Monday, October 30, 2006

X-Rays: A Past that Might Have Been, a Future that Could Be

Let me lay my normative cards on the table. Police are necessary for security in modern society, but they have a historical tendency to divide themselves from society, view many victims as morally deserving of their fate, and treat the assertion of any right of equal dignity as a security threat. In the late 20th century police experts divided between those who looked to judicially imposed external norms, and those who looked to an internal process of craft elaboration. In fact, both were probably necessary for either to have had a chance of succeeding. But the “war on crime”, and the massive transformation of governance it produced, has led to a security paradox. The police have enough power to resist accountability in most respects, but not enough knowledge to effectively deal with violence, community disorder, and now terrorism.

In the hope of going beyond critique and diagnosis to identifying the resources from which a remedy might be fashioned we must have recourse to history. The success of a particular movement or project often has the effect of burying all memory of possible options that existed in the problematizations of the recent past (Foucault has made this into a key methodological imperative). Without bowdlerizing the past, we need to remain open to imagining possibilities for reconstructing our modern public institutions that have been lost.

In 1970, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department hired two African American college graduates from the city’s segregated northwest side. These officers were quickly promoted to detectives and along with a few selected white detectives, were selected by Chief Robert Johnson, Fort Lauderdale Police to form the core of a special task force with the goals of reducing the increasingly violent drug trade in the city and avoiding a major racial conflagration of the sort that had swept major cities in the North. Knicked-named the “X-Rays” because of their reputation for “sharp vision,” these detectives specialized in deep knowledge of their local communities. What is especially striking to me about the tactics of the X-Rays is that they form alternatives to two of the major practices of investigation influenced by the war on drugs and which have contributed to miscarriages of justice, i.e., the use of informants and interrogation. The war on drugs has promoted the recruitment of professional informants who often have powerful monetary or legal incentives to lie. In contrast, the X-Rays cultivated informants more along the model of anthropological informants, local figures in a position to observe what is going on in a community that have a relationship of trust and friendship with the detectives. The war on drugs has also made available a large pool of suspects who form a ready supply of suspects in other cases and encouraged practices of deceptive interrogation aimed pressuring the most dysfunctional of these suspects to cooperate in convicting themselves. In contrast, the X-Rays sought to obtain confessions by winning the trust of suspects and confronting them with the results of their prior investigations.

<>For me the X-Ray’s represent a model of the craft tradition in a positive confrontation with problems of equality and inclusion posed by the civil rights movements in the 1960s. In future postings I’ll tell more of the story of the X-Rays and especially Detective Douglas Evans of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department (ret.). Evans had a remarkable career, ableit one shortened by anger at a law enforcement apparatus that overall placed minimal priority on the security of people from Evan's own neighborhood of northwest Fort Lauderdale. Dougs most famous case involved Eddie Lee Mosely. One of the most aggressive serial killers of recent history, Moseley raped and murdered dozens of people in northwest Fort Lauderdale from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s. Two other men were sent to prison, one to death row, for Moseley's crimes. These miscarriages of justice exemplify the high risk investigatory strategies that contemporary police have come to rely on. Doug Evans solved the crimes using his deep local knowledge of his community and his willingness to interview dozens of witnesses, but Mosely was released through the indifference of state officials and his later crimes were pinned on men more attractive to prosecute. Doug's role in the case is profiled in this excerpt from the Frontline (PBS) documentary, Requiem for Frank Lee Smith (2002)

Doug Evans and the X-Ray's were sadly not the modal police officers, let alone Southern police officers of the 1970s, but they offer a precedent for a reflexive craft policing approach that might serve as a model of a different kind of post-war on drugs policing strategy one aimed at preventing violence in specific communities from all kinds of sources (including both terrorism and reactive hate crimes) by vigorous local investigation coupled with self conscious efforts to guard against racial stereo atyping and its analogs.



At 8:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This observation might favorably be compared with the current debate about using torture to coerce confessions and information from so-called "War on Terror" suspects. New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer's article entitled "Junior" reveals that the FBI have yielded better information by developing a culture of trust between their agents and an al-Qaeda informant. But this professional "craft", as you term it, has never been practiced by the CIA, and it looks as they have yielded little or no information of significance, as well as having irrevocably diminished our international reputation. In all of this perhaps it's right to suggest that it's the context of violence which has undermined a commitment to justice in the policing process?

And that brings me to another point, don't both techniques have their "craft" to them? If so, is the distinguishing characteristic between the two types of craft, that of competition? I assume that it must also be associated with the process in late modernity of rampant consumerism and production, maximization of profits. I am curious about how the dimunition of the importance of the craft might also be tied into productive relations as a form of deskilling?

At 8:52 PM, Blogger Jonathan Simon said...

I could not agree more about the convergence of both war on crime and war on terror in the preference for coercion over close on the ground cultivation of local knowledge. The craft point is well taken. From anecdotal information I've heard the FBI has also been significantly corrupted by the war on drugs as well.

As for the important issue of deskilling, I think we have seen the intersection of two contradictory trends. On the one hand the war on crime paid for improvements in police training and technology, presumably making it more skillful. On the other hand, the war on crime (especially on drugs) produced a culture of cheap arrests and plentiful sources of manufactured evidence about crime. I suppose we can talk about the techniques that produce the desired evidence as a kind of craft, but it is one that would have been viewed as perverse by the tradition. A skilled carpenter could use her knowledge to construct a structure likely to injure a user but it would be a strange example of craft, one that would require a rather strong narrative to redeem it.

At 5:13 PM, Blogger Scott said...

Subject: California needs a Second Chance to solve the overcrowding prisons crisis
Dear fellow community members and colleagues,

Everyday we all hear about what’s not working with prisoner reentry, prison overcrowding, high levels of recidivism, building more prisons, disintegration of families, and death. I don’t know about you, but I have heard enough. It doesn’t work. Something I tell our STRIVE classes every month is “do what you’ve always done, get what you’ve always got”. We all know that locking up individuals and releasing them without tools doesn’t work. There is hard proof that the Prisoner Reentry Employment Program (PREP) model works and IS successful. Meet inmates on the inside and have a seamless connection and transition pre- and post-release. This is done through attitude adjustment, job training, safe housing, mental health support and case management. It works. Why can’t corrections, why can’t our governor, why can’t our legislative leaders, why can’t CCPOA immediately adopt some something that works so well and help replicate it throughout California? As we all know, we are in the eye of a major reentry crisis, it has and will continue to cost taxpayers billions of dollars, and no solution has been in sight for decades. Ladies and gentleman, here is your Second Chance to create solutions for a change, and to finally not “get what you’ve always got”- Compromised public safety, overcrowding in prisons and not empowering our community are not the solutions for the future.

I hope to hear back from all of you soon on how we can work together to create change.

Best regards,
Scott H. Silverman
Executive Director/Founder
Second Chance
T. 619-234-8888
F. 619-234-7787
6145 Imperial Ave.
San Diego, CA 92114


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