Take the Odds Out of Police-Citizen Interaction

By Kristen Clarke and Edward Correia

The Washington Post recently reported that police nationwide killed 610 people in the first eight months of 2017, nearly identical to the number killed in the same period last year. Of those killed, twenty-nine were unarmed and 145 were mentally ill. Black males represented a disproportionate share of unarmed people killed. This summer has seen three high-profile police shooting cases end without a conviction. Each of these cases began with a traffic stop and ended with the death of a black man. In each case, the threat to the police officer was, at most, ambiguous and the officer made a split-second decision to fire his weapon. In one case, there is photographical evidence clearly showing the arrestee tossing a firearm over a fence just before the officer opened fire. In every case, what followed was the echoing cry of outrage and fear of the impacted community, particularly the black community. For them, the criminal justice system has failed, yet again. In this country, people of color have little expectation of being treated fairly by those sworn to protect and serve, rather they see law enforcement as the mechanism by which America enacts its surveillance and control over their communities. The resulting demoralization, scorn and distrust in the system is fueled by this perpetual cycle. And with an Attorney General who denies the existence of system racism and a President who proudly promotes police brutality, the lack of trust in the system is likely to deteriorate further. We must find ways to reduce violence in the interaction between police and citizens.

All high-risk confrontations between police and citizens have the possibility of tragic error, but the risks of mistake are even higher when minorities are involved. There is a grim reality that many police officers make a calculation that, all other things equal, a black man is more dangerous than a white man. In addition, a police officer’s instincts to fire his weapon are reinforced if the officer feels that the suspect does not promptly comply with his attempts at control. People of any race can feel resentful when police order them around, but minorities can have greater resentment because of a history of mistrust. This, in turn, can lead to more grudging compliance and greater risks of a violent confrontation. We can be outraged that this dynamic exists and there are plenty of reasons to be outraged, but, in order to get a complete handle on the problem of police over-reaction, we have to be honest about how police officers calculate odds in a threatening situation and think of ways to deal with it.

We have to find another solution in addition to training officers to be more careful, using bodycams, and prosecuting officers who engage in criminal behavior. Yes, we should keep doing all of these, but we have to be honest about how police officers calculate odds in a threatening situation. Like all of us, cops play the odds. The difference between the risks ordinary people face and police face is that they put their lives on the line. The principal tool we have given them to protect us from dangerous people is technology that has been in use since the Twelfth Century. The cop has to blow a hole in someone to end the risk to himself and others. We can do better.

We need technologies that temporarily and reliably disable but do not kill. Tasers and stun blasts are useful, but they are crude devices that are only a beginning to the solution. Who knows what science can come up if we really make an investment: devices that deliver drugs to induce unconsciousness instantly? Sound waves that are temporarily debilitating? They may seem cruel, but they are far better than weapons that end a person’s life. Non-lethal weapons present their risks, of course. They can encourage overuse because the consequences are not disastrous. Consequently, we have to invest in training people how to use them in addition to their development.

The alternative is to continue to send our police out to protect us with a firearm and their instincts. Controlling dangerous people through gunfire is unbelievably primitive for a country that managed to send a rocket to orbit Jupiter. How much would it be worth to our society to end the scourge of lethal killings by police officers so that a jury can sort out the facts later with the alleged criminal alive in the courtroom. One billion dollars? Perhaps even more.

A police officer facing a high risk of confronting dangerous individuals has perhaps the most dangerous job in the United States. We owe it to law enforcement to help them carry out this very difficult job with the least risk to themselves and others. It is foolish to pretend that they do not think about the odds. We would if were in their place. Consequently, we need to take the odds out of the equation, for their sake and the sake of citizens whose lives are in their hands.

Kristen Clarke, president & executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, leads one of the country’s most important national civil rights organizations in the pursuit of equal justice for all.

Edward Correia is a Washington, D.C. attorney and an Adjunct Professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. He was Special Counsel to the President for Civil Rights in the Clinton White House and is on the Board of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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