Time to Think, Time to Reflect

We all need to take time to reflect on our lives and what we do. It should be a frequent exercise for those who work in our system of criminal justice.

This is what I have been thinking and reflecting about since that day in Ferguson — and what’s going on in St. Louis and other cities today.

What I see is a growing public awareness and concern regarding uses of deadly force by police. This awareness has been raised by the use of emerging technologies such as dash and body cameras, public and private video surveillance cameras, and cell phones with video recording capabilities.

Are police shootings of young black men a new and startling turn of events? Most likely not. What is new, however, is technology, the Internet, and social media. More than likely (though there are no existing data to prove it), these shootings have gone on for years without the public awareness we have today.

These deaths, more often than not, involve a young black man or a person mentally ill. When these events are posted on the Internet, they tend not to look very good for the police officer involved; many are questionable. The real bad shoots result in large scale public protest, property destruction, arrests, and further violence.

In response, police “armor-up,” and try to quell the disturbance. This, too, can cause further public outrage and distress.

When police investigators and the district attorney review these actions, they are often find the police officer involved to be operating within the rule of law (which, under the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Graham v. Connor [1989] is a very low standard for use of force by police).

In the few cases that go to trial, juries tend not to convict a police officer who who can clearly articulate fear for his life and, therefore, the immediate need to apply deadly force.

If a police officer can convince a jury he feared for his life, the use of deadly force is within the current law regardless if other measures like de-escalation, taking cover, or even backing off would have been a more reasonable and life-saving action.

If we compare Graham with the standard of deadly force which is used by police in European Union countries — that of “absolute necessity,” it is quite evident which standard is more restrictive. And the rate of police using deadly force in those countries is strikingly low compared to our country).

After every shooting, every investigation, and almost every jury trial, anger continues to seethe in the black community and police too often remain silent, wary, and bunkered in. Instead of responding through active and on-going dialogue, explanation, empathy, and sadness, some departments simply “armor-up.” Tragically, this seething anger has resulted in innocent, on-duty police officers being summarily executed. This, too, is not good.

In fact, it is not a good situation for anyone – police, communities of color, or white America.

Yet, in my observation, my reflection, we barely talk about the recent recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Policing (2015) or the report by the Police Executive Research Forum who offered thirty guidelines on use of force the following year. Nor do we see many visible, demonstrable improvements within our police.

Yes, there is talk about more training regarding de-escalating potentially violent encounters, being more sensitive to persons with mental health issues, recognizing implicit bias in police decisions, and so forth. But the number of persons killed by police since Ferguson, still remains about 1,000 persons a year. That number has not been reduced. It would be a good metric to start.

Is this the way it’s going to be? That this is modern life in America? Two to three persons every day shot and killed by police? And when it is a young black man who is the victim, the black community erupts, highly militarized police flood into the streets, it is calm for a while as the matter is investigated. But then police find their officer followed policy, training, and the law (another disturbance occurs), then the district attorney or a jury exonerates the officer (another disturbance), until the next time…

This, to me, is not only a most uncomfortable environment for police to work, but also for the communities in which they are most present.

I was there once and I decided to do something about it. Today, it is up to our police to begin to actively fix this problem, to act in ways that reduce the taking of lives and to practice respect and self-control by listening to the voices in their communities and practicing justice. (And, at the same time to remember that this kind of justice must be practiced inside the police department as well as with the community.)

We have smart cops today. They must be urged and supported by their communities to rebuild trust, control their uses of force, and work closely with citizens in solving these problems.

When police do this, they will become more effective, there will be less violence for everyone, and they will work in a much safer environment.

That’s what I have been thinking about and it is distressing and unsettling. WE can do better!