A disturbing animal cruelty case highlights problems with America’s criminal justice system.

A one year-old feral cat called King was lured into the trust of a Brooklyn man named Andre Robinson who made it look like he was going to play with or feed him. He then took advantage of the small animal’s trust and kicked him into the air. King landed 20 feet away while Robinson and his friends laughed. King survived the attack, was rescued, recovered from his injuries in an animal hospital, and was later adopted.

The incident was caught on camera by one of Robinson’s laughing friends and posted online, resulting in an outcry by horrified animal rights activists.  Social media was called into play to highlight the case, as a Facebook page called Justice for King attracted over 12,000 followers demanding a custodial sentence for the perpetrator who was promptly identified, arrested, and charged.

The case highlights a number of issues.  One is the ubiquity of video recording devices. Twenty years ago video cameras were bulky, expensive, and rare, and an incident like this would not have made it into the local newspaper, to say nothing of becoming a story with a worldwide audience. Today video cameras are in almost everyone’s pockets as part of their mobile phones, and with internet connectivity and social media the footage can be distributed worldwide within minutes. People’s behavior is slowly being modified by this phenomenon.

When George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four he envisioned an omnipresent surveillance network operated by a tyrannical state, since in his day only a state would have the resources to implement such a system.  He had no way of foreseeing that it would eventually be citizens who would choose to put a surveillance camera everywhere.

Secondly, the fact that animal cruelty is being taken more seriously will be welcome news for those who hold strong views about animal rights. Society’s attitude to these matters evolves over time.  It was not so long ago that it was considered acceptable to employ children as laborers in dirty and dangerous occupations.  It was not so long ago that homophobic attitudes were considered the norm and it was acceptable to openly express them. The evolution of attitudes is one of the ways in which we build a better society, and as part of that process it would seem that our view of animals is changing to a more humane one. This is driven in part by the better organization of animal welfare activists who can more easily get organized to identify perpetrators, train law enforcement in dealing with it, and apply pressure for stiffer sentences for offenders.

Law enforcement agencies are now taking animal abuse more seriously than they used to and are dedicating more resources to tackling it, reflecting its status as a more mainstream concern rather than something that only matters to fringe activists. Animal cruelty as a gateway to more serious offenses is also highlighted as a need to crack down on it in order to prevent escalation to even more violent crimes.

However a third aspect of the case involves the issue of what should be the appropriate consequences of someone convicted of such an offense. Lawyers defending the accused are said to have argued that a custodial sentence would have damaging long term effects such as encouraging gang affiliations, or removing someone from a job or school to which he would not be able to return.

That lawyers are now arguing against prison time on the basis that it makes offenders more dangerous is surely an indictment of the American penal system. The purpose of prison should be to make people less dangerous upon release, not more so. But try explaining that to the posturing politicians in the “tough on crime” lobby who seem to think that being “tough on crime” is the same as being tough on criminals by sending them into a hellish prison system in which they are likely to be brutalized, raped, perhaps even killed, and if they survive the ordeal they will emerge into a society that often deprives them of the means of making an honest living, effectively punishing them for life even after they have served their time.

The concept of prison as a means of rehabilitation is notable by its absence in much of the discourse on this topic. The Department of Justice estimates that 200,000 inmates were sexually abused in 2011, most of them male. However sexual assault on male prisoners is still considered acceptable comedy fodder for entertainers and even some aspiring politicians. The mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders, many of whom are mentally ill or suffering from addiction, has produced an overcrowded penal system in which all hell breaks loose and the most vulnerable people are treated as subhuman by an uncaring society that dismisses their concerns with a “should have thought about it before you committed the crime” attitude. America is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of the world’s prisoners. The “land of the free” locks up a larger proportion of its black population than South Africa did in the darkest days of apartheid.

America is a long way from the Scandinavian model of jail as an educational resource that is so successful in the case of Sweden that prisons have had to be closed for lack of prisoners. One glaring obstacle is the sheer size of America’s prison population, something that can only be shrunk by a sensible approach to substance abuse and the legalization of marijuana. An end to mandatory minimum sentencing, which ratchets up sentences to medieval levels, would also help. Only with a smaller prison population is there any chance of changing the emphasis to rehabilitation and even then it would require a shift in incentives. As it stands, the for-profit prison system has an incentive to lobby for longer sentences to sweep up more people into its expanding dragnet, since more prisoners means more money. If it is too much for America to see prisons run by the state, then prison management and staff should be given performance-based pay that takes into account recidivism rates among prisoners who pass under their watch.  This would concentrate more minds to find solutions that actually work in practice, rather than perpetuating the current humanitarian catastrophe at the behest of the baying mob. It would also help if former prisoners had their rights restored on release and were not prevented from voting or finding employment.

For people like Mr Robinson, an appropriate sentence would act as a deterrent to others, but it should also ensure that he does not repeat such a vile act and that he respects animals. If that means a custodial sentence then it should not be so long that it places excessive costs on the taxpayer, but it should be in a system that makes him less dangerous on release.

Invasive surveillance and excessively militarized policing could undermine support for, and hence the effectiveness of, law enforcement.

In Ireland they are known as Peelers. In England they are known as Bobbies. Both nicknames for the police are derived from the same person, Sir Robert Peel, the British Home Secretary who formed London’s Metropolitan Police in 1829 and with it the modern model of organized law enforcement. Peel went on to serve twice as Prime Minister.

The reasons given at the time for this radical reform were increasing concerns about drunkenness and lawlessness, and the inefficiencies of existing parish-based law enforcement arrangements which had been inconsistent from one part of the city to the next. While the crime figures and corruption and incompetence of local patrols are disputed by some historians, and thought to be a pretext, the new Metropolitan Police did offer a standardized means of consistent enforcement citywide that did not suffer in less wealthy areas.

However one very important reason for systematic policing was to save the authorities the trouble of deploying soldiers to the streets. Peel understood that the military were trained to use deadly force against a hostile foreign enemy, and deploying them against the civilian population that they were supposed to be defending was a decidedly risky endeavor. An unarmed civilian agency could be better trained to specialize in dealing with street-level crime without causing loss of life that would undermine support for the state and its efforts to keep order.

Throughout history governments have made the mistake of using the military for law enforcement purposes, and the results have often been tragic and have led to massive political upheaval. In 1905, Russian authorities deployed troops around the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to contain a mass demonstration by striking workers who were marching on the Tsar’s winter residence. The confused and disorganized response of the thousands of soldiers led to the shooting and trampling to death of an estimated thousand or more unarmed civilians in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, an event that fatally undermined royal power in Russia and stoked the fires of revolution. The deployment of trigger-happy British troops in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, in the absence of a functioning impartial local police force, led to another Bloody Sunday in Derry, a loss of innocent civilian life that ultimately spawned the 25-year conflict of the Troubles. The Chinese authorities used troops to break up a pro-democracy protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the outcome of that was a catastrophic human cost, the isolation of China, and the setting back of reform for decades.

One would think that enlightened governments would have learned by now that there is a distinction between the role of the military and that of law enforcement. However it would seem that this distinction is blurring in the United States.

With a military machine that is overflowing with equipment that is foisted upon it by posturing congressmen in thrall to their defense contractor donors who are strategically placed in just about every congressional district, the Pentagon has taken to giving away large swathes of its arms.

Since 2006, local police departments have acquired 432 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicles (MRAPs), 435 other armored vehicles such as Humvees, 44,900 night vision goggles, 533 aircraft, 93,763 machine guns, and 180,718 ammunition magazines. Hardly necessary for pulling someone over for a broken tail light.

The military transfer program allows police departments to snap up equipment at bargain prices, equipment that would otherwise be scrapped. The result is police departments of small towns and cities, far from the vast metropolises of the northeast that have always been the targets of terrorism in the past, stocking up on an arsenal that would hold back an alien invasion. By playing the “officer safety” card, they can find it easy to justify their acquisitions.

While police forces taking possession of such equipment claim that they are preparing for unlikely eventualities and the armored cars and tanks and guns are likely to spend most of their time idle, there are reports of heavily armed SWAT teams conducting terrifying military grade raids for tasks as mundane as liquor inspections and checking business licenses. Police recruiting videos now contain scenes that would not look out of place in war-themed video games, with the doors of homes being battered in and smoke grenades thrown in.

Furthermore, new technology is enabling law enforcement agencies to monitor society and process more data even faster. Privacy advocates balk at the ability of the government to snoop on private communications and the movements of citizens in public. Data processing centers can now find fingerprint matches against criminal records in minutes, a process that used to take months. Facial recognition technology can identify a person no matter what false name and address they give. An aerial observation system called Persistence Surveillance Systems can record the movements of vehicles and pedestrians for later analysis, allowing police to go back to the time and place where a crime was reported and see it taking place. This technology has limits for now—a getaway car will often drive out of camera range—and the low resolution prevents the actual identification of vehicles or individuals without corroboration from other surveillance sources, and as such it is yet to be adopted by any law enforcement body. Nonetheless, civil liberties advocates find this a sinister development, particularly since it was used on a trial basis by Compton police in LA County in 2012 without public knowledge or consent.

A look at the history of policing finds that new methods of law enforcement are usually initially met with some opposition, but are eventually accepted. The unflattering nicknames given to the police, some with porcine connotations, are lingering signs of resentment that have never fully gone away since the inception of policing. Closed circuit television cameras in British town centers were once treated with horror by anyone who had read Nineteen Eighty Four, but are now commonplace and a largely accepted safety feature. Advocates of expanded surveillance claim that street lighting was once criticized as Big Brother personified, but soon came to be seen as an essential public safety feature, and advanced surveillance will eventually find the same acceptance as the public gets used to it.

They may a have a point. The American public waits in line for air travel with its pain-in-the-neck security theatre, an ordeal that is met with a mixture of quietly anxious watch-checking and resignation.

Even the most invasive Orwellian surveillance may come to be as accepted as the TSA pat-down, but only if the truly guilty find themselves on the receiving end of special police attention. However if innocent people are caught up in over-zealous policing, particularly if military-grade equipment and war combat methods are used, then support for law enforcement will be undermined. Police departments could do well to remember that the effectiveness of their operation depends a lot more on the cooperation and trust of the communities they are sworn to protect than on the intimidating size of their vehicles or the war-readiness of their weapons. The citizens of Compton, California are not the Iraqi insurgency. They must never be treated as such.


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