efforts “Problem-Oriented Policing,” instead of the “crime suppression unit.” They now propose “Flex-team” policing. And it has caused City Council to drag its feet with respect to funding the “Special Care Units.”

Ironically, Problem-Oriented Policing proposes to begin by developing a Strategic Plan (see Berkeley city council April 2022 agendas). One might laugh if it did not so egregiously ignore its own history. To approach a person in crisis with a strategic plan in hand means to have decided what to do about the situation before arriving at it. In effect, it already throws the specificities of the person’s reality to the side.

But “strategic plan” is used for rhetorical benefit. It relates to creating “a resilient, safe, connected, and prepared city.” "Prepared" is the strategic part; it means “pre-emptive.” The "connected" part has to do with the surveillance technology by which people in their daily lives will be transformed into a fabric of data (for future use). The term "safe" is the variable. Since we have been living through periods where the police have been shooting and killing people, primarily black and brown, the term "safe" has come to refer to police "safety," and not the idea of being "safe" from police violence and brutality. When the police approach people sitting in a car, and have their guns drawn, it is police safety they are thinking about. It was merely a year ago (here in Berkeley) that a police officer attempted to kill a homeless man who was suspected of having stolen a sandwich from a Walgreens. The cop chose to shoot him in the head. Though the man was standing still, 40 feet away, the cop’s militarism, his strategic plan, took control of him.

Of course, not even the middle class taxpayers are "safe." Police killings and injuries have cost city governments millions of dollars in civil suits (e.g. for wrongful death). The police don’t pay the court awards. It is the city that must cover the cost of police violence. So the taxpayers ultimately pick up the tab. That award-money might replace the earning potential of the dead family member, but it would not replace the presence of the person, nor the warmth and joy that person may have brought to those he or she knew and associated with.

We bemoan the civilian casualties in the Ukraine, but keep giving more money to a source of civilian casualties here in the US. The toll in 2015 was 1100 people shot to death in the US by the police. According to the Washington Post (2/9/22), the toll in 2021 was 1055 people killed. Both average out to around 3 per day.

Nevertheless, the police attempt to be specific about the “crime wave” warning. They speak (ironically) about shootings. In 2021, in Berkeley, there were some 50 shootings. And put that way, it suggests a truly massive criminal presence, in which someone actually shot at someone else (the way the police do) in 50 cases. But all but 6 of these "shootings" were simply gun discharges, with no target or victim claimed. The police simply record that they found shell casings on the street in the morning. A person takes out his gun and shoots a few rounds into the air (as one man did in a store parking lot on San Pablo Ave. one day. No one was hurt.). It is perhaps like setting off a firecracker to express extreme frustration. Firing a gun is a lot more dangerous than setting off a firecracker. But it is not as dangerous as driving 40 mph down a city street. Neither firecrackers nor speeding drivers make it to the list of events that constitute the “crime wave.”

Six of those "shootings," however, had targets. 5 were domestic, a man or woman attempting to terrorize an intimate friend into paying a different kind of attention. A couple of arms and legs received real wounds. The sixth incident was that of the cop shooting the hungry homeless man and trying to kill him. That was the only shooting incident that year that could be said to be demonstrably malicious. Nevertheless, whatever the Flex program turns out to be, it will be hard to resolve the problem of unknown shooters in the night; and even harder to deal with the tendency of lovers to resolve their conflicts with guns.

In any event, the "Flex" program marks a nostalgia for the “war on drugs.” That was the program that made the US prison system the largest in the world, using victimless crime laws and a Supreme Court decision that raised police suspicion, as pure subjectivity, to the level of evidence (Terry vs. Ohio). In the process, urban police departments became the most powerful political forces in every city.

The first aspect of the “war on drugs” was police involvement in drug trafficking. They called it undercover work, but it seriously amplified their income. Their arrest record revealed that the "war’s" target was drug users and not traffickers. As a war, it was doomed to failure; as a crime wave, however, it was doomed to success. It enabled the police to harass neighborhoods, to turn the dealers they knew into a free informer network, and gave racial profiling impunity. On the one hand, drugs stoned out politicized communities. On the other, it created a crime problem that police used to gain increased appropriations from state governments. It was the police who controlled the crime problem.

In this series of articles, we shall examine the nature of plea bargaining, the structure of special interests, the substitution of "input" for political participation, and the effect of autocratic responses to people with real needs. Hopefully, this will lead to enough people developing defenses against malfeasant power to save us from waves of injustice.


Related Categories: East Bay | U.S. | Police State & Prisons
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