Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Doing What Needs to Be Done to Reduce Violent Policing

Americans have become accustomed to the rat-a-tat-tat of police shootings and to the stories of other means police use to "control" suspects -- sometimes unto death. Americans are also accustomed to the protest that frequently arises from this or that act of violent policing.

Efforts to control or reduce violent policing have been under way for many years in many communities, and they've been met with resistance from line officers and their unions, from police chiefs and sheriffs, and often from the justice system itself (DAs and courts) which will typically defend and exonerate officers no matter what they do or how egregious their violence toward the public.

And yet progress has been made, slow and painful as it may be.

Ways to reduce police violence and use of lethal force are well-known and understood. Some of those ways and means have been widely adopted, but we still see almost daily examples of men and women in crisis, particularly if they are black or brown, violently abused by police or summarily executed by officers who ritualistically cite "fearing for my life and the safety of others" to justify and excuse what they have done.

Simply being in psychological or emotional crisis and being black or brown can be sufficient to trigger the deadly fear response in officers, and almost always that fear is sufficient to officially justify use of whatever force the officer deems necessary.

There can be no second guessing of the officer's split-second decision to use lethal force or any other force necessary to control the subject.

We see it over and over again, practically daily, and many Americans are fine with it. Since they believe that police violence would never be directed at them why should they worry or be concerned about police violence directed at others?

Often this means that white-folks don't care if police are violent or deadly toward disobedient or otherwise recalcitrant black and brown individuals. It's what they deserve. If only they would obey, nothing bad would happen to them. And yet we see over and over again, that's not necessarily true at all. Obedience will not necessarily protect an individual who's been targeted by police for execution. People are shot and killed or tasered and killed while in the process of obeying police commands. It's simply a fact. There are too many examples documented to continue to believe that "obedience = safety."

It doesn't.

The problem is not so much the disobedience of individuals as it is that police officers are trained and conditioned to experience the disobedience of some individuals (particularly black and brown men) as existential threats to their lives and others' safety. Obedience can be interpreted by officers in exactly the same way because of their training and conditioning. When they determine that an individual is a subject or suspect, everything that individual does or doesn't do is subject to being interpreted as a threat.

Police are trained and conditioned to neutralize threats when they perceive them, and the only standard is the officer's perception at the moment he or she chooses to use force, lethal or otherwise. There is a "reasonable" standard, but it is limited to what another officer in the same situation would perceive and do. When they are all trained and conditioned in the same way, they are likely to perceive threats and act on them in the same way. Consequently the reasonableness standard for use of force based on officer perception is no protection for individuals subjected to use of force.

This is due largely to court decisions and police department policies which deny civilians ('subjects') the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or indeed any rights at all that an officer is bound to respect, when the officer perceives a threat from the individual.

How do we get past that? In so many cases recently -- but we can cite similar cases going back many years -- the use of lethal force against individuals who do not present an objective threat is practically routine.

One case I've featured is that of Joseph Mann in Sacramento. He was shot and killed in July by two jacked up officers who raced to the scene apparently specifically to "neutralize" the subject. The problem with their action -- which included trying to run him over with their vehicle and then gunning him down when that proved unsuccessful -- was that Mann was not an objective threat to anyone, not the officers on scene, certainly not to the officers who killed him, and not to bystanders or pedestrians in the vicinity. He was not perceived to be a threat by other officers on the scene, at least not to the extent that he needed to be "neutralized" -- euphemism for killing.

His threat matrix was that he was armed with a small knife, he was disobedient, and attempted to elude police. He was falsely accused of many overt threats toward police during the five minutes or so he was being pursued by them, but apart from tossing a mug or thermos at a pursuing police car,  he never demonstrated an actual threat toward police or anyone else.

And until the two officers who killed him arrived on the scene, the other officers were trying to defuse the situation, de-escalate the confrontation, and bring Mr. Mann into custody non-violently.

They had really only begun their efforts when the two killers arrived.

De-escalation in cases of mental or emotional crisis includes such things as:

Calm the situation, by using the following tactics:

  •  Request backup.

  •  Move slowly.

  •  When possible, eliminate emergency lights and sirens and disperse any crowd that may have gathered.
  •  Assume a quiet nonthreatening manner when approaching and conversing with the individual.
  •  If possible, avoid physical contact if no violence or destructive acts have taken place.
  •  If possible, explain intended actions before taking action.
  •  Take time to assess the situation.
  •  Provide reassurance that officers are there to help.
  •  Give the person time to calm down. Communicate with the person:
  •  Keep sentences short.
  •  Talk with the individual in an attempt to determine what is bothering that person.
  •  Acknowledge the person's feelings
  •  Ask if the person is hearing voices and, if so, what they are saying.
  •  Avoid topics that may agitate the person.
  •  Allow time for the person to consider questions and be prepared to repeat them.
  • Additionally, POST trains police officers to “not threaten the individual with arrest or in any other manner,” explaining that “threats may create additional fright, stress, or potential aggression.”

  • This is all well-known and understood and is standard training for officers in their interaction with individuals showing signs of crisis or mental illness. There is no mystery about it. And yet over and over again, police use lethal force rather than these de-escalation tactics. They do so because they know they can -- and can get away with it -- on the one hand, and because they are conditioned to see the subject (no longer a human being) as an existential threat, no matter the objective reality. On the other hand, officers who are allowed to use crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques, as well as mental health professionals who use these techniques, are almost always able to defuse situations involving mentally ill or in-crisis individuals without resort to violence.

    In other words, fear, conditioning, and the expectations of threat -- not the actuality of it -- drive most officers' inappropriate use of force.

    It's an induced form of cowardice that's masquerading as courage.

    Other officers on the scene of Mann's killing were frustrated by Mann's failure to obey and his attempts to elude them, but they did not appear to be in fear. They were protected by their vehicles, for one thing, and they were always at a safe distance from Mr. Mann. They had no cause to fear for their lives, and as for the safety of others the situation appeared to be non-threatening as well. There were a few other people on the street, some of whom got quite close to Mr. Mann, and he is not seen to threaten them in any way. He may not even have been aware of them.

    911 reports, while apparently false about his possession of a gun, and they did not claim that Mann was threatening anyone with his knife. They said he was tossing it in the air and catching it, and the only claim was that he was acting strangely, was probably mentally ill, and callers said they were concerned because of the presence of children in the area.

    They also reported that Joseph Mann was black.

    Which may have been the determining factor in his death.

    What I want to know is whether someone in the department ordered the killers to do their job and kill Joseph Mann. Given the way they raced to the scene with the intent to administer great bodily harm to him and when they were unsuccessful, they killed him, I have a strong suspicion that they were ordered to do what they did, regardless of anything else. It happens more often than we know, and there are very few mitigations to protect the public. There are other means to reduce violence and death by police apart from simply abiding by policies already in place. I'll try to get to some of those in another post.

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