We All Need To Take A Deep Breath.

After the spate of shootings of unarmed black men and children by the police, the failure to file charges, the massive demonstrations, and the retaliatory killings of two police by a mentally ill black man, it’s clear that we all need to calm the rhetoric. Charges by conservatives that the cop shootings were caused by NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio and President Obama are not helpful. Clearly, America has a problem with race and the increased militarization of our police forces.

But there’s a related problem that has too long been swept under the carpet: Mental health.

No one has addressed the issue more thoughtfully than Royce White. White was one of the most brilliant college basketball players of the last decade. He also suffers from anxiety disorder which cut his NBA career short. But after reading his recent article which was published in The Cauldron, it appears that basketball may be the least of his talents. He is an intelligent writer and a staunch advocate for mental health. His article sums up the underlying issues that face police and our black communities…issues such as PTSD that have, thus far, been ignored by our elected officials, our major media and our national political pundits (who themselves likely suffer from some form of mental illness).

We can all learn from White’s insights. Read his article which I’ve linked here. Then take a deep breath and demand that your elected officials begin to address the issues of race and police relations…all of the issues.

What’s A Black Man’s Life Worth?

In recent weeks we have seen a number of unarmed black men and children killed by police. We have seen video of a non-violent black man being choked to death in Staten Island for failure to pay cigarette taxes. We have heard testimony of a black teenager in Ferguson gunned down by 12 shots even though many eyewitnesses testified that he had raised his hands in a sign of surrender. We have seen a young father shot to death in a WalMart for carrying a pellet gun he intended to purchase. We have seen a 12-year-old murdered by two cops for playing with a toy gun. We have seen a mentally-ill black man armed with a small knife gunned down by two cops who opened fire within seconds of arriving on the scene. (A small knife is no threat to two police officers in a squad car who are wearing Kevlar vests and armed with Tasers, pepper spray, batons and guns.)

We have seen reports of police shooting unarmed black men and children in Arizona, California, Missouri, New York and Ohio.

These are not isolated incidents. They represent even more than a pattern. They represent an epidemic…a failure of law enforcement training and tactics, and a breakdown in the relationships of people of color with law enforcement. At best, it indicates a sense of fear and mistrust of any male of color. At worst, it indicates deep-seated racism within police departments combined with a shoot-first mentality intended to prevent any testimony that would conflict with police reports. (Dead men tell no tales.)

Likely, both are at least partially true.

In fairness, the proliferation and ever-increasing lethality of guns in our country has made the job of law enforcement more difficult. This causes police to draw their guns instead of relying upon less lethal options. But that is no excuse. Law enforcement has long assumed that citizens are armed. That fact hasn’t changed, but the reaction of officers has.

Before Darrell Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, was hired by the Ferguson Police Department, he had been trained in a nearby city by a police department so inherently racist that it was disbanded by the city. Other officers involved in the shootings have been found to have posted blatantly racist comments on the Internet. Some police departments have been tied to the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations.

Given the distrust of police by minorities and the attitudes of some police officers, the unnecessary shootings are going to be difficult to stop. Body cameras may help restrain some behaviors and build trust, but they alone are not the answer. Videos of police violence taken by independent witnesses have resulted in few convictions. Grand juries are too likely to believe that there is more to the incident than meets the eye. They are too likely to prioritize police testimony over that of eyewitnesses. They are too likely to excuse police abuse because they understand that police work is dangerous. (It’s actually less dangerous than working as a logger, miner, fisherman, farmer, or laboratory worker. Police work is the 9th most dangerous profession in the US.) Moreover, the public is likely to excuse police excesses because they are frightened as a result of political fear-mongering. They expect the police to protect them from the bad guys and, if the police make some mistakes in doing so, they believe that’s better than the alternative.

The truth is that police seldom protect anyone. They usually arrive on the scene after the crime has already been committed. They are no longer the deterrent they once were. I believe they can only regain their effectiveness if they, once again, become a real part of the community; if they get to know the citizens they have been hired to serve; if they become a less threatening presence that encourages cooperation within the community to help prevent crimes and build trust. The police need to reflect the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. They need to rethink their training and apprehension techniques. They need to lose the military attitudes and equipment and focus on non-lethal controlling techniques.

They need to be reminded that guns are the weapon of last resort. Not a weapon of convenience.

Bullies In Blue.

Or black, or khaki, or camoflauge or whatever police officers are wearing these days.

The events in Ferguson and St. Louis are by no means unique. But they have called attention to a long-festering problem in the US. I recognize that there are many honorable and well-intentioned police officers. Unfortunately, their good work is being overwhelmed by a growing mob of violent bullies behind badges.

I first became aware of police violence in the 1950’s when I saw police brutality against peaceful civil rights marches. In the 1960’s I saw police brutally beat anti-Vietnam War prostestors. In the 1980’s, I saw the results of an off-duty police officer ruthlessly beating an unarmed college student. (The officer’s penalty was to be assigned as public relations officer for the department.) I became involved in an incident when police handcuffed and held an African-American employee for walking while black. I heard dozens of black friends describe repeated abuse by police officers. I witnessed six city cops mace and brutally beat a black man who was already cuffed and lying face down in the snow and slush. I served on a jury for an assault trial in which the police brought charges against a black man without investigating the case. I read reports of six cops fatally shooting a frail, mentally ill woman brandishing a kitchen knife.

I thought all of this was bad, until I witnessed the cell phone video of the police shooting in St. Louis. The victim was most certainly mentally ill. The knife he was carrying was small. He could easily have been stopped and disarmed with a baton or a taser. (I’ve managed to defend myself against a knife-wielding attacker with no weapons and no Kevlar vest.) Yet two officers, both larger than the victim, pumped at least 7 rounds into the victim. The other responding officers arrived on scene with very bad attitudes and unnecessarily bullied the witnesses.

Unfortunately, this event is far from unusual. In just the past few weeks, we’ve learned of the killing of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson; of an unarmed man in Los Angeles; of a mentally ill 50-year old woman in Phoenix who was holding a claw hammer. We’ve seen a California cop brutally beat an unarmed black woman on the side of a freeway. We’ve seen a NYC cop strangle an unarmed black man to death. We’ve seen Missouri police forces surround a community with military vehicles and assault rifles pointed at unarmed protesters. And we’ve seen a police officer randomly pointing an assault weapon at demonstrators and yelling “I’m going to f***ing kill you.”

This is not policing. It’s sanctioned bullying and worse…almost certainly the result of NRA-sponsored laws which have made guns more readily available and police more nervous; of the government program that provides military weapons to police forces that have no need for them; of our national infatuation with big boy toys and weaponry; of police training that encourages the use of lethal force when threatened; of police consultants who promote confrontation; of rampant racism and the oppression of black and brown people; of political fear-mongering that makes citizens afraid of their neighbors and encourages them to excuse police brutality as long as it makes them feel safe; of prosecutors who are afraid of the political consequences for filing charges against cops; and of a disengaged populace who are afraid to speak up against police brutality.

It’s time for this to end.