#Ferguson, Lakeland, and the Johnson Avenue shootout you didn’t hear about

[Update: Just had a very productive and welcome discussion with an LPD detective.]

I was sitting in my interior living room Saturday evening, sipping a gin and tonic, absently watching “Angels and Demons”, and trying to avoid compulsively thumbing through Twitter for #Ferguson tweets. It’s always more soothing to watch fictional ritual torture and murder of fictional Catholic cardinals than monitor real world discord.

All of a sudden, from the street outside my house, I heard pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. Gunfire. Multiple shots. Right there on Johnson Avenue, the quiet one-way street lined with bike lanes that connects Lake Hollingsworth with Florida Southern College with the library/art museum complex.

My street.

Out of respect for my neighbors, I’m going to vague up the locations and accounts of what happened. They’re pretty vague anyway, because it was over by the time most of us spilled into the streets perplexed. Various witnesses from multiple angles cobbled together a basic story.

Two cars were parked in an empty driveway on Johnson. At some point, someone from one of the cars started shooting at the other. Both cars soon tore off in opposite directions. The shooting car turned the wrong way on Johnson and drove toward and then past Florida Southern. It just so happened that FSC was in middle of welcoming hundreds of students and parents for the new school year. So multiple people near or at FSC saw some part of this.

Lakeland police responded and found at least five shell casings in a yard very near mine. They found that shots had both punctured a neighbor’s tire and hit the same neighbor’s house several times. Those neighbors, happily, weren’t home. They found out later that one of the bullets tore through their living room and hit a wall very near their television.

Had the shooter/s simply fired at a somewhat rotated angle, it could very easily have sent a bullet through my front room, where my 11-year-old son was watching TV, an easy football toss away from the crime scene.

This was the first time, I believe, that I have ever heard a gun fired in anger near me. It is certainly the first time in 15 years I’ve ever heard any report of gunfire on my street.

This all sounds like a news story to me, especially given its proximity to Florida Southern. And especially considering the blanket coverage that LPD and The Ledger give the gunfire in whatever euphemism we use for the primarily black neighborhoods between Kathleen High and Kathleen Road. Oddly, LPD sent out no press release that I saw about the Johnson Avenue gunfire and strafed house. I searched the Ledger’s website and didn’t see anything there either. [Late update: I want to clarify. I do not think The Ledger knew anything about this. I think they would have done a story had they known. I can't say why LPD didn't tell them.]

Part of me is thrilled that we received no attention for our friendly neighborhood shootout. We certainly don’t want to get labeled as a city problem. As near as we can tell, there was no clear tie between our violent visitors and the neighborhood itself. Obviously, we’re not to blame over here. No pathologies to worry about. Other people always have the pathologies.

And no Ledger story meant I didn’t have to read any “Oh no, crime is so outofcontrolandrampant and what’shappeningtoournation and even LakeMorton” quotes. For the record, my neighborhood feels significantly safer to me than it did when we moved in 15 years ago, when it did not feel especially unsafe.

On the other hand, maybe the unpleasant scrutiny of life in a momentarily violent place might do us a bit of empathetic good over here in Lakeland’s showplace, urban cool neighborhood. Because, in truth, it is not safe. As I have written before, there is no such thing as safe. There is only life. And life in this reasonably affordable, totally walkable, creative and egalitarian neighborhood is better for me than I can imagine it almost anywhere else. If you want the illusion of total safety and fascist lawns, you should mortgage your life and fight your way into Hyde Park. For my part, I intend to die in my Johnson Avenue Lakeland, Florida house — and hopefully not soon.

Considering all that — and the fraught state of our own city’s perceptions of our police — I think it’s worth making a few points about Ferguson that I think have relevance for us.

1) I don’t want Lakeland spending another dollar on any piece of new policing gear until we have investigated the use of body cameras and video storage for our police officers.

Check out this story about the experience of a California town that mandated them.

So it is in Rialto, Calif., where an entire police force is wearing so-called body-mounted cameras, no bigger than pagers, that record everything that transpires between officers and citizens. In the first year after the cameras’ introduction, the use of force by officers declined 60%, and citizen complaints against police fell 88%. [my emphasis]

It isn’t known how many police departments are making regular use of cameras, though it is being considered as a way of perhaps altering the course of events in places such as Ferguson, Mo., where an officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.

What happens when police wear cameras isn’t simply that tamper-proof recording devices provide an objective record of an encounter—though some of the reduction in complaints is apparently because of citizens declining to contest video evidence of their behavior—but a modification of the psychology of everyone involved.

If there is even a possibility of achieving those results here, it should be our city’s #1 priority for investment in anything. And quick, who benefits most from that reduction of violence and community complaint? Individual police officers. Moreover, I have no doubt that most of the time, the camera would support a police officer’s account.

Yet, to my knowledge, the only significant opposition to this concept comes from police themselves — and police unions particularly. There’s a fascinating parallel here between police officers and teachers. Police body cameras and test scores serve the same purpose. They are meant to provide accountability, assessment, and motivation for the core interaction between a public servant and the public served.

American political power at all levels has determined that a tortured, inaccurate, funhouse mirror statistical approximation of a teacher’s interaction with a student is absolutely vital to public well-being and worthy of billions and billions of tax dollars.

Meanwhile, it is controversial — and maybe too expensive — to provide a precise, direct accounting of the core interaction between a police officer and the public. That is, to be direct, completely nuts.

Think about it: in the eyes of American state power, to teach Mike Brown makes the teacher immediately suspect and open to public sanction based on Mike Brown’s test scores. To shoot Mike Brown in the street and leave his body uncovered for four hours leads makes Mike Brown automatically suspect in the eyes of state power. A camera provides for police the holy grail that education reformers seek for teachers — the ultimate evidence of policing quality. How would such evidence have changed what happened in Ferguson?

A thing to ponder.

2) Crime/punishment should never serve the economic interest of the state or its agents — if for no other reason than the perception of the people on the receiving end of police discretion.

Check out this story about how political economy works, even in small towns like Ferguson.

St. Louis County contains 90 municipalities, most with their own city hall and police force. Many rely on revenue generated from traffic tickets and related fines. According to a study by the St. Louis nonprofit Better Together, Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns it approaches 50 percent.

Municipal reliance on revenue generated from traffic stops adds pressure to make more of them. One town, Sycamore Hills, has stationed a radar-gun-wielding police officer on its 250-foot northbound stretch of Interstate.

With primarily white police forces that rely disproportionately on traffic citation revenue, blacks are pulled over, cited and arrested in numbers far exceeding their population share, according to a recent report from Missouri’s attorney general. In Ferguson last year, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests were of black people — despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22 percent versus 34 percent of whites). [emphasis mine] This worsens inequality, as struggling blacks do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites.

Thus the 53 sworn Ferguson police officers — all but three of whom are white — have a clear economic incentive to generate fines from the community they serve but do not, generally, call home. That community was 67 percent black in 2010 and is likely moreso now, given the migration patterns of greater St. Louis.

So, true or false? Abusing the black community of Ferguson on a daily basis is a local government-sponsored jobs program for aggressive white out-of-towners armed with military hardware for which they have little or no training.

Of course, the world doesn’t lend itself to clean true or false questions. So the answer to my question is more nuanced and complex than the frame I’ve reduced it to. Where does it land on the continuum — closer to true or closer to false? Are the police serving the community? Or is the community serving the police? What do you think black residents of Ferguson would say? Can you imagine a greater recipe for getting one group of people to hate another?

Let’s just imagine it reversed. Imagine Christina patrolled daily by dozens of heavily armed black strangers whose economic security is tied to traffic fines they can generate, who were itching to search cars for the illegally used prescription drugs we all know are there. Really, you can’t imagine it, can you? It’s like the ultimate white people science fiction dystopia.

Anyway, when you reward human beings for abusing their power and discretion, when you incent it, you should expect much more abuse. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is very hard to get a man to understand something if his job depends on him not understanding it. And we wonder why police leaders — like Grady Judd — are so voraciously opposed to marijuana/drug legalization. The Drug War roughly replicates the policing dynamics of Ferguson on a national scale. It’s our most destructive and expensive jobs program, by far. And it benefits white men overwhelmingly. Unlike virtually any other jobs program, it destroys rather than builds.

As democratic Senator Dick Durbin put it in a pair of tweets:

Pretty amazing, isn’t it. [Update: additional context in the comments below] I’ll have more to say on the scrambling partisan politics of power and coalitions and generations in late Drug War America in future posts.

Obviously, ending prohibition is a political and policy decision. And there’s not much local police can do other than advocating publicly against their financial interest. But that would matter a hell of a lot. Unsurprisingly, to this point, like Judd, local police have generally chosen to do the opposite. And that is why I do hold them at least partly responsible for the failed drug war and mass incarceration state. I hold them almost entirely responsible for the real-life militarization of the failed drug war and the glorification of their own SWAT cultures.

However, if local police, like LPD, are unwilling to look at the structure of their funding streams, city commissioners can order their city manager to order such a review. If there is a stream that encourages abuse and selective application of the power of the state, it should end.

3) I think it’s safe to say that we on Johnson Avenue were generally disappointed and left bemused by the police response to the shootout on Saturday. Not outraged. Not disgusted. Just meh. Unimpressed.

Police arrived in sufficient numbers pretty quickly. No problem with response time. They looked around, taped things off. It looked like a crime scene because it was. They found the shell casings, collected them carefully, and traced the path of shots to the house they slammed into. They reasoned — correctly — that the people who live there weren’t home. So they didn’t use exigent circumstances to justify a forced entry to confirm. The officer specifically cited the “4th amendment” rights of the people inside the house, who we wanted to confirm weren’t shot. It’s the right call in retrospect, but it was iffy at the time.

The police took our very cooperative statements. And then they told us they likely have no case to pursue beyond criminal mischief, which seems an underclassification of firing into a truck and house — even if the truck and house weren’t targets. And the likelihood that someone fired at someone else indicates attempted murder to me, or at least aggravated assault.

I understand the police officers’ points. The information available to them, at first glance, made it unlikely they could ever make an arrest for attempted murder/shooting into a dwelling and make it stick. That’s likely true. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t occur. And it doesn’t mean there isn’t strategic policing value to thinking about why it occurred.

So I was struck by the collective lack of curiosity. Even if you can’t make a case against an individual, isn’t it worth spending some follow up time casing this street or Florida Southern and talking to people about what they know in the neighborhood? For the first gunfire on this street in a decade or more? I’m not talking about a task force. I’m talking about a single detective knocking on some doors to see if he or she can build a picture of what might have put that gun where it was, when it was, in the proximity of so many children and young families. Reporters do this all the time. You can’t necessarily get a story in print, but you can build relationships and accumulate nuggets of information that will help you on later cases. Knowing things, knowing context makes you better at whatever you do. And reporters also have caseloads and deadlines to juggle.

Perhaps this follow-up is happening, and I don’t know it. If so, fine. That’s good to hear. But we didn’t get a single card or ID of a point-of-contact from the police officers who responded. We got a couple of last names, but I didn’t have a pen, and I can’t remember them. I guess we weren’t specific enough in what we asked. But I did specifically ask about follow up and how might the neighborhood learn anything the police know or the police learn anything we know or find out. The idea was to establish an information conduit. Everybody just kind of looked at each other with a sense that there wouldn’t be any investigative follow up.

I know that the areas that I mentioned before between Kathleen High and Kathleen Road confront much worse in terms of gun violence than we do over here by FSC. And if there’s not going to be curiosity-based follow-up on Johnson Avenue, I hope it’s because LPD has diverted all resources to curious and methodical follow-up in the service of protecting my fellow citizens who live with much greater threats. I can accept that. But if there’s no follow-up because police form incurious judgements when they arrive on a scene, I think that’s a problem. And it’s much more of a problem for my fellow citizens who live in more violent neighborhoods than it is for me and my neighbors.

Police have a rough job. They get whipsawed from both sides: one man’s protection is another man’s abuse. And they are, of course, human beings subject to all human pathologies related to power, familiarity, fear, affinity, and routine. I think the cameras I mentioned before can make these jobs easier — if not easy. And I really want to do that.

In my dealings with police over the years — as public safety reporter, citizen, and student of crime and state power — I’ve come to detect a recurring all or nothing institutional streak. Too often, there’s a sense of either: hyperpower — the “bra shake”, the “spitter,” never a bad shooting, and Ferguson’s sniper rifles trained on peaceful protesters in broad daylight; or hyperpowerlessness, as I think we saw here on Johnson.

In response to that observation, police will say, “See, we can’t please you people no matter what we do.” And there is something to that. We citizens do need to imagine the world from a police officer’s point-of-view. Second-guessing has to be constructive. But even more, because they are armed by the state with guns and empowered to use violence with virtual impunity, police need to be encouraged/forced to imagine the world from the point of view of the citizen. I don’t think I see that much. I see way too much “us against them” and not enough curiosity about “them.”

This, of course, is not a blanket observation. And I have to say that my on-the-ground dealings with Polk sheriff’s deputies lead me to conclude they better manage the balance of police power and powerlessness than LPD, as a general rule.

But even within LPD, on this case, the sense of professional curiosity varied significantly among the officers. The day after the shooting, still a little annoyed, I ran into a different LPD officer in the neighborhood. I flagged him down to make a couple suggestions about things to check out. He listened enthusiastically, took what I was saying seriously, gave me his name, and said, “Ok I’ll do some homework.” I appreciated it. That’s all it took to change the taste in my mouth considerably. And I don’t even know if he followed up. But he had enough customer service sense to improve the situation. That matters. There was a sense of productive community collaboration about our discussion. How much productive collaboration do you think has occurred in Ferguson?

When agents of state power have incentive to punish residents, most of whom don’t look like them, in order to pay their salaries, you’re way down the road to “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

We need to create and maintain different incentives here in Lakeland — incentives that encourage protection over dominance; curiosity over tired worldliness; emotional intelligence over suspicion; and forthright clarity over vacuums of information.

I think it would be surprisingly easy to do this if we could summon the political will for some very specific acts. If you are interested in helping me pursue these ideas, for the sake of both our public and our police, email me at bitown1@gmail.com. Let’s get together and see what we can do. That goes for police officers, too. We all share this community. We should be in this together.

6 thoughts on “#Ferguson, Lakeland, and the Johnson Avenue shootout you didn’t hear about

  1. 100% on target. Thanks for addressing these issues in print.

  2. “Crime/punishment should never serve the economic interest of the state or its agents”

    Amen.

  3. I was incensed by the Senator’s quotes as well—but then I noticed that second tweet is from March, and is part of a set of tweets about how terrible it is that we imprison so many people and that Congress should pass the Smart Sentencing Act.

    I still think praising a prison as an economic engine is terrible—we as citizens and our representatives should see prison-building as a shameful failure rather than as something praiseworthy—but don’t present Durbin as praising that 500% increase when he clearly thought it was problem.

  4. I appreciate the clarification and context. I think the point stands, though. And honestly, in some ways it makes it worse for Durbin, I think. You realize a thing is a terrible problem and then you market one of things driving the problem. Calling a prison an “important part of economic future” — rather than a necessary evil to secure society — after smacking policies that drive the economic future part is pretty messed up, in my opinion. That said, I have no particular animus toward Durbin. I suspect that almost any other senator would have praised the prison without lamenting policies. I’m just not sure Durbin’s juxtaposition is actually better.

  5. I had a similar neighborhood shooting experience about 20 years ago. It is unnerving. I agree cameras seem essential today for a lot of reasons. They are also inexpensive enough that most residences should have them as well. We have to help the police.

  6. Everybody knows that Johnson Ave. Is the armpit of the Lake Morton historical district. No surprises here.

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