by Martha K. Huggins, Ph.D………
Living and conducting research in Brazil over a number of years during its 21-year military dictatorship taught me the importance of police accountability. Sometimes when police showed up at a residence they were following government orders; sometimes they were acting alone. In either case their objective was to scare people into submission, by merely paying an unannounced visit, or by trashing a family’s possessions, or through violence against them. The victims of such police over-reach had absolutely no recourse: very often no report was written or recorded. The victim who asked for answers would be worse off for having done so: The victim and his or her family could expect much more government attention, and violence, in the future. Most important, there was no free and independent press to expose police violation of civilians’ human rights.
In military authoritarian regimes, the police help make the extraordinarily politically and economically costly authoritarian state even more invisible and durable.
At times in authoritarian Brazil I was a direct recipient of police harassment to scare me into ‘obedience.’ My response instead was to expose these police actions by writing about their many forms, as in my Vigilantism and the State in Modern Latin America (Praeger, 1991), Political Policing: The US and Latin America (Duke University Press, 1998/1999 Cortes Editora), and Violence Workers: Police Torturers and Murderers Reconstruct Brazilian Atrocities (U. of California Press, 2002/2003 U. of Brasília Press). Numerous articles, some written during Brazil’s military period (1964-1985) itself, in English and Portuguese, were how I kept up my courage in the face of a government bent on punishing those who challenged its actions and processes.
As Blue Paper readers know, I have continued in Key West doing what I do best: using my writing to expose injustices by our own police here and in other US cities: Which is why I am now writing here an account of the recent visit by Key West police to our condo unit in the Key West Meadows.
Sunday, February 28, 2016: Key West,
I was not entirely surprised when there was a knock at our condo unit’s inner door on Sunday February 28 at around 8:20 PM. Opening the door I saw three uniformed Key West police officers crowded into the small landing at the top of the inside stairs to our unit. I briefly assumed that the police were requesting a donation for the PBA or some other law enforcement-related entity. This happened quite frequently when my husband and I lived in New Orleans. In any case, I was glad that the police had come because, as I shall explain, there had been a violent and upsetting outburst against me by a condo neighbor a few minutes earlier.
“Well, Come in Gentlemen,” I said to the three officers standing outside my condo door. Without uttering a word they came inside. One of the officers—a large muscular policeman dressed in what looked like a SWAT uniform–remained in the open door way between the condo’s living room and our little landing just outside the condo unit’s second floor entry door. The officer who seemed the youngest and perhaps newest member of the group, walked quickly around our little living room surveying it for illegalities, I assumed. I stood shoeless, dressed in my comfy writing clothes, still waiting to hear why the police were there. No officer said a thing.
I became increasingly uneasy at the presence of three police officers in my living room because they seemed to be treating me like a ‘perpetrator,’ a feeling certainly influenced by their seeming unwillingness to tell me why they were there. Why didn’t I ask them? I feared that I could be treated violently for doing so. Call this irrational if you wish but it’s a clear product of my background in authoritarian Brazil. Several very painful memories from my years in military Brazil were of police coming unannounced to my apartment in Recife; to my faculty office at the Federal University; and being told by an officer in Brazil’s then notorious political police DOPS, that I was being “spied upon” by his organization. Knowing that people in the US today have been treated violently by police for wanting to know why they are being stopped or questioned, I did not want to do anything to warrant negative attention from the police in my living room.
The Back Story
After the three police officers had been in my place for possibly five very silent and scary minutes, I remembered what had happened just before their arrival: My downstairs neighbor had made an enormous banging noise inside his condo unit that seemed to go on for several minutes. It sounded as if my neighbor was slamming on several walls and the ceiling of his living room. Coming into our kitchen to see what was wrong–my husband thought I had taken a big and very loud fall–relieved, my husband asked me, “What is all that noise?” I responded; “the downstairs neighbor is always noisy.” Either the neighbor’s windows are stuck or his doors are swollen from humidity and will not open or close. Aggressive banging and pounding are my neighbor’s M.O.
Walking Back and Forth in My Living Room Brings Police, I Thought
Minutes after my neighbor’s violent, persistent banging had ceased, I heard yelling from outside down below beside our condo association’s pool. At first, ignoring the male voice shouting under our window, since this noise is far too common to be concerned about it, I nevertheless began listening more carefully when I heard my name being called out: “G, D. it Martha, stop walking back and forth, we are trying to rest.” It was then just after eight in the evening at the time. His yelling sounded like a blood-curdling nightmarish version of “Streetcar Named Desire’s” scene, when “Stanley”—drunk again—stands outside the couple’s New Orleans apartment and shouts from the street for “Stella” on the apartment’s second floor balcony.
When the angry demands from the pool area below were repeated a third time, I opened our living room window and looked down to see an obviously enraged, very red-faced man, who slurred his speech once again yelling: “G. D. it, Martha, stop walking back and forth we are trying to rest.” The irrationality of the whole thing made me tremble: Myself , a woman of 72, and my husband 85, had lived upstairs from our condo associate for almost four years, for 6 ½ months of each year, and no such complaint had ever been registered by him. (We do not use a cane, walker, or wheelchair). We give small dinner parties of, at most, two people and from time to time my husband hosts 4 or 5 people from his poetry group for an afternoon or evening poetry critique session on our screened-in porch.
Knowing that there had been no prior complaints about my “walking” in our condo unit, and that our living room has scatter rugs, and the bed room an a Afghan rug that covers the walking space, made my neighbor’s violent outrage absolutely chilling. My response to “Stanley’s” threatening yelling was to adopt the stance that we are taught to use when confronted by a potentially dangerous person: talk slowly, calmly, and quietly in an unthreatening voice: “”Is something wrong,” I said, using the neighbor’s name. With that, the neighbor ratcheted down his tone and said a little more calmly: “Stop walking back and forth upstairs, we are trying to rest.” My response was, “I am doing our income tax preparation and will stop walking from the kitchen to the the bedroom (about 30 feet) to consult with my husband about tax issues, as soon as I have completed what I have to do this evening.” The time: About 8:16 PM.
My neighbor’s response, which was threatening in tone, indicated that he was going to do something to make me stop “the walking”: “Okay then, we’ll just see about that.” I was shaken: Was he coming upstairs to settle accounts? Would he call the police? Certainly he wouldn’t resort to the way Tennessee William’s “Stanley” handled Blanche DuBois?
Key West Police at the Door
I didn’t know at the time that another neighbor had called KWPD. This neighbor, who lives about 250 feet down the alley from our condo building–had heard violent banging and shouting coming from somewhere behind his house. Thanks to KWPD information officer, Alyson Crean, I was able to finally obtain the man’s narrative to the KWPD dispatcher: he heard “a man screaming and smashing things…[and] a female…trying to get the man… to calm down.”
The KWPD dispatcher received our distant neighbor’s call at 8:16 PM and transmitted the information to police who arrived at our condo building at 8:22 PM. This must have been the best police response time ever, for the three KWPD officers who arrived shortly thereafter at our condo unit’s door–even though the address given by the good citizen who reported a man “screaming and smashing things,” had given the KWPD dispatcher the incorrect address of the disturbance.
Still shaken by my downstairs neighbor’s anger, I feared opening our door at the knock. Bracing myself for any possible outcome, I opened the door to see the three KWPD officers crowded into the small landing just outside. At that moment, three troubling thoughts pierced my heightened consciousness: Relief: “At least it isn’t my angry neighbor!” Betrayal: “Why are police here, rather than downstairs at my neighbor’s place?” Disbelief: “Is walking back and forth in one’s own dwelling a legally actionable “offense”?
Of course, I didn’t know at the time that the concerned citizen down the alley had called in a description of my downstairs neighbor’s “screaming and smashing” behavior . But then why, when the police entered my dwelling, did I feel as if they saw me as the culprit?
Police Arrived and Said Almost Nothing!
There I was, standing in my small living room, bare-footed—I do not wear shoes at home. I had invited the officers into our condo unit, but as the officers advanced into our living room, not one of them told me why they had come. The first officer inside, probably the youngest of the three, scooted around me and walked around scanning the living room’s approximately 200 square feet of space for something. In the silence of it all, I told the young officer that I had been doing income tax preparation: He responded, “Oh, that explains it,” to which I replied, “My husband and I do not ever even argue about income tax preparation; it’s just a job that has to be done.” The other two officers continued to be spookily silent. I then indicated that my walking this evening involved moving shoeless the approximately 25 feet from my computer table in the kitchen to my husband’s work desk in our bedroom. I then invited the officers to enter our bedroom and, “meet my 85-year old husband.” One of the officers said, “that’s not necessary.”
The officers then turned toward the condo unit’s door, where one officer stated in a formulaic tone, “Have a nice evening.” I suggested–as the three officers advanced onto the little landing just outside our condo’s door, visiting the neighbor downstairs. On officer said, “Oh, we’re going to see that guy,” which was the only time that I had some indication that they knew more of the story. As the three policemen walked downstairs, I urged them to “be careful,” because the neighbor downstairs appeared to be “really drunk and very angry.” No one responded.
As days went by after my visit by Key West police, I continued to feel as if I had been seen as “the problem” that evening: I was never told why they were there, my tiny living room was given the visual once-over, the three officers remained in my condo unit about 5 minutes, and one officer said–in response to my unsolicited comment about ‘doing income tax preparation’—“Oh, that explains it.” Does income tax preparation cause, at least for one KWPD officer, a person to ‘scream and smash things’? I feared ‘yes,’ which led me on March 13, 2016, to write a detailed letter to Police Chief Donnie Lee. I waited for a response for two weeks and then began again seeking answers from other places.
I called the police department seeking a dispatcher’s report, but was informed by the person answering the KWPD non-emergency line (who was not Alyson Crean) that KWPD had ‘no record of such a call coming in, and no police report of the event itself.’
Then, this week, I submitted a public records request by internet to the Key West Police Department, requesting information about three police officers coming to my condo on February 28, 2016. Eureka! About two days later I received part of the requested information from Alyson Crean. It indicated that a police report had not been written.
What Happened Happened, But No Police Report To Verify It
As the matter now stands, a man who was “screaming and smashing things” was reported by a good citizen to have been doing so. The dispatcher’s record shows that three police arrived at an area somewhere near my condominium building. There is no police report so only I and my ‘break-it-up’ downstairs neighbor know that the police came first to my ( I know that) and then to his (I saw that) condo unit on February 28, 2016.
‘Disappearing’ Police Actions
Remembering the horrific experiences of hundreds of thousands of people—including myself to a more minor degree–in countries with authoritarian military police states, I take very seriously what happened to me in Key West on that night of February 28, when police came to my door at night and failed to inform me why they were there. Such taciturn withholding of relevant information does not bode well for citizen security. Furthermore, the absence of official paperwork recording the “why” of the police visit, the “how” of their actions, and a description of their findings as these relate to the reasons for their being there, could point to a police unit being under official directions to harass someone. Even if the police feel that they had responded to what turned out to be a totally unnecessary call, a police report should be written to include the findings that led to that conclusion. And, of course, when police come to my dwelling, this is very important to me personally: As an investigative journalist for the Blue Paper and Cop Block national (copblock.org), it could be assumed that when police come to my dwelling, especially combined with their failure to inform me of why they were there, resulted from anger at my prior critiques of some Key West police practices.
Civilian security is predicated upon paper work transparency that is available to the public. Key West police officials must make sure that such paper work is filed. In a democratic society people must have the security of knowing that police follow legislated and recognized internal procedures and practices. This requires knowing why police come to civilian dwellings–whether such dwellings are public housing, apartment houses, middle-class condos, or the residences of Key West’s rich. When paper work is non-existent—or “disappeared”—in many countries, this facilitates “disappearing” people.
by Martha K. Huggins, Ph.D, author. Click here to purchase on Amazon.com
Reconstructing eighty years of history, Political Policing examines the nature and consequences of U.S. police training in Brazil and other Latin American countries. With data from a wide range of primary sources, including previously classified U.S. and Brazilian government documents, Martha K. Huggins uncovers how U.S. strategies to gain political control through police assistance—in the name of hemispheric and national security—has spawned torture, murder, and death squads in Latin America.
After a historical review of policing in the United States and Europe over the past century, Huggins reveals how the United States, in order to protect and strengthen its position in the world system, has used police assistance to establish intelligence and other social control infrastructures in foreign countries. The U.S.-encouraged centralization of Latin American internal security systems, Huggins claims, has led to the militarization of the police and, in turn, to an increase in state-sanctioned violence. Furthermore, Political Policing shows how a domestic police force—when trained by another government—can lose its power over legitimate crime as it becomes a tool for the international interests of the nation that trains it.
Pointing to U.S. responsibility for violations of human rights by foreign security forces, Political Policing will provoke discussion among those interested in international relations, criminal justice, human rights, and the sociology of policing.
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