Friday, September 26, 2014

"Active Shooter/Threat Training" and the Deaths of So Many by Police

Sean Williams preparing to kill John Crawford III
Statement by City of Beaver Creek following Special Grand Jury's decision not to hand down an indictment in the killing of John Crawford III:

The City of Beavercreek released the following statement about the jury’s decision:
“The events of August 5th were tragic and we wish the outcome of that evening had been different. However, based on the information the responding officers had and Mr. Crawford’s failure to comply with the responding officers orders, the officers did what they were trained to do to protect the public. The officers followed accepted law enforcement training protocol in their response to the report of an active threat in the Wal-Mart store. The grand jury review of the evidence and subsequent no bill decision indicates the officers’ actions were not of a criminal nature and justified under Ohio law.

The count kept over at Killed by Police has long since passed merely shocking levels. It's into a realm of sheer terror. Killed by Police tracks raw numbers of those killed by police based on mainstream media reports; the number was up to 1,560 since May 1, 2013 as of yesterday. They recognize that 1) it's probably an undercount, as mainstream media may not cover every police-involved death for a variety of reasons, and the site may not find the coverage if it is there; 2) it may somewhat overstate the tendency of police to administer street justice by including deaths in custody and accidental deaths caused by police; 3) it's not intended to be definitive. It's a starting point for further investigation and discussion.

Another site which tracks police involved shootings (as opposed to deaths per se) is Gun Violence Archive which posts periodic charts showing how many incidents of gun violence police have been involved in since January 1, 2014. It tracks overall deaths due to gun violence (8,972 at last report), but does not make a separate count of deaths by category of gun violence incident. Thus, while police officer involved shootings are reported to be 1,639 so far this year, Gun Violence Archive does not track how many of those incidents resulted in death.

And of course the public protests against police violence in Albuquerque and Ferguson and elsewhere have focused more attention on the growing problem of police violence in this country. Until relatively recently, even when there was extensive coverage of police involved shootings (as there often will be in local markets on the principle that "if it bleeds, it leads") there seemed to be only limited public reaction. In most cases of police-involved shootings and killings, even the most egregious, it was generally reported and accepted that the victim "needed killing" even if he or she had done little or nothing, often because the victim was determined after the fact to be "bad." He or she had a criminal record, sported tattoos, had been drinking or using drugs, was mentally ill, was black or brown and scary, was running, wasn't complying fast enough, "reached" for something, had a weapon -- or was said to have one by police, etc., etc. There was always something . Most people seemed to accept whatever it was as sufficient justification for police to summarily execute the individual -- even when whatever it was wasn't true. And the news cycle moved on.

But recently the police have been hammered by the public and the media for their ridiculous levels of overkill, their tendency to shoot first, ask questions later (but after the fact, "we have to wait till all the facts are in, dontchaknow"), their quaking fear of every encounter with black or brown individuals, and their utter cowardice in the face of The Great Unknown, ie: The Public -- which they once were obliged to Protect and Serve. 

People of conscience understand that policing in this country has gone way off the rails to the point where the way it is being done now represents a clear and present danger to the public at large. No one, truly, is safe from police violence, but the violence meted out to people of color and communities of color is still orders of magnitude greater than what white folk experience. Nevertheless, the often arbitrary nature of police violence and the stark fear and cowardice with which they approach so many encounters with individuals -- especially individuals in crisis -- means that anyone is potentially a victim of police violence.

Yesterday, the special grand jury in Green County, Ohio, convened to hear evidence in the shooting by cop of John Crawford III in the Beaver Creek Walmart, declined to indict the officer(s) who shot and killed him as he chatted on the phone with the mother of his children. He had an air rifle in his hand, and he'd been walking around the store with it while he talked on the phone. A man saw him and called 911 claiming that Crawford was not only armed but was pointing the weapon at customers and otherwise threatening them.

Video showed that this was not the case; the 911 caller was either misperceiving or lying. But it really didn't matter. Once police were dispatched, they were under the impression that they were to neutralize an "active shooter" -- or a potentially active shooter -- and once that determination was made, almost the only thing the police could do was to kill the suspect before he killed someone. They didn't make one of those famous "split second decisions" (though it will be claimed they did). The decision was made at dispatch, based on erroneous information in the 911 call and the protocols which the officers had trained in only the month before.

There was no active shooting. There was no shooting at all except by police immediately upon encountering John Crawford in the Beaver Creek WalMart. There were no threats to customers, Crawford did not raise the "weapon" -- ie: the unloaded BB gun -- toward anyone, and he did not seem to be aware in any way that his actions in the store with the gun might be interpreted as threatening. Why he was walking around the store with it will forever remain a mystery as John Crawford III is dead and can't tell us, but it's been pointed out many times that Ohio is an open carry state and it's perfectly legal for individuals to walk around pretty much anywhere carrying loaded real weapons. Crawford, therefore, was not doing anything illegal, though store security should have been tracking him -- because he picked up an unboxed BB gun from one department and carried it through several others, regardless of whether he was behaving in a "threatening" manner (he wasn't.) Store security interest would be primarily whether he tried to walk out of the store with the gun without paying. Sometimes they get silly about these things.

Police were told by 911 dispatch that there was a black man in the store, armed with an automatic weapon, who was waving it around, pointing it at customers and generally acting "threatening."

It was not true, but it was pretty much what Ronald Ritchie told the 911 operator. Was he merely misperceiving or was he being malicious? And why are 911 operators and dispatchers assuming the correctness of the information being reported? Why did Ritchie call 911 at all?

We've seen many, many deaths by police due to 911 calls by people asking for help with an obstreperous elder, a family dispute, a loved one in crisis. Over and over and over again, police respond to those calls and kill the trouble-maker. There are certain categories of people who the police are apparently trained to approach with deadly intent, and at any sign of non-compliance, they are expected or even required to use deadly force to control the threat.

But the "active shooter" response to John Crawford III seems somewhat different. He was not an active shooter, nor was he even a threat. Unfortunately for Crawford, it didn't matter because the 911 caller had expressed his feeling of being under threat by this black man with a gun (even if it was a BB gun from the store itself) and that, as they say, was that.

In "active shooter" situations, the police have been widely trained to "neutralize the threat" immediately. Ie: to kill first, no hesitation and no questions asked. That's what they did at the Beaver Creek Walmart, and to their way of looking at it, they did nothing wrong. They should get medals and parades. Right? It's the same mindset that soldiers had in Iraq: "neutralize the threat" -- even if there really isn't one, even if dozens of innocents are killed in the process. So long as there is the perception of a threat, the kill response is engaged until the "threat" is sufficiently neutralized, preferably dead.

It's crazy. It doesn't belong on the streets of the United States or in Walmarts. It's not really appropriate in foreign lands, either, where our troops and mercenaries have committed innumerable massacres of innocents due to a perception of a threat even when there isn't one.

In the case of John Crawford III, the "threat" was hearsay from one person. No one else was apparently aware of this supposed "threat" until after police arrived,  and then someone else died of a heart attack -- thanks to the panic in the store triggered by the police.

The police shot and killed John Crawford III immediately upon encountering him, as they are trained and expected to do when encountering an "active shooter" -- which John Crawford III wasn't, but that didn't matter. They thought he was or that he would potentially become one because of what they were told by dispatch based on erroneous information from a 911 caller.

That's all it took.

So many of the recent killings by police seem to follow a similar pattern: a call is made to 911, the caller reports something that triggers an "active shooter" (or potential) response by police, and they go out to the call and kill someone. They expect a medal and parade not the kind of outrage these incidents typically inspire.

Unfortunately in the United States, the "active shooter" situation is a real though relatively rare possibility. Guns proliferate and they are used or are accidentally fired far too often. Police tend to panic when they see a gun in proximity to a suspect, and too often respond to the perception of a gun with deadly force.

An incident in South Carolina is in the news because of that apparent perception. Levar Jones was shot (but not killed) by SCHP Lance Corporal Sean Groubert as he reached inside his vehicle to retrieve his wallet in order to produce the ID as Groubert had commanded him to do. According to Groubert's lawyer, Jones reached "aggressively" into the car, which was enough for Groubert to think (or imagine) that Jones was going for a gun, and therefor was justified in shooting him. Hell yes. "Reaching" is a prime offense according to police custom, a threat that must be neutralized with deadly force, and way too often is.

"Reaching" in police lore means that the subject is about to become an "active shooter." Reaching "aggressively" can only mean one thing: Gun!!! In the case of Levar Jones, he was reaching for his ID at the command of the officer, ID which he produced. It didn't matter. He was shot anyway. He was shot anyway when the officer became so frightened by the potential that this black man might become an "active shooter" that the only thing he could do was neutralize the threat by shooting Jones, even though there was no threat.

How many of the thousand or more who are killed every year by police in this country are killed because they trigger the "active shooter/active threat" response by police, a response that requires neutralizing the threat, whether or not there is a real threat?

The Guardian describes the kind of training that the officers involved in killing John Crawford III experienced a couple of weeks before the shooting:
A set of 11 slides from a presentation given to officers in the July session was made public by special prosecutor Mark Piepmeier, who presented the slides and other evidence to a grand jury in Greene County, which on Wednesday declined to indict Williams on criminal charges.
Piepmeier signalled that the slides may have been important to the decision. “A question I have, and I think a jury would have, is how are the officers trained to deal with a situation like that,” he told reporters.
He described the presentation as “almost like a pep talk for police officers,” which informed them: “You have to go after these things, you can’t ignore them”. They were told to rid themselves of the mindset that “it’s a bad day to be a cop” when confronting people who “have used, are using or are threatening to use a weapon to inflict deadly force on others”.
The implication is the police must kill. It is their prime directive in such situations, even when there is no real threat. Because there might be. The potential must be treated as if it were the actual, and the potential must be neutralized.

And that's one reason why there are so many police killings in this country, and why so rarely are police held to account or prosecuted for them. They are doing what they have been told and trained to do. The public largely has no awareness of this, they only see the consequences, and they rightly ask "why?"

Why did my loved one have to die?

The answer is disturbing. Your loved one had to die because of Sandy Hook, Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and on and on and on and on. All those many massacres by lone gunmen, the ones that just keep happening no matter what. Your loved one had to die because police are being trained to see your loved one as a potential mass murderer who must be stopped from killing (more) even if he or she has never killed at all. Even potential suicides are treated this way, they're killed by police, again and again and again, even though they are a threat to no one but themselves. That's enough to trigger the kill response by police. The "threat" represented by suicide is treated exactly the same as that of a mass killer in the Mall somewhere.

"Neutralize the threat."

With deadly force.
Green County special prosecutor news conference:

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