Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why is Police Use of Force Different from Other Violence?

Another year, another month, another week, another killing of an unarmed young man in America. Other bloggers (Will Moore in particular) have been much more diligent about covering excessive use of force by police than I have. But the incident this week in Ferguson, Missouri has ignited a national conversation, at least briefly.

That conversation has gone in a number of directions, all of them important and meaningful. There is, of course, the race relations problem - Ferguson is an overwhelmingly black town with a nearly all-white police force, and many black residents have indicated that they have faced harassment from their "own" cops of years. A generation after the Rodney King riots, it is a national tragedy that this problem remains with us.

Then there are the twin problems of excessive force and over-militarization within the police. Scads of photos from Ferguson showing police with assault rifles, helmets, body armor, and large armored vehicles have been plastered across the internet. Some sites have stacked those photos side by side with photos of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The visual similarities are striking, making Ferguson look to the world like a war zone. "Is this what we want our police to look like?" is an appropriate and urgent question. "Shock and awe" was designed as a means of warfare for distant lands, not a means of keeping the peace in American suburbs. Clearly there's something badly out of kilter here.

What I haven't seen much about yet - probably because we're waiting for facts to emerge from an impartial investigation - is an understanding of the actual shooting death of Michael Brown. The few facts there are seem to be undisputed:

- Brown was unarmed at the time of his killing.
- Brown was walking down the street, during the day, when he walked by a police car.
- Brown was killed by multiple gunshot wounds, including one or more to the head.

As a student of interpersonal violence and self-defense, I struggle to imagine ANY scenario under which this is OK for the police officer involved. This seems like a gross overreaction to almost any conceivable "threat" this young man might have posed.

This is where I am left baffled. Every year there are numerous incidents in which police shoot and kill unarmed people and are determined, by police inquiry, to have operated within "proper police procedures". In many of these cases, the victim dies of a great many gunshot wounds, often fired at some range. Police will say that they were operating within their standard procedures - which suggests that the rules and procedures themselves are the problem.

I'm willing to accept that police, because they put themselves in harm's way to protect the community, may be given some latitude that the rest of us don't have. But how much? And shouldn't they be accountable to the public, both for what those rules are and for how they are used?

I can only imagine that, whatever the nature of the opening confrontation between Brown and the police, there were several ways to deal with it that didn't involve the drawing of a firearm. Why are THOSE not "common police procedure"? Introducing a deadly weapon, as every self-defense instructor I know will tell you, should be the absolute last resort. Yet some police, like Ted Nugent and Wayne LaPierre, seem to think that guns in the hands of "good guys" can solve all problems. Where is the NRA now?

Ultimately, I don't really have the right words about this tragedy. An encounter that started out as, at worst, a modest verbal conflict ended in someone brutally killed. That is wrong, wrong, wrong, no matter what kind of bureaucratic crap you slap on top of it in the name of "professional policing". Clearly, at least in some places, our police forces have gotten a badly skewed notion of what force is supposed to be for. Perhaps it's time that we as a society took that decision back, both from "professional police" who are too enamored of their military toys and from gun-culture folks who think the solution to everything is to threaten to shoot it.

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