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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Harold Hurtt Prize: The changing nature of power

The thing is, Harold Hurtt used to be the Chief of Police in Phoenix before he got hired in Houston. Aside from overseeing many police shootings, Hurtt blazed a trail now being replicated across the country. Hurtt greatly expanded the Phoenix Police Department's use of Tasers, which are manufactured locally. The idea was sold to locals as protecting the lives of both officers and citizens:
"The Phoenix Police Department has tested the M26 for over a year and has found it significantly reduced injuries to both officers and suspects," said Phoenix Police Chief Harold Hurtt. "This is a tool that will save lives, increase officer safety and improve the safety of the general public."
Between 1980 and 2000 Valley cops killed more than 150 people. Between 1996 and 2000, "Phoenix police killed an average of 3.33 people per 1,000 officers, making them more than 2 1/2 times as likely to use deadly force than officers in bigger cities like Los Angeles and New York." Hurtt's policy shift was largely heralded as a major success.
The stun guns have been credited with reducing police shootings in cities across the country. In Phoenix, the number of police shootings dropped to its lowest point in 13 years after Tasers were issued to all patrol officers in 2003.

"(Taser) is the most humane weapon, the most humane tool we have," Phoenix Sgt. Randy Force says. "It would probably be my first weapon of choice."
However, perhaps to the ironically named Force's chagrin, the Tasers proved quite deadly, despite the claims of the police department and the manufacturer. Then, after initially dropping, police shootings rose the next year.

But that wasn't really the point. Though they are hyped as non- or less-than lethal, what Tasers really accomplish is the expansion of situational police power. According to an Amnesty International report on the technology,
[C]laims that tasers have led to a fall in police shootings need to be put into perspective, given that shootings constitute only a small percentage of all police use of force. In contrast, taser usage has increased dramatically, becoming the most prevalent force option in some departments. While police shootings in Phoenix fell from 28 to 13 in 2003, tasers were used that year in 354 use-of-force incidents, far more than would be needed to avoid a resort to lethal force.

Use of non-lethal weapons may be only one factor leading to a fall in police shootings and other serious force. In Miami, for example, the fall in officer-involved shootings may be due in part to greater oversight following several high profile prosecutions of Miami police officers for civil rights violations involving wrongful shootings and an ongoing federal Justice Department investigation into an alleged pattern of excessive force.(29)
In fact, the Phoenix Police and other police agencies have faced several lawsuits over the last few years for inappropriate use of force, including the shooting of a half-blind, mentally ill Latino man in May 2001 that resulted in an award of $1 million.

Again, according to AI,
Amnesty International is concerned that, despite the experience in Virginia and the Justice Department’s findings in Maricopa County [in which Phoenix is situated], use of electro-shock weapons as a routine force tool appears to be on the increase as thousands of officers – in jails and on the streets – are issued with new, advanced tasers. The organization believes that this may similarly increase the potential for abuse of such weapons.

...

Data from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Florida showed that, by May 2002 – just over a year after they were first deployed – tasers had become the most prevalent force option for the department, constituting 68% of all use-of-force incidents (see chart, below). Taser use reportedly rose to 77.6% of all force incidents in 2003.(104)

However, the data also reveals that, while police use of chemical sprays, police dogs, physical force and firearms dropped by about 21% in the year after tasers were introduced, the overall number of times force was used by Orange County deputies actually increased by 37%.(105) A brochure on Taser International’s website reports a staggering 72% increase in use of force by Orange County deputies from 1999 to 2002, in line with increased taser use.(106) Similarly, in May 2004, a local news agency reported that the use of force against suspects in the city of Orlando, Florida, had "nearly doubled in the last 14 months since Tasers were issued to police", although they arrested fewer suspects.(107) According to the same source, while police injuries in Orlando decreased significantly, injuries to suspects stayed the same.
It turns out that police utilize the Tasers the way they utilize the other weapons in their arsenal, and adding one more weapon only increases the number of situations in which they can act successfully to project state, capitalist or other power. It may seem counterintuitive, but limiting the options for violent action by the police to either the gun or short range engagement (pepper spray, billy club, etc., where the officer may risk physical harm to herself) may actually serve to check police applications of force. The police are a domestic occupying army. We wouldn't expect that giving new weapons to an army would decrease their use or the power of the military, would we?

Returning to Hurtt, after leaving Phoenix, he headed for Houston, where he set about replicating the policies he utilized in Phoenix. Houston soon will have twice as many police armed with TASERs as any city in the country. Meanwhile, in nearby Austin, following a similar policy path, police TASER use climbs as the technology spreads.

But, Hurtt has gone one step further. A true pioneer in the development of the techno-democratic police state, he has called for the placement of surveillance cameras throughout the city, including apartment complexes and private homes.

Again, just as with the expansion of Tasers, the spread of surveillance cameras represents a major increase in the power of the police. Citing a shortage of police as his justification,
Houston Police Department Chief Harold Hurtt said it could take as many as two years to get his department fully staffed.

Hurtt said there are currently 2.2 officers for every 1,000 citizens. The nationwide average is 2.8 officers.

In the meantime, officers working overtime are filling the gaps and Hurtt said the department is looking at other ways to make officers more efficient.

Hurtt said officers might be spending too much time responding to burglary alarms at homes and businesses that turn out to be false.
According to a February 15th article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the argument goes like this:
Houston's police chief on Wednesday proposed placing surveillance cameras in apartment complexes, downtown streets, shopping malls and even private homes to fight crime during a shortage of police officers.

"I know a lot of people are concerned about Big Brother, but my response to that is, if you are not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?" Chief Harold Hurtt told reporters Wednesday at a regular briefing.
According to the Houston Chronicle,
Mayor Bill White, who must approve the camera program for it to go into effect, said he had not yet discussed it with Hurtt.

"There's a legitimate right to privacy," White said. "On the other hand ... if there are some crime hot spots, then we want something where we don't have to have uniformed officers staring at a particular spot 24 hours a day."

...

To supplement officers on patrol, HPD is considering installing five video cameras downtown, Hurtt said. He also suggested that new apartment complexes and malls be required, as part of the building-permit process, to provide security cameras.

...

The downtown-camera project already has a group to fund it: the Houston Downtown Management District. Once the cameras are installed, the project would be carried out by HPD. Officers would monitor video feeds from a new storefront office planned for downtown.

"It's going to be a lot less expensive than having officers standing in those locations or responding to all those calls," said Hurtt, who wants to have the cameras up by the end of this year. "What we need is a combination of technology and human resources to deal with this issue."

The Downtown Management District, which works to improve the central business district using taxes paid by downtown property owners, has proposed five sites for cameras at intersections on and around Main. They are high-pedestrian-traffic, not high-crime, locations, said Bob Eury, executive director of the district.
Hurtt understands the dynamics of policing and technology in the 21st century: technology, whether Tasers or surveillance cameras, will vastly increase the capacity of the elite, through the police, to project their power onto society - and onto the working class and poor in particular. In a sense, this is the traditional role of the police, which were created precisely for this purpose. But, the near future will see increases in police and elite power the likes of which we have never seen, largely thanks to visionary cops like Hurtt.

So, it was with great pleasure that I greeted the debut of THE HURTT PRIZE. In one of the great ideas of recent times, one concerned citizen has turned Hurtt's love for surveillance back on him,
The Hurtt Prize is a $1300 (and growing) reward for the first person who can provide definitive videotaped evidence of Houston police chief Harold Hurtt committing a crime, any crime. This evidence will posted here and forward to the Houston Police Department along with a demand that action be taken.

I am putting up $1000 of my own money for this prize, but if you think this is a good idea, and wish to pledge some of your own money for the potential winner of the Hurtt Prize, send an email to bounty@HurttPrize.org with your Name and Location (city and state).
What a wonderful idea.

The website makes a great point about the emerging high-tech surveillance society developing before our eyes. The spread of surveillance in corporate, personal and government hands will not only abolish privacy as we know it, but it will invest in the hands of the authorities the capacity to vastly increase their sheer ability to track, record and therefore prosecute all kinds of crimes that current resource limitations effectively limit.

As a tool for class oppression, prisons have served elites well. Particularly for people of color, the prison system serves today both as a punishment tool and a method of social control - a means for the elite to keep the always potentially revolutionary working class under its thumb. Further, in the case of African Americans, the prison system functions as the primary weapon in the elite's genocidal project to eliminate or drastically marginalize Black folk, who the rich and powerful correctly consider the most revolutionary amongst the poor and working class.

The new social control heralds a new era, one in which the hand of the elite is vastly strengthened, and in which our autonomy is drastically reduced. Time is running out for revolutionaries to realize exactly what the rich have in mind for the new society. Recognizing the essential role that technology will play must come sooner rather than later. Focusing only on the increasing state or corporate power, as so many radicals do, risks missing the way that power is increasingly amassed and projected in high tech societies.

It's worth remembering that, although he was forced to turn down the nomination, last year Bush proposed former New York Police Comissioner Bernard Kerik for Director of Homeland Security. Not coincidentally, Kerik was a TASER board member.

We must take a stand against technology now, before it's too late. The class war depends on it.

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