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.