Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pepper Spray at UC Davis

A police officer sprays pepper spray at UC Davis
Video is all over the Internet this morning of a police officer at University of California at Davis walking up and down a row of seated, passive protesters, spraying them in the face with pepper spray.

The video has sparked quite a bit of outrage in various circles across the political spectrum, including calls for an investigation and calls from the faculty association for the university's chancellor to resign. Last night, as the chancellor walked to her car, three solid blocks of protesters lined up on either side of her and stood in absolute silence as she walked past. That's quite a video to see, too.

This isn't the first, nor will it be the last, use of force against Occupy Wall Street protesters. That is a statement of fact, not a political commentary or even a critique of the police. It's gotten me thinking, though, about the affect on the protesters of being subject to or witnessing this violence.

On the one hand, by this point in the movement's history, protesters, even those who have no intention of breaking any laws, have to know that this is a possible outcome. That is especially true when you consider the following analysis, offered in the Associated Press:

Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department's use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a "compliance tool" that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters.

"When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them," Kelly said. "Bodies don't have handles on them."

After reviewing the video, Kelly said he observed at least two cases of "active resistance" from protesters. In one instance, a woman pulls her arm back from an officer. In the second instance, a protester curls into a ball. Each of those actions could have warranted more force, including baton strikes and pressure-point techniques.

"What I'm looking at is fairly standard police procedure," Kelly said.

If this is standard police procedure, then it's not terribly hard to imagine a very docile protest getting to the point of pepper spray. One might argue, then, that it doesn't traumatize the protesters because they know it's coming or, to be more extreme, they brought it on themselves.

This seemed to be the take of the Chancellor, whose statement on the incident said:

We deeply regret that many of the protestors today chose not to work with our campus staff and police to remove the encampment as requested. We are even more saddened by the events that subsequently transpired to facilitate their removal.
Whether this is acceptable police behavior or not, and whether these protesters deserved it or not, however, is entirely beside the point when it comes to deciding whether it was traumatic. Blame and fault don't actually have anything to do whatsoever with trauma. You can be traumatized by something you did intentionally or by its consequences.

What makes an event traumatic lies in the internal reaction of the person. If what happened is terrifying or horrifying to you, the question of whether you knew or should have known it was coming, or whether it was your fault, is irrelevant. That means that these students, and many protesters around the country in the last few weeks, may well need early trauma intervention services. My guess is that few are getting them, although I don't know for sure.

Occupy Wall Street is organized by "working groups" that take on everything from cooking to PR to sanitation. I think OWS now needs a trauma intervention working group -- the OWS CISM team. Sign me up.

Friday, November 11, 2011

We Are Penn State

By now, you probably know what happened. At least eight young boys were allegedly sexually assaulted and/or raped in State College, Pennsylvania over the course of 15 years. The alleged perpetrator was an assistant coach for the Penn State football team, which, let's face it, is the only reason those of us outside of the area even know about it.

If the allegations aren't enough to outrage you, throw in the fact that two administrators were also arrested for allegedly covering it up and lying about it to the grand jury. They never even bothered to find out the name of the kid they knew had been assaulted. Joe Paterno, the head football coach, has lost his job for knowing about it, reporting it, but never questioning why nothing was done. The President of the college is out, too, for knowing something was up and not bothering to find out what.

If you have a strong stomach, you might want to read the grand jury report in its entirety (linked here). It gives you an understanding that "eight boys were molested" fails to capture. Two different people actually witnessed boys being raped and reported it, and nothing was done. The question in my mind, and probably a lot of yours, is not just how you can witness that and not stop it, but how you can sit back, knowing you've reported this, and, when nothing ever happens about it just keep it to yourself.

We're glued to this story because it's Penn State football. We're also glued to it because we want so badly to know that this couldn't happen if we were around. If we had seen it, if we had known, we would have stopped it. If it were our coworker, we would have stood up. If it had been our kid . . . it couldn't be our kid.

But let's look at the statistics. Estimates are that between 5% and 15% of men and between 15% and 25% of women were sexually abused as children. If you think about your circle of friends and acquaintances, however, it's unlikely you can think of that many who you know are survivors. That's because this is a crime of shame. Sexual assault -- on adults as well as on children -- is a crime that leaves the person who has been assaulted believing that there is something wrong with them. It is a crime of humiliation and degradation. So people don't tell.

We like to think, however, that telling is enough, and that's part of why the Penn State situation is so disturbing. If the secrecy is what let's this crime go on, then someone knowing about it should make it stop.

And yet, it can be a fine line. There are people who are creepy and inappropriate, who may well be abusers, but we don't have proof, or they're not abusers yet. And you can't ruin someone's life for being creepy. Being creepy is not a crime. Those cases, I know from personal experience, are agonizing.

In this case, though, it wasn't a fine line at all. People saw it happen. But the fact of the matter is, this situation -- that someone knew and nothing was done -- is far from an isolated incident.

I work with a lot of sexual abuse survivors. Whether by temperament or by training, I can listen to their stories with empathy without usually being traumatized myself. It doesn't generally get to me. But what gets to me, what I struggle with, is their stories about what happened when they tried to tell:
My mother told me to tell my father, but he was asleep so that was it.
My grandmother asked me what I did to make it happen?
My dad said I must have wanted it.
My pastor said I was going to hell for talking about sex.
My mom slapped my face and told me never to lie again.
My mother let him do it to me so he wouldn't go after my little brother and sister.
My mother put me in foster care because she didn't want to leave him.
Time after time after time, people tell me that their safety was sacrificed for family cohesion, reputation, the safety of others or simply someone else would not have to deal with the unthinkable.

And is what happened at Penn State so different? People knew but did not want to know. They played a gigantic round of the game "telephone," downplaying a little more as the report went on, to the point that they convinced themselves not to do anything. They sacrificed the safety of young boys for the reputation of the University, its athletic program and its coaches.

We, all of us, need to know that not only can this happen in our neighborhoods, it is happening in each of our neighborhoods, and we can stop it. We need to believe that no reputation or family togetherness or peace of mind is more important than the life of a child. Let us all look back on this incident, on this week, and say that this was the time the silence and complicity ended, not just at Penn State, but everywhere.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Homicide Watch and Victim Identification

This week, the NPR show On the Media had an interview with Laura Amico, the founder of a website called Homicide Watch D.C. This website tracks every homicide in Washington, DC from the time the crime is committed through the investigation, trial and sentencing. It's a big job in a city that has already experienced 95 murders in 2011 (down from 106 at this point in 2010).

One of the things that makes Homicide Watch interesting is that they often publish information that has not been made public by the police department. Most notably, they publish victim's names before they have been released. The interview on NPR today focused on how they are able to do that.

If you think about it, it actually isn't all that hard. The fact of the matter is that, unless the person is truly unidentified, a large number of people know the identity of the victim immediately after a homicide. Friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues, classmates etc. hear about it very quickly. These people, in turn, do two things: they go online looking for information about the crime, and they go online to talk about it.

When these folks go looking for information, they don't realize that public information tends to be very meager and come out very slowly. Chances are that they themselves already know more about what happened than is available in the media. They're looking, nonetheless. So immediately after the murder of John Smith, his friends and relations start googling terms like, "murder John Smith Washington November 7." One of the sites they are most likely to find themselves directed to is Homicide Watch D.C., even though it doesn't have any information for them.

Meanwhile, the folks over at the website have a preliminary police report that a male victim died of stab wounds on XYZ street. All of a sudden, the analytics for their website start showing that people are googling "murder John Smith Washington November 7." So the website folks go on Twitter and Facebook, looking for things like "RIP John Smith." When they find it, they can also often find additional information. For example, the full tweet might read, "RIP John Smith, stabbed to death tonight." That's a good clue that the victim is John Smith. Even better, they may be able to find John Smith's Facebook page, where people may be posting memorials and comments about the murder.

At this point, they know the victim's name and they publish it, hours and sometimes days before the police release it. But should they? After all, the police hang onto that information for a reason, and if they have a good reason shouldn't the website have the same reason?

Let's start with why the police are slow to release the name. They want to be absolutely certain they have it right, and they want to be absolutely certain that no close relative will hear about the crime from the media before they are officially notified. The techniques the police department uses to identify victims and the standards they use for "absolutely certain," however, are very different than what Homicide Watch is using.

The police may be waiting on fingerprint confirmation. At a minimum they're waiting for a family member to come down to the morgue and identify the body. Homicide Watch presumes that if the family is tweeting and facebooking about it, they've already identified the body for their own purposes, if not for the police department's, and that's good enough for them. Homicide Watch also relies on the fact that if the murder has made it to Twitter and Facebook there is very little chance that any close relatives don't already know. Another way of looking at it is this -- the police wait until they have identified the victim to their satisfaction. Homicide Watch waits until they see evidence that the victim's family has identified them to the family's satisfaction.

In the end, I actually think publishing the name before it's released officially is something of a service to the relatives and loved ones of the victim. If you have ever been involved in a traumatic event, you have probably experienced the odd feeling that comes when you realize that your world has stopped turning and the rest of the world doesn't know it. Reading media that has no coverage of your event, or inaccurate or minimalist coverage, feels just plain wrong. At least with Homicide Watch, the next time someone googles for information, they will find some confirmation that yes, this awful thing did happen and yes, someone noticed. On balance, I think that's a good thing.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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