Monday, September 26, 2016

An Absence of Empathy

The National Conversation that has been roiling for years now over the constant litany of police killings of so many black men and others seems to be getting us nowhere. The killing continues like clockwork, three a day on average, day in and day out, year by year. Bam! Another one dead, another family loses their father, brother, son. Another grieving widow. Another question, "Why?"

And so it goes, over and over. Americans become desensitized to the killing. It's normalized for the most part. The narrative is already written, the sequence of events laid out. A disobedient Negro refuses to follow this or that command by police. The police see a gun, whether there is one or not, and they fire as the Negro attempts to comply. Or the Negro is running away. Or he's standing still and confused. He may be mentally ill or on drugs, or maybe he's just been in a car wreck and is injured and disoriented. Doesn't matter. If he doesn't obey -- or even if he does obey -- he's a dead Negro because cops are scared witness and mindless by the sight of or even the report of a Bad Negro -- or sometimes any Negro -- on the lose.

He is axiomatically a "threat to be neutralized" -- even when he's no threat at all. (I don't mean to leave out the many women who have been killed by police during this period of National Conversation. Black males are the iconic emblem of police killing, and they die in numbers far out of their proportion of the population. Too many women die at the hands of police as well.)

The common thread that runs through almost all these killings is an absence of empathy.

Police are rigorously conditioned to have no empathy for those they encounter, harm or kill. Those who fail conditioning and maintain some empathy for those they encounter are weeded out or placed in positions where their empathy will not interfere with its absence elsewhere.

"De-escalation" is one of the buzz-words we hear a lot in this National Conversation over Race and Policing (and Other Matters), and in so many of the cases that come to National Attention, the police are not de-escalating, they're deliberately escalating the situation.

It happened in the case of Joseph Mann in Sacramento where police are seen to be escalating the confrontation from their first encounter with him.

It happened with Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, where the officer who shot him is yelling at him and threatening him with her gun, while he calmly walks to his vehicle with his hands up. He is in no way threatening her, and when her back up arrives, she shoot him. It's almost unbelievable to witness but it happens more often than we realize.

In Charlotte, once again we see the police escalating a situation, yelling and screaming at Keith Scott, threatening him with their guns, while he sits apparently quietly in his car, until slowly and carefully, he gets out of the car, while police continue shouting at him. He looks around, sees multiple men with guns drawn, and slowly takes a step or two backwards with his arms at his side. Bam! He's shot four times from behind. He may not even have seen the officer who shot him.

He may or may not have had a gun in his hand. Whether he did or not, he was not visibly threatening the officers or anyone else. He was not being aggressive. The officers were threatening him. They were aggressing against him. And they escalate their threats and aggression as more officers arrived on scene.

In these and so many other instances, there was no rational cause for police to kill their subjects. There was no objective threat to officers or anyone else -- or in the case of Joseph Mann, the potential threat was largely contained, and I'll try to get into that in a bit. All the escalation was done by police in an essentially misguided effort to gain dominance and control of a person or situation, regardless of the outcome -- which in each of these cases was the death of the subject. How often this happens each year is really anybody's guess, as not all of these encounters end in death. Those that don't go largely unreported.

The common theme is a total lack of empathy on the part of police, and lack of empathy leads directly to the tragic outcome. Over and over and over again.

I'll try to use the Joseph Mann case as a teaching tool. There have been many similar cases, so it's not an outlier.

Joseph Mann was a 50-something homeless black man suffering from mental illness that was described a bit like schizophrenia. He also may have been under the influence of an illicit substance. He was reported to police by residents of an apartment house in a fancy neighborhood in north Sacramento who said he was acting strange and had a knife and a gun. They said they were scared for the children in the area. They did not say he was threatening anyone. They said he was acting strange. This is important.

A police cruiser arrived within minutes and residents told the officer that Mann was just down the street. Sure enough, there he was. The officer, through the loudspeaker of the cruiser ordered Mann to "drop the knife." He did not comply. Instead, Mann crossed the street and walked away. The officer followed, continuing to order Mann to "drop the knife."

At one point on his leisurely stroll, Mann engages a telephone pole with karate moves. Clearly this fellow is not in his right mind, a clue -- if any were needed beyond the prior statements of residents -- that Mann was mentally ill and possibly under the influence.

During his stroll, too, Mann comes close to encountering several pedestrians. He threatens none of them. This was observed by the officer following him in the police car, and it should have been another clue that even though Mr. Mann (apparently) had a knife in his hand, he was not threatening others. Indeed, in the calls to 911, residents described him as "throwing the knife in the air" and catching it, not directing it at anyone else. They also said he had a gun -- but that was false. I'll try to get into false reports like this and their consequences before the end of the post.

Shortly, Mann reaches the main street, the police cruiser still following him and orders still coming at him from the loudspeaker to "drop the knife." Mann finds an object in the median and throws it at the police car. The object, later identified as a mug, strikes the car -- though it was initially reported to have struck an officer.

Mann runs from the police car as others start arriving. He comes within a few feet of pedestrians but makes no threatening gestures toward them. He is pursued slowly by several police cars as they attempt to corral him. He runs away and in doing so, he runs toward a police car, gesturing toward it as if to say "get out of the way!"

He runs across the street and along a sidewalk as police cars continue to follow. He stops at one point, apparently to catch his breath, and the police cars converge, attempting to corner him, but he runs away, and makes it a few dozen feet down the sidewalk, still followed by police cruisers, when suddenly two officers run up on him and from about 20-30 feet away shoot him dead.

Until that moment, it appeared that the police had the situation well in hand. Mr. Mann was eluding them and was being disobedient, true, but he was not threatening anyone, and he was not so elusive as to be un-apprehendable. It may have taken time to tire him out enough to make apprehension possible, but his actions were not those of someone who posed a serious threat, nor were they ones of someone trying to hide from police.

The sudden appearance of officers on foot who shot and killed him was a shock. Where they had come from and who had directed them to shoot -- if anyone -- is still a mystery. If it had not been for the Sacramento Bee finding and publishing surveillance video of the shooting, we would not have known this had happened, as the SPD were refusing to release any video of the incident and had already fabricated lies about what happened (detailed in a previous post.)

Their false narrative essentially blamed Mr. Mann for his own death, which is Standard Procedure in almost all cases of police homicide. The victim is always and completely at fault.

Victim-blaming is so routine it almost goes unnoticed. The public takes it for granted, no matter what happens or how much the visual evidence contradicts the police narrative.

"If he had just obeyed, this wouldn't have happened." We know that's not necessarily true, but it's beside the point as well. Not every suspect or subject is capable of obedience either immediately or at all. When that's the case, police too often resort to summary execution, not as a last resort but as an expedient one.

That appears to have happened in this case.

It appears to have happened in the case of Keith Scott. He was said to have suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident the previous year, he may have been smoking marijuana and he may have been taking other medication that made it difficult for him to comprehend what was happening and may have made it impossible for him to immediately and completely comply with shouted orders from gun-wielding police. At any event, he was not threatening police or anyone else, even if he had a gun -- which is not at this point established or certain by any means.

It appears to have happened in the case of Terence Crutcher as well. According to reports -- and we don't know how true or false they are because they come from police -- Mr. Crutcher stopped his car in the middle of a more or less rural road in Tulsa, got out and was wandering around apparently bewildered when confronted by the officer who eventually shot and killed him. She ordered him to show his hands and get on the ground, but he did not immediately do so. When video of the incident emerged, however, he had his hands high over his head and he was slowly walking away from the gun-wielding officer toward his car (which was reported to be idling with its front doors open, but in the videos, the doors are closed, and it is impossible to tell whether the engine is running.) When Mr. Crutcher  reaches the car, he puts his hands on the car and appears to be waiting to be searched or arrested. The officer apparently continues screaming at him to do something or other as her backup arrives. Mr. Crutcher starts to put his arms down, perhaps in an attempt to comply -- after disobeying -- and he is immediately shot with both a taser from the backup officer, and a bullet from the initial officer.

He falls to the pavement while the officers who shot him and other arriving officers back away slowly. The two officers who fired on him eventually hide crouched behind a police patrol car while other officers take over the scene, and two of them begin to render first aid to the dying Terence Crutcher.

Mr. Crutcher was unarmed and he is not reported to have threatened the officers in any way. He simply did not obey sufficiently fast enough to satisfy the officers who shot him with a taser and a bullet simultaneously. Given the fact that he was later said to be impaired by an illicit substance -- whether true or not, we don't know -- it's likely he could not obey directly, but from the available visual evidence he appears to have attempted to obey indirectly, only to be shot and killed for his efforts.

As in the case of each of the other incidents detailed here, the police initially issued false narratives about what happened, narratives which essentially absolved the officers involved of any culpability and placed all the blame on the victim.

Those narratives were contradicted by video evidence. Tulsa's PD promptly released video evidence which showed their initial narrative to be false. As they corrected the record, an arrest warrant was issued for the officer who shot Terence Crutcher to death.

In the cases of Joseph Mann in Sacramento and Keith Scott in Charlotte, police departments issued false narrative (ie: lies) about what happened and adamantly refused to release any police video of the incidents citing "integrity of the investigation." This is nonsense because they have already compromised the integrity of the investigation by issuing lies about what happened.

In the face of this kind of stonewalling in both instances, other video was produced which demonstrated that the initial police narrative was false. Both police departments held to their refusal to provide evidence from police cameras as long as they could -- in Sacramento's case, it was months, in Charlotte's it was days -- but in both cases, police eventually yielded at least partially and produced video evidence which showed that their story was not... what happened.

It became obvious that police escalated situations which were otherwise under control, or at least were not threatening to them or others. The "fault" in other words lies at least as much with the police as with the supposed culprits. The police were the threatening parties in all three instances. The police were aggressive while the supposed culprits were simply disobedient.

Of course the fact that they were black factored into the police aggression.

In all three instances, the police who fired the fatal shots displayed no empathy at all with the plight of their victims. Some of the other officers on scene interestingly did show traces of empathy, however. First aid was rendered by other officers in Tulsa and Charlotte (so unusual as to be remarked upon as officers routinely do not render first aid to those they have shot). It's not clear whether any officers in Sacramento rendered first aid to Mr. Mann. From the video evidence and the later narrative provided by SPD -- which corrected some of their initial lies -- officers waited for the arrival of EMTs some five minutes after Mr. Mann was shot 14 times. But prior to the shooting, apart from yelling at Mr. Mann over their loudspeakers, the officers arguably behaved appropriately in trying to corral Mr. Mann rather than harm him. While they weren't completely successful, they were were able to tighten the cordon gradually.

Experts in the control of mentally ill or substance impaired individuals could easily have advised other methods that might have worked better, but they were not consulted or on scene. People who work in the field know how to do it without harming or killing their patients/clients. Police do not, or they have those skills, their firearms skill too often overrides their other means and methods.

It's an empathy and a priority issue. The "sanctity of human life" is not a priority for many police officers and police departments. Asserting command and control is, regardless of the consequences to human life.

In our ongoing efforts to change the situation, the Conversation needs focus on the purpose of police and a definition of their primary objective. Right now they believe it is command and control, self-protection, and the protection of property, when in fact it should be -- must be -- the preservation of human life and protection of public well-being, including the lives and well-being of suspects and subjects.

They must be sensitized once again to empathize with people who aren't like them, maybe don't like them, and who perhaps cannot obey them instantly or at all.

It's not an impossible task but as the National Conversation continues, this task must come to the fore.

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