THE BLOG

Zero Tolerance

05/21/2015 11:30 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

"As I walked down the hall, one of the police officers employed in the school noticed I did not have my identification badge with me."

The speaker is testifying before the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. He was a high school freshman at the time. Ah, school days!

"Before I could explain why I did not have my badge," he went on, "I was escorted to the office and suspended for an entire week. I had to leave the school premises immediately."

It gets better.

"Walking to the bus stop, a different police officer pulled me over and demanded to know why I was not in school. As I tried to explain, I was thrown into the back of the police car. They drove back to my school to see if I was telling the truth, and I was left waiting in the car for over two hours. When they came back, they told me I was in fact suspended, but because the school did not provide me with the proper forms, my guardian and I both had to pay tickets for me being off of school property. The tickets together were $600, and I had a court date for each one."

Dear Mr. President, the American judicial system, especially as it is applied to low-income neighborhoods, was designed by Franz Kafka. Here it is, the insane truth of its bureaucratic pointlessness, sitting in the public record: "I was at home alone watching Jerry Springer, doing nothing," the witness concluded his testimony, describing the ultimate effect of his banishment from school.

Take "zero tolerance" and multiply it by the Defense Department's weapon storage bin and you start to get a picture of what policing and justice have come to look like in low-income America.

This week, coinciding with the release of the task force's Final Report, President Obama has prohibited the transfer, to local police departments, of: "grenade launchers, bayonets, tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher," according to the Associated Press. In addition, explosives, specialized firearms, battering rams, riot batons, Humvees and drones, among many other items, are now under "tighter control."

The point of Obama's action was, I guess, to scale back the insanity, although he put it a little more gently. Trotting out this sort of gear "can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message," he said. And AP called it "an attempt to ease tensions between police and minority communities."

God bless euphemisms! If you call it what it is - oppression, institutional racism, murder - and demand an unequivocal end to it, you face a wall of police armed with this very gear and certain that YOU are the problem.

All this said, I welcome - cautiously, skeptically - the release of the Final Report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. At least it opens up a certain awareness on a topic the nation has, otherwise, officially refused to face. The report is full of recommendations for positive (some would say "feel good") policing:

• "Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian -- rather than a warrior -- mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public."

• "It must also be stressed that the absence of crime is not the final goal of law enforcement. Rather, it is the promotion and protection of public safety while respecting the dignity and rights of all."

• "Noncriminal offenses can escalate to criminal charges when officers are not trained in child and adolescent development and are unable to recognize and manage a child's emotional, intellectual, and physical development issues."

• "Community policing emphasizes working with neighborhood residents to co-produce public safety."

There's plenty of room for devil's advocacy in such observations. For instance, former prosecutor and New York City police officer Eugene O'Donnell noted recently in an interview on NPR that community policing - at least the kind that elected officials and members of the public seemingly like - "sort of frays the hard edges of policing and makes it seem as though everything can be done in a happy way, blunts the adversarial nature of the police job and kind of suggests that people can get along well and there's no room for conflict."

There's a grain of truth here, of course, mixed in with a deliberate oversimplification of the concept of "community policing," which, however tenuous and flawed, at least begins with the idea that police actually serve the community they patrol and are not an occupying army. Furthermore, it acknowledges that life is complex. Young people are complex. And "zero tolerance" has been four decades of disaster for communities of color, wrecking families, guaranteeing the rise of street gangs and feeding the prison-industrial complex.

Where the Final Report truly fails, in my opinion, is in its refusal to acknowledge the nation's history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and any current manifestation of institutional racism. While it acknowledges that there's such a thing as the "school-to-prison pipeline," and cites witnesses, like the one quoted above, who give a picture of what this actually looks like, it opts out of any deep and structural analysis of American society. It fails to challenge, you might say, the nation's zero tolerance for truth.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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