Almost every day, the media features another case of a citizen being killed by the police, and some cases this coverage results in a storm of protests, since community members think the person has been singled out unjustly. It’s different when the police kill someone who has killed dozens of innocent people, such as in San Bernardino or Orlando, Florida. But in other cases, such as with the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in the back of a police van after a questionable release or in the shooting of Mario Woods in San Francisco, after he slashed a stranger with a knife and was shot 20 times by the police, people think the police were too quick to act. And often people think the victim was killed due to racial profiling, whereby the police are more likely to kill African-Americans than others in these confrontations.
I began look at this growing police-citizen divide after writing American Justice?, which includes a discussion of problems in the criminal justice system. I began writing it after my wife had her own difficult encounter, beginning when the police dragged her out of a restaurant to arrest her. They were acting in response to a claim by some neighborhood kids that she had tried to run them over, although this was a false claim, because the kids didn’t like her complaining to the police about their unsafe play in the streets. So this was their way of getting back at her.
But much as happens in these cases that escalate into the police killing a citizen, the police didn’t wait to hear my wife’s side of the story. Nor did they exercise the courtesy of coming to our home to speak to her before making an arrest. Instead, her arrest occurred in a very public place, and fortunately, it didn’t escalate to the point where a police officer pulled out a gun and shot her.
But sometimes, this is how these killings start, such as when a wife or neighbor reports that a man is behaving erratically. However, instead of responding by trying to find out what’s wrong and calm the man down, once he makes a move that may be wrongly interpreted as a threat to the police, such as reaching into his pocket for a cell phone, the police shoot and ask questions later.
The number of these police killing civilians is truly astounding, because the cases that end up in the headlines are only the tip of the iceberg, as I discovered in looking at the statistics. In the last decade, the police killed about 5000 citizens, an average of 500 citizens each year, and commonly, these are individuals of color, a great many in the inner cities. That’s because in these confrontations, the police approach the suspect with a siege mentality, given the already hostile relationships between the police and the community in these areas. Thus, they are more ready to feel threatened and shoot, whereas if they encounter a white man who is mentally disturbed or drunk, they are more likely to try to talk to him and diffuse the situation.
In turn, such shootings of people of color has contributed to even more hostility to the police in the inner city and among African-Americans – and to still more headlines, inflaming the situation even more. This is not to say that in some cases, such as in facing down a terrorist who has shot down dozens of victims, the police are not justified in killing the suspect, and then people are gratified they have killed. But in many other cases, the police could use diplomacy and negotiation tactics to calm the suspect, so they can arrest him rather than killing him, and then he will have his day in court.
Thus, as I have discussed in American Justice? in proposing ways to fix the criminal justice system, I think there are a number of ways to improve police-citizen relationships, which will contribute to lowering the cost of operating the system, too. For example, national training guidelines might be developed for police departments throughout the nation detailing when the police should use force to protect themselves and when they should use other methods to control and subdue the suspect.
The police might also withdraw to a safe distance when a suspect has a knife, so they are not in danger of being attacked at close quarters, which will give them more time to try to cool down the situation. If a suspect is running away, it is better to let that person go and seek to make an arrest later, rather than shoot that person to stop an escape. Also, the participation on local citizen review boards might be expanded by including some members of the local board of supervisors in order to increase community-wide participation and facilitate more citizen and police cooperation. I also think it will help to provide more transparency about police operations, such as by removing any restrictions on members of the public filming and recording the police on duty. These measures will help the police better deal more peaceably with a current situation, while helping to build trust in the community. This approach can reduce costs, too, given the high cost of dealing with the investigation and the legal fallout following any police-citizen killing.
In future blogs, I’ll talk about other problems I have found in the criminal justice system, and what to do about them. Want to learn more about my book? It’s available through Amazon https://www.amazon.com/American-Justice-Paul-Brakke/dp/069271068X.