Friday, October 2, 2015

Mass Shootings in America: Solution Out of Sync with National Culture

Another mass shooting under our belts here in America.  Somehow it happened in a gun free zone, where the only one armed was the shooter.  I've listened as the news has lauded how quickly the police department responded and saved more people from being shot.  I applaud the efforts and actions of law enforcement, but the eight minutes it took them to respond was sufficient for the shooter to kill several people and wound others.

In terms of gun control laws, unless you're in favor of banning all vehicles on the road, I'm not really going to listen to your arguments to restrict access to guns.  Vehicles kill more people than guns, and that's mostly by accident.  Get rid of the bigger threat first and then I might listen to you about the guns.  (Kind of feel the same way about those opposed to vaccinations.)

Instead let's look at some other likely causes of violence wherein a firearm is the weapon of choice.  First, mental health problems tend to be a leading factor in mass shootings in the US.  What has changed in our country in terms of mental health that leads to and allows for such public violence?  What did we do in the past that worked that we aren't doing now?  Second, the disintegration of the traditional family unit and strong neighborhoods where everyone was interested in raising responsible and well balanced children.  The destruction of the family and a cancerous sense of entitlement free of responsibility, I think, prevent people from developing into responsible citizens.  In connection with this trend, I think that more parents are hesitant to provide the help needed to children that are suffering from personality issues and mental health problems.  There seems to be a fear of reaching out for additional help, maybe because that help isn't proving effective.

Because of the second amendment, and because places like Detroit and Chicago that have strict gun laws lead the nation in gun related murders, it is unlikely that the government will succeed in removing all guns from the hands of all citizens.

Do we have the courage, or even the capability, of addressing the other issues that contribute to such events? If we don't, they will continue to happen.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A New Reality: Putin, Obama, and Syria

Think back to conditions in Russia in 1998.  Russia’s already struggling economy is bearing the cost of the first war in Chechnya and the weight of declining production and severe exchange rate problems.  A financial crisis in Asia, which began in 1997, and a decline in demand for crude oil, negatively impacted Russia’s financial reserves.  As a result, in August of 1998, the Russian government defaulted on domestic debt, devalued the ruble, and declared a moratorium on payment of foreign debts.  It was an embarrassing and painful outcome after years of struggling through attempts at democracy and experiments with the free market.  Granted the efforts at reform were stunted by rampant corruption as oligarchs enriched themselves at the expense of the rest of the economy.

Less than a month before the default a former KGB officer, with a career that was not more than average before the collapse of the Soviet Union, was appointed head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the successor organizations of the KGB.  As an employee of the KGB, Vladimir Putin burned sensitive Soviet documents in East Germany as the Berlin Wall fell.  While he sent requests to Moscow for directions, he received silence in response.  A defender of the Communist Party and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics watched as the Party and the Union crumbled. 

Fortune changed for the former KGB officer in 1990 when Mayor Anatoly Sobchak of Saint Petersburg appointed him as an advisor on international affairs.  Following a new path to power and wealth, it appears that Putin began to enrich himself during that time.  Other opportunities and promotions in the city government followed, including an appointment as First Deputy Chairman of the Government of Saint Petersburg.  When Mayor Sobchak lost his bid for reelection in Putin was brought to Moscow, having gained a sufficient degree of recognition. 

Despite his personal successes, appointment as the head of the FSB and increasing personal wealth, Putin was forced to watch again as Russia was embarrassed and weakened domestically and internationally.  To the West, Russia was seen as a sick patient, worthy perhaps of pity and care, but not of too much fear.  Some fear was warranted due to fears associated with the security of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.  In fact, the US and other nations sent in teams to make sure that Russia was correctly safeguarding their nuclear stockpile.  The weakness of Russia, a sign that its greatness was in the past, was highlighted by the first post-Cold War expansion of NATO.  In March of 1999 the former Soviet satellites Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO, taking the expansion to the borders of Russia in Kaliningrad and to the borders of Belarus and Ukraine.

A year after the 1998 government default, Putin was appointed acting Prime Minister of Russia by President Boris Yeltsin.  In December of 1999, a few short months after being appointed Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin became the acting President of the Russian Federation.  Putin won his first election as president in March of 2000.  He served two successive terms as president, a four term as Prime Minister, and is now in his third term as president.  During that time he has continued to watch as the EU and NATO have expanded.  In 2004 Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined NATO followed by Albania and Croatia in 2009. 

For now, let’s set aside the fact that Putin, a defender of the Soviet Union and a believer in Russian greatness, watched everything collapse and experienced the shame of economic, political, and military weakness underscored to the world at large.  Now let’s turn to focus on the historical and political thought that drives and forms concepts of Russian national security.

Russia’s geography has left it open to invasion from multiple peoples and nations.  In response the Romanov family spent centuries building and expanding the Russian empire.  Russia’s leaders believed that security and safety were possible only by created a large buffer around its borders.  These expansionist policies meaningfully impacted international relations and domestic politics.  Russia’s neighbors were subsumed into the Russian empire, some to gain independence for short periods of time.  Other nations, on the periphery of the Russian Empire, lived in varied degrees of fear of invasion or armed intervention.  The advance of Russian troops into Paris to defeat Napoleon frightened all of Western Europe.  While the nations of Europe adhered to the balance of power concept encapsulated in the Treaty of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna, Russia sought security by subjugation of border states, or near abroad.

In terms of domestic policy, the sheer size and geography of the Russian Empire required, in the minds of its leaders, a firm, domineering hand to ensure stability.  Competing ideas and programs were not tolerated.  The creation of a civil society involved in political issues was not encouraged.  In fact any attempts at civic participation was quickly dissolved and dismantled.  The influence of foreign political thought into Russia was often severely curtailed.  Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, while admiring the accomplishments of Europe, concluded that western political ideas were anathema to Russia’s political stability and continuity.  As a result, the ascension of the Communist Party through the soviets was not too different politically in terms of Russian history, culture, and tradition.  (The drive to modernity, however, was a significant change, seen by many Russians looking back as painful and beneficial.) 

Today we have a Russian nationalist, Vladimir Putin, who experienced a considerable defeat of his country and who is now in power.  For the past decade and a half he has patiently reasserted state control over the body politic while strengthening the military and positioning the country to regain control of some of the near abroad to include the Ukraine, seen by most Russians as a natural part of Russia.  Vladimir Putin is behaving, as we should have expected in seeking increased national security and the ability to project power at home and abroad.  The expansion of NATO occurred, in large part, to forestall a return by Russia to past policies and behaviors.

Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Putin has the advantage of a US president with a weak foreign policy, who is beset by repeated failures.  While Russia has returned to a historical pattern of international relations in pursuit of traditional national interests, the United States has experienced a departure from policies that worked in the past.  President Obama has turned away from using its economic and military power to help maintain the balance of power in the world’s trouble spots to include eastern Europe and the Middle East.  While President Barack Obama has dreamed and acted for a better world in violation of reality, President Vladimir Putin has stepped into the power void. 

Here’s a short list of what President Putin sees as US failures and proof of US weakness:

-       Abandonment of missile defense system in East Europe

-       Failure to obtain a status of forces agreement in Iraq

-       The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan

-       The rise of ISIS/ISIL in Iraq and Syria

-       The abject failure of moderate groups to come to power in the Arab Spring in places like Egypt and Libya

-       The unwillingness of the US and Europe to react significantly to the seizure of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine

-       The willingness of the US to enter into an agreement with Iran that will heavily benefit Russia

Today we are seeing another significant sign and a step to reassertion of Russian power in Syria.  The failure of President Obama and the West in the Arab Spring increased the instability in Syria.  ISIS and other rebel groups rose up against Assad, a brutal dictator.  Today there are no good options for helping Syria; there is no way to put anyone in control of the country.  (We learned in Egypt and Libya that we it is unlikely that moderates will rise to power in the face of Islamic radicalism and despotic state actors.)  As a result of this weakness and confusion, President Putin has put Russian forces directly into Syria with aims that are not in line with US aims.  Putin had the audacity, because of the low risk involved, to demand that the US cease all flights in Syria and then attacked CIA backed rebels in Syria.

If the seizure of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine was a strong enough sign of defiance and resurgence, then Russian military action in Syria should be seen as over the top.  Unfortunately, the facts on the ground and in the region essentially leave the US powerless to limit the actions of the Russians.  Our ineptitude and weakness make the prospect of Russian military action almost seem desirable because it likely will bring stability to Syria.  But, at what cost to US power and overall stability in the region?  What will a strong Russian influence in the Middle East mean for Israel and access to energy resources for the rest of the world?  Today in Syria, a single pilot from the United States or Russia may decide national security decisions of significant import as they face the prospect of opposing missions in the same air space involving the same forces.  This is where we find ourselves today.

At this point many of our NATO allies in East Europe are wondering what the future holds for them.  The states of West Europe have failed for decades to provide any meaningful military value to NATO.  Their militaries are small and underfunded.  Instead, they have relied on the US.  In the past this reliance meant that the US had significant influence in foreign affairs in Europe.  Too many states in West Europe thought the threat of Russia was gone forever.  As a result, they dropped funding for their militaries even further and thumbed their noses at US influence in favor of pursuing the economic goals of the EU.  Add to this the abdication of leadership by our current president, and you have an Alliance that appears unwilling, and perhaps unable, to flex its muscle or use its teeth.

We are starting to see the states of East Europe react.  Some are moving willingly toward the Russian embrace.  Others are looking for greater assurances from their NATO allies, especially the Baltics and Poland, those states who have regularly been subsumed by the Russian Empire of the past. 

How will the US and NATO respond?  Will they allow themselves to continue to fade into obscurity and ignominy?  What will that mean for the region?  What has it meant in the past when an aggressive country has been appeased for the sake of peace and economic pursuits?  How long before the US realizes the danger of foreign policy based on hopes and dreams that ignore reality and the national interests of others?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Improving our Dialogue in Social Media

Social media, in all of its forms, has provided us with an amazing method for communicating with family, friends, colleagues, and perfect strangers.  Personally, I think it is an effective way to keep up with my parents and siblings, who live in different states.  We are able to provide updates and photos.  On short notice we can ask about a favorite recipe or for a needed fix-it tip.  I also enjoy using social media to track reputable news sources in order to stay current on the local, national, and world happenings. 

Different social media platforms also allow strangers connected by issues and interests to carry on a dialogue.  I enjoy the opportunity to learn from those that share my opinions, values, and beliefs; and I value the opportunity to discuss topics with those that have different perspectives, beliefs, and values than I do. 

As a forum, the Internet makes people comfortable behaving in ways that most probably wouldn’t in polite, personal company.  I’ve reached the point where I avoid the comments on the most innocuous of Internet articles.  Some people seem to have a need to be negative in the case of any level of disagreement.  Some want to argue with others on every issue.  Anger and an overwhelming desire to be right drive many people in their online dialogues.  Sadly, they fail to realize that, (or don’t care), that anger-based arguments are ineffective.  Belittling and belligerent language doesn’t change minds or hearts; rather it tends to push those with other ideas to entrench themselves further.

Social media is an amazing platform for freedom of speech, but many individuals seem to lose their minds whenever someone states an idea, belief, or principle that doesn’t match up with their own.  People will argue for the right to speak their minds, but would refuse others the same right in case of any disagreement.  It’s seems, almost, that with the advent of the internet people finally began to realize that there are multiple, competing ideas and beliefs in the world—and even more shocking, we have learned that some of our very own family members, friends, and colleagues have ideas different from ours.  Being offended shouldn’t be our default, or even reasoned, reaction to most dissimilar ideas.

People cling to the rights granted by the First Amendment in support of their one-sided dialogue, but have no problem when others are quieted.  Confusion also seems to drive claims to the protection of the First Amendment.  Many seem to think that the First Amendment gives them the right to say anything they want with absolutely no consequences.  In their mind, those who agree with them should be able to say anything, no matter how potentially offensive, in any setting without consequence.  Yet, they would never consider it acceptable to allow someone that disagrees with them to come into their homes, their places of worship, their businesses and spout offensive ideas.  Of course, we have the right, in this great country, to say what we want and to share our ideas, but there will be consequences of saying things at the wrong time, in the wrong place, or to the wrong people.  I can lose my mind on my boss at work; tell him what I think of his poor management.  It’s unlikely I will be prosecuted, but I probably will lose my job or opportunities for promotion.

Another result of social media and Internet is the decaying value of news on the internet.  Opinions are now represented as facts, and facts as absolute truth.  Multiple news sources, of questionable integrity and reliability have arisen, many with competing viewpoints and agendas on all sides of different issues and political persuasions.  Even “reputable” news outlets are becoming looser with their reporting, giving into the need to scoop stories and internal agendas in exchange for accuracy and importance.

Hopefully this blog post doesn’t fall into the categories that I describe above.  My goal is to call all of us, especially me, to a higher standard of dialogue.  More often than I would like, I find myself feeling offended by what others have written or shared on social media.  I’ve had to work hard to be careful about my reactions and what I write.  It’s important for me to avoid strident and aggressive language.  I think I can do that while still expressing myself, and formulating arguments in support of my ideas and values.  If I can’t do so without getting angry or engendering anger, then I may not have a very good argument. Today I’m careful about engaging on controversial topics and I’m very careful about who with I engage.  I’m not shy about sharing items in support of my values and beliefs, but I’m careful about how I do it—careful, but of course not perfect.

As I struggle with the climate on social media and my response to it, I fall back to the ideas shared by Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I think he teaches a better way, a higher way, based on the teachings of Jesus Christ without being offensive to those who might not share his beliefs.  He said the following:

 “Many in this world are afraid and angry with one another.  While we understand these feelings, we need to be civil in our discourse and respectful in our interactions.  This is especially true when we disagree.  The Savior taught us to love even our enemies…there are some who feel that venting their personal anger or deeply held opinions is more important than conducting themselves as Jesus Christ lived and taught.  I invite each one of individually to recognize that how we disagree is a real measure of who we are and whether we truly follow the Savior.  It is appropriate to disagree, but it is not appropriate to be disagreeable.  Violence and vandalism are not the answer to our disagreements.  If we show love and respect even in adverse circumstance, we become more like Christ.”

I also hold to the concept taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith when he said:

“We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

Meaningful dialogue can only take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Celebrating Fair Time

August in Utah and Idaho is a time for county fairs.  Unfortunately I missed one of my favorites last week, the Duchesne County Fair.  As part of the fair this year, Duchesne County celebrated 100 year anniversary of its founding.  This included a song written and performed by Charley Jenkins honoring Duchesne County.  I won’t lie; I may have felt a bit emotional as he talked about each of the county’s high school mascots.  Here’s a link to the video:

It’s interesting to note that while our family moved there in 1979, a Van Wagoner played a significant role in the creation of Duchesne County.  In 1913, William L. Van Wagoner of Wasatch County, a member of the state legislature, sponsored an amendment to the state constitution authorizing the creation of new counties.  The amendment was introduced specifically to allow for the creation of Duchesne County.

While I didn’t make it to the Duchesne County Fair this year, I did make it to the Oneida County Fair in Malad, Idaho.  My oldest son showed a pig this year as part of the 4-H program.  In the past we’ve watched him and my two older daughters show and sell lambs and pigs.  Before that I watched as my wife’s brothers and sister showed and sold lambs, pigs, and steers at the fair.  For over 30 years my father-in-law, as the University of Idaho County Extension Agent, he ran the county 4-H program—needless to say the fair is a deeply ingrained part of life for my wife’s family.

This year we arrived on Wednesday night, the day before the pig show.  My wife and I slept outside under the stars, as we like to do, just in time to see the amazing Perseids meteor shower.  Living in the Vegas Valley we don’t get to see many stars in the night sky.  In the span of the twenty minutes I managed to keep my eyes open, I counted over a dozen meteors streaking across the Milky Way.

My son had a good year showing his pig.  He and this year’s pig were much more prepared than he was last year.  He came in number three for showmanship in his class.  Unfortunately, his pig barely made weight so he got a red ribbon for quality—a source of embarrassment for his grandfather.  The auction is tomorrow.  We’ll see if he can match the $900 plus he made from his pig last year.

Thursday afternoon we had to bring in the flock of ewes so that twenty of them could go to the rodeo for the mutton busting.  Anyone who has ever tried to herd sheep, know that they can be contrary.  In the end I managed to get all thirty of them to follow me while shaking a bucket with just a few cups of grain.  I felt like a political candidate from the Democrat Party—a large group following based on the hope and promise of something insufficient to provide any relief and that actually ended up with them in servitude—but I digress.

For a number of deep-seated reasons, I always get emotional at the beginning of a rodeo, when Old Glory comes streaming into the arena on horseback.  I feel a deep sense of love for my country and the power of the small, close-knit communities that make this country great.  To properly celebrate the event, we bought hamburgers and fries right there on the rodeo grounds.  It’s hard to beat the taste of fair burgers.


Two things made the night memorable.  First, was the Calcutta auction as part of the stock saddle event.  In the Calcutta auction, the person who bids on and wins the winning rider wins 60% of the funds raised through the bidding process.  The person who wins the second place rider wins 40% of the pot.  A number of the riders were well known for their skills or were local riders.  As a result, they each managed to bring in anywhere from $60 to $120.  One rider, Anthony Brown, was receiving no bids—he was an unknown commodity.  In an act of confidence, he placed a $25 bid on himself.  Nobody tried to outbid him and he won the marker for his ride, a chance at the pot that totaled just over $600.

Anthony Brown came out as the fifth rider and scored 84 points, a score that would not be beat.  Mr. Brown paid $25 in the winning bid on himself when nobody else believed in him.  He walked away with an additional $400 in his pocket because of his belief in his abilities.  There is a powerful lesson in that.

Second, at the end of the rodeo we found we had an interesting companion with us as a spectator.  I took his picture (below).  He looked back at me just as intently as I looked at him.

Next month my father-in-law will be the Grand Marshall for the Eastern Idaho State Fair.  Here’s to many more fairs and many more rodeos and the celebration of a wonderful way of life. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Trump, a Statesman? Not even -ish.

Donald Trump is running for the GOP nomination for the office of President of the United States.  The more he opens his mouth, however, the more it seems he is suffering multiple personality disorder.  

Consider what he said about Mitt Romney’s suggestion about self-deportation during the 2012 presidential campaign:

Interview with NewsMax
“He had a crazy policy of self deportation which was maniacal.  It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote.”

“The Democrats didn’t have a policy for dealing with illegal immigrants, but what they did have going for them is they weren’t mean-spirited about it. They didn’t know what the policy was, but what they were is they were kind.”

And what is he saying about immigration today?

 “I like Mexico.  I love the Mexican people.  I do business with the Mexican people, but you have people coming through the border that are from all over.  And they’re bad.  They’re really bad.”

“You have people coming in, and I’m not just saying Mexicans, I’m talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists and they’re coming into this country.”

In terms of politics, do we really know who or what he is?  Consider some of his previous political donations as detailed below.

“The real estate mogul and ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ host has made more than $1.3 million in donations over the years to candidates nationwide, with 54 percent of the money going to Democrats.”

“Recipients include Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell, and Rahm Emanuel, a former aide to President Obama who received $50,000 from Trump during his recent run to become Chicago’s mayor…”

“The Democratic recipients of Trump’s donations make up what looks like a Republican enemies list, including former senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and the late liberal lion Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.).”

Of course, he made donations to Republicans during the same time.  It makes sense for such a prolific businessman to cover all his bases and grease all the necessary palms.  Still, such patterns of donations for one who is running for president as a Republican should raise some eyebrows.

Most recently Donald Trump elected to disparage the service and courage of Senator John McCain.  Interesting coming from a man who likely has someone pick out his socks and underwear for him each day. 

“He’s a war hero because he was captured.  I like people that weren’t captured, OK?”

Rumors are circulating that Donald Trump may be a secret Democrat trying to dirty the waters for Republicans.  What would such a plant do?  Say derogatory and inflammatory things about a growing voting demographic in the United States?  Donate money to all of the major political players in the opposing party?  Offend veterans by disparaging the service of a decorated war hero and prisoner of war?  Shoot, it seems almost any time Trump opens his mouth he’s offending someone.

I think the more likely explanation is that he has one of the largest egos in America and loves attention.  But I repeat myself. 

Republican support for Donald Trump is more than a bit embarrassing.  I think he is managing to drive dialogue on some important issues but not in a positive way for Republicans.  He is making it more difficult to talk seriously about issues vital to the nation.  The more fringe, and some main stream, members of the GOP continue to humor him, the more damage that will be done.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Summer Politics - 2015

We've had a number of politically significant events this summer from Supreme Court decisions to exponential growth of GOP presidential contenders to confusion about ISIS/ISIL.  As I read the news, nobody hears as I shout my opinions.  (Of course, I usually just shout internally, giving myself a headache.)  Here's a brain dump on a few issues.

First, the issue of the Confederate Battle Flag in South Carolina.  My mind cannot comprehend the hatred that would lead someone to commit such an evil act that led the nation to a discussion of the Confederate Battle Flag. My heart cannot plumb the depths of the sorrow and heartache experienced by the family and loved ones of those killed.  The fact that the Battle Flag flew on the grounds of South Carolina's capitol building had little to no affect on those shootings.  Yet, the flag is a reminder of an unsavory past.  While for some its symbolism may capture the sacrifices of southerners committed in an attempt to maintain a way of life and state sovereignty, to many it is a reminder of slavery, rebellion, and Jim Crow laws.  When you add the fact that the Battle Flag was added to the grounds of the state capitol as a protest against civil rights, sort of a flag raising for those in support of segregation and racism, it becomes more understandable of why people would question its location.

The debate regarding the state flying the flag was timely and appropriate.  The decision in South Carolina to remove the flag from the capitol grounds was, in my opinion, the right one.  The Confederate Battle Flag was not outlawed.  Individual citizens may continue to fly and display it.  Other groups and organizations may continue to display it.  The state government simply elected not to display it, in essence removing government support for a complex symbol that brings pain to many.

(On the issue of state sovereignty and state rights, I'm of the opinion that the southern states have done more to strengthen the Federal government than anything any liberal state has done.  How?  First, by committing rebellion and giving cause for the Federal government to enforce its will and existence by force.  Second, by the introduction, promulgation, and defense of despicable Jim Crow laws.  We would have been better off if the South had figured out how to get rid of slavery on its own and how to introduce and practice fair treatment under the law.  Their unwillingness and inability to do so resulted in the Federal government doing it for them.  This has had a negative impact on the federal-state relationship for other states on many different issues.)

Second, what a big summer for the Supreme Court!  Without getting into depth on my opinions, I just want to mention one name--Chief Justice John Roberts.  Reading his opinions on the same-sex marriage case and on the Obamacare case, I really have a hard time believing that the same person wrote the same things.  Is multiple personality disorder sufficient cause for impeachment from the Supreme Court?  It seems the man will say whatever to justify what he wants to do with no thought for the Constitution, the meaning of words, or the proper role of the Supreme Court.  I bet his wife hates making his dinner--one day he loves potatoes au gratin and the next day he doesn't.

Third, I'm throwing my hat in the ring for the GOP presidential nomination.  I think we all should since it seems everyone is.  We're looking at a potential His Excellency, President Bush the Third or the Return of the High President Clinton.  I think there a couple of potentially good choices on the GOP side and some terrible ones (Trump, Christie, Cruz, and Paul).  And just to understand how far left the Democrat Party has now shifted, the best alternative they have to Hillary Clinton so far is a Socialist.

Fourth, it now appears that President Obama's primary national security advisors believe that our greatest threats are Russia (chuckle at Mitt Romney) and ISIS/ISIL (good thing they're just the JV).  But, we have managed to give Iran a pathway to nuclear armament. 

I'm sure there's more, but for now I'm out of wit.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Bridging the Gap: Law Enforcement and Community Relations

Today parts of our country seem ready to come apart along racial and social seams.  The causes and solutions of the larger program are beyond my scope of understanding and problem solving.  Racial issues, while not what they once were in this country, linger.  Racial tension has morphed into an institutional problem that is difficult to trace to any one source, making any one solution unlikely.  Answers can’t be found in political ideologies.  Both parties have tried to fix the problem.  Both have failed.  Both parties have those who sincerely want to create the conditions for a positive change.  Both parties have those who will use race as a stepping stone to greater power and influence.  Ideological fixes have exacerbated or mutated the problem into something more complex. 

One key societal interaction continues to impact communities at large, often leading to violence and calls for more violence.  The intersection of members of the black community and law enforcement, specifically in areas with poor economic performance and a large number of minorities.  Such areas are potential tinderboxes.  In places were the interactions, perceived or real, are bad enough, any tragedy can lead to greater tragedy.

While I don’t think we have the knowledge, wisdom, or capacity to address the root causes of the overall crisis, I do think we can alleviate some serious symptoms.  Perhaps by taking some first steps in addressing this symptom, we can develop the ability to see more clearly, understand more clearly and make other meaningful changes aimed at the root causes.

Two key elements are at the center of troubled relationships between law enforcement and the affected black community and individuals—trust and communication.  Without one it’s very difficult to have the other.  At some point both sides, all sides, involved in the relationship need to agree to begin doing one or the other—trusting or communicating.  It would be best if they could do both at the same time, but baby steps may be required.

I propose the following steps be taken by law enforcement and municipal leaders and respected leaders in the black community in cities where there is a recognizable problem.

First, there should be a sit down meeting of law enforcement/municipal leaders and a variety of leaders from the black community.  Each person in attendance should express their goals for the community and their perception of the problems in terms of racial interaction with law enforcement.  This session should be a listening session that is moderated by a third-party.  I believe that they would find some common ground in terms of desires for a safe and more prosperous community.  I also believe that, if the various parties listen, some understanding of other perspectives will begin to have an impact.  The very act of being able to speak clearly to the other side can be beneficial.  I suggest that the conversations take place privately, behind closed doors without the media present.  A report of this initial conversation can be released to the public after it takes place.  This may not be viable, but it may help reduce the likelihood of participants grandstanding to score political or public relations points with their constituencies.

Second, all parties should agree to an in depth look at the situation.  A third-party should be hired to do the following:

-       Conduct community polling among all ethnicities regarding the perception of law enforcement-community relations and the role of race in those interactions.

-       Conduct a polling of all law enforcement officers in the agency and their perception of community relations and the role of race in those relations.

-       Conduct a review of conviction rates and sentencing statistics broken down by crime and race.

-       Conduct a review of the law enforcement agency’s policies and history of race-based complaints.  The goal would be to present findings that show which complaints are founded and which is not.

-       Conduct a review of public statements made by law enforcement/municipal leaders and black community leaders.  The goal would be to identify statements that were helpful and which were needlessly inflammatory or harmful.

Third, all parties will attend another meeting where the results of the third-party review are discussed.  This meeting once again will focus on listening.  Attendees should be open so that they can develop a more clear, unbiased picture of reality and the steps that will be necessary to find common ground and to begin a serious dialogue.  Not everyone will agree with all of the findings.  That is not necessary to begin the dialogue.  The goal is to identify gaps in perception relative to a more objective look at the big picture.

Fourth, a series of interactive meetings will take place.  The parties will discuss each of the major findings.  Attendees initially will focus their remarks on what they can do to improve the situation relative to the findings.  As each attendee offers up ways they and their constituents can improve the situation desires and perceptions will move toward common ground.  Productive dialogue has the potential to allow for concessions on issues that are meaningful but not restricted by principled beliefs or values.  Law and order can be maintained while recognizing and protecting the rights and concerns of the black community.  This concept is central to the dialogue.  Law enforcement and municipal leaders must not be asked to sacrifice law and order in exchange for anarchy.  The black community can demand and receive fair and transparent treatment.

Fifth, a robust community-policing program must be put into action.  The program must be developed by and specifically for the members of the community and the law enforcement agency.  Among many possibilities, a community-policing program should consist of at least some of the following:

-       Law enforcement and municipal leaders should attend community events and arrange for moments of meaningful dialogue.  Community and cultural understanding must be deepened.  They must come to understand the challenges facing community members and the impact they might have on law, order and potential interactions. 

-       Community leaders and members should participate in appropriate law enforcement activities to understand the perspective of law enforcement.  They should go on ride-a-longs.  They should participate in various training events to include use of force training.

-       A board of review should be put in place with members from law enforcement and the community.  The board will review community complaints and questionable issues of use of force.  Recommendations and findings by the board should demand serious consideration.  The reasoning for actions and decisions of law enforcement agencies should be explained clearly to the board and open for discussion

What can we hope to gain by all of this?  Trust through dialogue and transparency.  Law enforcement leaders need to be able to trust that when a community leader comes to them with a concern or a complaint, that it is something credible.  Community leaders need to know that they will receive the information that the information they receive from law enforcement leaders is timely and credible while accepting the fact that at times legal concerns may delay the release of that information.  With this type of trust, law enforcement agencies and community members will begin to work from the foundation of shared goals and understanding.  The lives and rights of community members and those of law enforcement officers will be placed on equal ground by all of those involved.  Police officers will monitor themselves to make sure they are behaving properly.  Community members will monitor themselves to make sure that their members are behaving properly.  Both sides will address actions and reactions to poor and improper behavior civilly and legally.  The law will be enforced and crime punished more fairly.  Communities will be safer for everyone.

To reiterate, these steps will address a symptom only.  They do not have the power to heal some deeper issues.  They do, however, offer a start, a place of beginning.