Friday, September 19, 2014

Clarity -- Why All the Police Killings?

Some of the recent incidents of police killings that really stand out as being out of line include the killing of James Boyd in Albuquerque in March, the killing of John Crawford in Ohio in August, the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, also in August, the killing of Kajieme Powell in St. Louis a few days later, and the killing of Darrien Hunt in Saratoga Springs, Utah, only a week ago. There are dozens of other, similar case. In truth there are probably hundreds so far this year alone.

In each and every case, an imminent threat is perceived by officers were there is no real threat at all.

James Boyd was gathering his things and surrendering when flash-bang grenades, a dog and finally live ammunition were used to "bring him down." The excuse? He was "armed" with two pocket knives, he had mental problems and he had been in "negotiations" with police for hours. Thus he was, by definition, a threat to be neutralized. The decision to kill him had clearly been made well in advance of the actual shooting; this was no "split second decision," but because of the fact that he had knives, he was mentally disturbed, and he had kept the police at bay for hours, policies and protocols of the department made him into an imminent threat who needed killing.

It all started with a call to police reporting someone camping illegally.

John Crawford was the victim of a 911 call. The caller reported a "suspicious" man (read: black) waving an automatic weapon around in a WalMart. Police were depatched and essentially shot him on sight. As it happened, the "automatic weapon" was a BB gun from the store itself, Crawford was not waving it around or pointing it at anyone, and he was on the phone with the mother of his children when he was shot by police -- police who perceived an imminent threat where there was none. They were going by what they were told by the 911 dispatcher who was in turn repeating what the 911 caller had said leading to wild misperception all around and the death of an innocent man. Crawford may have had a "weapon," but he wasn't "armed." Even if he had been, Ohio is an open carry state where having a loaded weapon in plain sight is perfectly legal. So what was he shot for? Solely because he was perceived to be a threat based on the color of his skin and the fact that he had a "weapon".

Mike Brown was killed by Darren Wilson for reasons unknown. The only information is from eye witnesses who say that Brown was at first running away, then turned and with his hands up, was shot numerous times by Officer Wilson. The justification offered by the police was that Brown had assaulted the officer and "tried to take his gun," but we hear this all the time, it's often not true, and it is not a reason to kill him, even if it were true. We can certainly speculate that Officer Wilson perceived an imminent threat, however, regardless of the fact that Brown was not armed and was running away. That's why the police brought up the supposed assault on the officer and trying to take his gun. Under those circumstances, policy and protocol allow an officer to use deadly force. And the law protects the officer if he does.

Kajieme Powell was another victim of 911 calls. He was "acting strange" and was said to have two knives. He took a soda and a package of pastry from a convenience store (the manage called 911) and he was walking around outside a barber shop next door talking to himself and acting strange, scaring the proprietress. Within seconds of the police arriving, Powell was shot and mortally wounded. He was perceived to be a threat by police even before they got there. When he didn't instantly obey the police upon their arrival, he was shot to death -- because of their perception that he was an imminent threat, a perception driven by the 911 callers as relayed through 911 dispatch. The people on scene prior to police arrival did not see him as a threat -- except to the extent that the proprietress of the barber shop said she was frightened of him -- and he had two knives.

Darrien Hunt was yet another victim of a 911 caller who reported a "suspicious person" (yet again black-ish) acting strange and armed with something, perhaps a sword. Here we go again. Police were dispatched, made contact with Hunt, they appeared to witnesses to have a casual conversation with him, then they opened fire as he was running away, killing him. Police have apparently made false statements about Hunt "lunging" at them with his "sword" in an effort to justify the killing by characterizing the imminent threat they felt they were under, but witnesses do not corroborate the police version -- which has meant that the police story has had to "evolve" over the past few days. The sword morphed into two by fours (multiple?) and the police asserted that the sword was real, not a toy at all. Hunt refused to drop the sword or the two-by-fours, or whatever, and thus he needed killing. Witnesses maintain he turned and tried to flee, and that's when he was shot multiple times, but there is no corroboration that Hunt threatened the officers in any way. As for whether he "refused commands," who knows? But even if he did, is that an appropriate reason to use deadly force? The law will likely protect the police for using deadly force under the circumstances, as long as they say the right words in the right sequence, but was the killing of Hunt truly necessary?

A common pattern in these killings and many others is a call to 911 reporting someone suspicious or acting strange or doing something illegal. Depending on what callers tell the 911 dispatcher, the police sent to the scene will be on high or higher alert, prepared for... well, prepared for killing. It happens over and over and over again. It happens because certain kinds of reports trigger certain responses including use of lethal force where none is really necessary.

In some of these cases, the 911 caller has misperceived and misreported, and in some cases police misconstrue reports as far more threatening than they are.

This alone leads to hundreds of police homicides a year, simply by virtue of not understanding -- and not making a viable attempt to understand -- the situation in its entirety. In so many of these cases, the victim of police homicide is perceived to be a threat but realistically is not a threat, something that may only be realized after the victim is dead.

The perception of a threat is driven by rules, polices and protocols, not necessarily by reality at all. There is a media and police department legend about making "split second decisions" of life and death, but it's rarely the case. Instead the decision of how to engage the suspect is made well before the encounter based on reports that may or may not be accurate. Generally speaking, if certain threats are perceived *whether real or not* then lethal force is almost guaranteed. It's not "split-second" decision making, the decision is built in to the policies and the perception of the situation.

Certain kinds of incidents -- such as domestic abuse calls, child endangerment and/or suspicious person calls, suspected gunfire calls, and so on -- can trigger inappropriate lethal force responses. Service of no-knock warrants and drug raids can lead to lethal force responses to perceived threats, even when there aren't any real threats or threats are minor. Lack of obedience to commands -- which can be incomprehensible, contradictory, or impossible for the subject to follow -- can lead to use of lethal force. "Reaching" -- especially toward the waist -- is almost an automatic death sentence.

These uses of lethal force are all driven by policy and protocol which presume the officer is under imminent threat to life or limb and force protection overrides every other consideration. The police have no obligation to protect and serve the public, but they are specifically authorized by their own departments to protect themselves from perceived threats.

The police are trained and conditioned to perceive threats where often none exist. And that's the biggest reason for all the police homicides.

Even when there are real threats, use of lethal force is often the least appropriate response, and yet policies and conditioning lead nowhere else.

That's the problem, and that's what has to change. There are many ways to do it, including disbanding and re-forming whole police departments. But the problem is primarily a matter of rules, policies and protocols along with training and conditioning which provide the officers with no recourse other than use of lethal force, and laws which protect police when they use lethal force.

Unfortunately, part of the problem is due to the "professionalization" of police policies which have standardized a use of force continuum nationally. DoJ involvement in police department review and reform is no guarantee that police homicides will be reduced. What tends to happen instead is that rules become more comprehensive, and the use of force more rationalized -- though it may still not be appropriate.

The people have to take it upon themselves to change the dynamic of police interaction with the public. It's a long-term endeavor, but it can and if sustained will make a difference.

The killing must stop.

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