Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Face of the New American Gangster: Your Local Police Department

Imagine a world where armed gangs of thugs roam the streets with absolute impunity. There's nothing the can't do, there's no one that's too far for their reach, and there are no repercussions for any of their actions. If something happens that people complain too much about, their bosses step in and make it go away.  Worst of all imagine if we weren't only taught to fear these thugs but respect them as well.

If you can imagine such a world, you've glimpsed into the world of the New American Gangster: your local police department. Gone are the days where approaching a friendly cop standing on a street corner would result in a bit of conversation and perhaps directions as to where you wanted to go. These days, you more likely to get maced, beaten, or worse, if you approach the right cop on a bad day or the wrong cop on any day.

In 1991, when the world learned about the Rodney King beating by members of the LAPD, we were told it was just a few bad cops and not a culture of corruption as some were claiming. But the intervening years have left us no doubt that the beating and abuse King suffered was not the result of rogue officers but a culture of thuggery that is, not only accepted, by encouraged by the police. Fellow officers look the other way when their colleagues go too far, commanders make excuses, and internal affairs investigations usually go nowhere. Our criminal justice system is well equipped to handle civilian criminals but has no real way to deal with criminals who wear a badge.

Many who defend the police will tell you that they have a tough job and should be given leeway. How much leeway should someone be given when the result of their 'bad day' could mean someone innocent dying or being beaten into a coma?  How much leeway are you given when you're having a bad day? Wearing a badge doesn't give one extra rights; it gives them more responsibility to behave.

When I criticize the police on social networks, I'm often met with the same tired old song: you can always file a complaint. Let's look at the complaint process in most police departments and see how effective filing our complaint might be.

Most people are under the mistaken assumption that anyone can walk into a police station, ask for a complaint form, and file it with the department. The reality is quite different. First, many police departments don't even have complaint forms. Complaints are taken by an officer in the form of a report and then, if that officer believes there's merit to the complaint, forwards it to the appropriate supervisors.

But even in those departments that do have formal complaint forms, it's still not as easy as walking in and asking for one. You must first justify your reason for wanting to file a complaint with an officer who will then decide if your complaint warrants giving you a form. You must identify both yourself and the officer who is the target of the complaint (who may be a friend of the officer you're telling the story to) and give details of the incident surrounding the complaint. If you're lucky enough to actually get a complaint form, you're halfway there but not quite at the finish line.

Next, the complaint will work its way up the chain to a point where someone (either the officers supervisor or someone from Internal Affairs) will speak with the officer about the complaint.  As in court, the officers word is given more weight than yours and, if the officer can come up with a believable excuse, the complaint will probably go no further.

In some cases, complaints result in actual discipline. These cases are usually the ones where video or audio evidence makes it so that the department can't cover up the incident (which is why it's important to always have a camera with you to record any police interaction). In these cases, the officer will usually be given paid administrative leave. Sometimes, even in the case of severe crimes like rape, only 3-5 days. Again, notice I said paid administrative leave. A note may or may not go into the officers permanent file at this point.

So what happens if you're not satisfied with an officer who raped you getting a 3 day paid vacation? Well, you can't usually sue the officer personally (police officers have immunity when performing their 'duties') but you can sue the department. The problem, of course, is finding an attorney who's willing to do it. The criminal justice system is stacked decidedly in the interests of the state. When you go into court against a police department, it's basically you and your attorney standing against the judge, the departments defense attorney, and the police department as a whole. Don't expect to be treated fairly. In fact, the vast majority of suits against police departments are either settled before they reach court or the officer and department are exonerated during trial.

It's a complicated process. It's made more complicated by the fact that we hold the police to a hero worship status that's right under our chosen deity. We are taught from a young age to trust and respect the police, that they have our best interests at heart, and that all (or most) cops are good. Most people are shocked to see the dark underbelly of the police and most don't encounter it until their rights or the rights of someone they know are violated and they attempt to get redress.

If you think all of this sounds kind of like the mafia, you're right, it does. In essence, the police are an armed gang who can do what they want to who they want and get away with it. Their department (the family) offers them protection and there's a cartel in place that offers them more in the event that their department can't protect them adequately.. Just like in the real mafia, many people who go up against police find themselves 'sleeping with the fishes' or at least beat into unconsciousness, their homes raided and trashed, or suspiciously being charged with crimes that shock their friends and neighbors.

Now I know that not all police are bad. But the culture of the police industry encourages bad behavior, rewards it, and sometimes, even celebrates it.  Good cops remain silent because they know that the day might come when they need their fellow officers to have their back and, so, the cycle of silence and blind eyes continues.

Police are not our friends anymore. They are agents of a state that is hell bent on subjugating us under its will. They will blindly follow orders that result in anything up to and including our severe injury or death. They will do the song and dace about 'just doing my job' as though blindly following orders makes anything they do right. The workers in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany were just following orders too. There is no morality in  just following orders. There is no honor in it.

The time has come for both citizens and police officers in this country to wake up. We don't have to be enemies. We can work together to build a better, safer, more secure, world. But it's going to take a lot of brave officers who are willing to tell their superiors 'no' and a few brave citizens who are willing to do the same to police officers. Together, we can make a difference.

* I know most of this article is biased towards a given opinion about police officers and I've offered no proof to back up my claims. For proof, I invite you to visit this link and this link then make up your own mind.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Home cloud in a box

I'm in love with cloud computing. OK, so I'm not really in love with cloud computing itself, but I love the idea of being able to access my data from anywhere. Cloud computing itself scares me a little bit. The idea of putting my unprotected data in the hands of someone else and trusting them to keep it safe and keep it from prying eyes isn't something I'll likely ever get comfortable with. So, while I love the universal data access that the cloud offers, I generally avoid using any cloud services because I don't trust them.

Thankfully, the days of having to rely on Google, Amazon, or Microsoft, for your cloud services are quickly coming to an end. Free software alternatives are being built and made better every day that will give us total control over our data and allow us to have a 'home cloud in a box'. Add the fact that computer hardware is getting cheaper every day and there's virtually no reason why anyone has to rely on the public cloud.

Just last night, I was looking at a pretty sweet free software web based office suite that's pretty much a drop-in replacement for Google Docs, and a web based email app that not only replaces Gmail and other web mail providers, but does a better job with web mail than its non-free counterparts. Oh, and let's not forget easy replacements for Facebook and Google+ and Twitter. I'm still looking for a good free software replacement for Dropbox so I'm using Ubuntu One (which works on Windows and Mac too)  until I can find something that allows everything to live on my server. Free software has come a LONG way and is just getting better every day.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be testing a bunch of these solutions on my home server and writing a series of posts about how they perform against their non-free alternatives. If things work out really well, I'll write up a quick and dirty guide on how to set them all up on your own home server so that you can get rolling quickly and easily.  Watch this blog for updates and (maybe) even a few screenshots.

Yep, we've come a long way baby.