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Unnecessary Police Violence Against Our Civilians

I do know that losing a loved one suddenly and senselessly is an indescribably traumatizing event, leaving deep scars for years. I know that our culture generally considers killings by civilians to be acts that should be punished by life in prison or death.
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On Monday, Kenneth Chamberlain's family filed suit against White Plains police for killing the 68-year-old African-American ex-marine last November after he had accidentally activated his medical-aid alert. The alarm company notified police, but while they were banging on his door, both the alarm company and Mr. Chamberlain told them he needed no help. He shouted through the door that they should leave him alone, and he became increasingly fearful and agitated as they pounded incessantly and drew their guns. After unsuccessfully demanding entry for an extended period of time, they broke the door down and, shortly afterwards, shot him to death. In May the local district attorney announced that no one will be prosecuted for any crime.

Also in May, the trial concluded for one of five Houston officers videotaped kicking and stomping -- for a very long time -- Chad Holley, a 15-year-old African-American boy who lay on the ground in a surrender position after being pursued as a burglary suspect. The officer had only been charged with a misdemeanor, subject to, at most, a year in county jail, though the video appears to show a felony assault punishable for a minimum of five years in state prison. The all-white jury acquitted him.

Here is what I wanted to write next, but, incredibly, the data to fill in the blanks does not exist, as a law-enforcement-oriented website correctly reports. "In the year __ , police killed __ civilians, __ of whom were unarmed. __ were people of color. They are often young people, children or youth. There were __ prosecutions. In New York there were __ such killings, Los Angeles __, Chicago __." The absence of published data speaks volumes about the lack of political will to consider unnecessary police violence against minorities to be a problem.

In a rare exception, San Diego County reported 201 police shootings, 114 of which were fatal, between 1996 and 2006. Seventy-three percent of the suspects were people of color. In 42 percent of the cases the victims were claimed to have possessed guns, 19 percent knives, and, in all, the person supposedly used or threatened some kind of force. Generally the victims were agitated; 13 percent were mentally ill, and drugs were involved in another 64 percent of the cases.

>In 2006, apparently the last in which the NYPD released statistics, officers reported 60 intentional shooting incidents, 13 involving fatalities. There were another 26 accidental discharges. In 78 percent of these shootings, the officers were the only ones said to be firing, but in each they fired an average of five shots. As the state's Civil Liberties Union observed, "During the last two years [in which] the NYPD reported the race of those shot by police, nearly 90 percent of the people shot at by officers were black or Latino. In 1998 the Department stopped reporting the race of civilian targets and started reporting the breed of dogs being shot."

One of the weather services posts the "real feel" of the air, given not only its temperature but wind and humidity levels. I am a white professional, and I don't know the "real feel" of living in communities where the threat of such violence is a daily reality. I do know that losing a loved one suddenly and senselessly is an indescribably traumatizing event, leaving deep scars for years. I know that our culture generally considers killings by civilians to be acts that should be punished by life in prison or death.

And I imagine that believing that those who patrol my neighborhood have a license to kill or brutalize, even if they rarely use it, would contribute to fear, anger, cynicism, and alienation; produce ambivalence towards the police -- who are needed but also often feared, distrusted, or even hated; and generate a belief that, at best, society at large does not care about us or value our lives.

None of this is necessary. When he was police chief of San Jose, Calif., Joseph McNamara told a Los Angeles Times reporter that, while a patrol officer in Harlem, he had been in 150 situations where department policy would have justified his firing on a suspect, but he had never done so. Given the trajectory of his career, he was obviously an effective cop nonetheless. Before heading the San Jose department, he was chief in Kansas City. The LA Times story reports:

On McNamara's ninth day on the job, a Kansas City policeman shot and killed a 14-year-old black fleeing a burglary. McNamara attended the boy's funeral and issued a directive that police could shoot only when a suspect endangered others' lives.

Those two acts earned McNamara the opposition of much of his police force and many Missouri politicians, and they ensured that his tenure would be wracked by contention. Referring to those days, he says, "One of the things that occasionally gets under my skin is (when) people say, 'You're a controversial police chief.' What in the world is controversial about saying the police shouldn't use more force than they have to? We have a fundamental duty to protect human life--we shouldn't be taking a human life unless it's absolutely necessary.

And policies make a difference. "[C]ities that have instituted strict guidelines on circumstances in which officers can fire their guns have seen a significant drop in the number of police shootings of civilians," according to researchers.* The prevalent focus in officer training and departmental policy on officer safety above all else can be balanced with an emphasis on citizen safety. In addition, most of us have prejudices, not by choice, regarding people who are ethnically different from us, and in police departments racism is often stronger than in the culture at large. There are, however, effective techniques for training people to recognize and largely overcome their biases, and these could be used in police departments.

On most calls, including the one regarding Kenneth Chamberlain, there is no reason for officers to have weapons on their persons. Departments serious about citizen safety could have them keep their guns locked in patrol cars, subject to clear protocols regarding the circumstances justifying retrieval. Deadly force should not be authorized to apprehend suspects fleeing non-dangerous crimes. Often it is the agitated or mentally unstable who scare or antagonize police enough to elicit a shooting. Officers can be better trained to recognize these situations, respond to them, or call in specialists. They can be shown case studies of how frequently their colleagues, frightened or simply too gungho for action or affected by adrenaline, have mistakenly "seen" weapons in the hands of unarmed suspects.

The prevalence of failures to charge, or acquittals, of police involved in questionable violence against civilians almost makes sense. Laws and policies on the use of force are broad; the level of intentional malfeasance required for serious consequences is high; and the environments in which officers operate are often frightening. Thus an individual's lethal actions can appear blameless. Put this together with the cultural lack of recognition of the problem and the lack of political power of the communities most affected, and it is a wonder that there are any consequences at all.

A future piece will look at why this situation still exists. (McNamara's struggles were in the early and mid-1980s!) And it will discuss why systemic change that goes far beyond this issue is needed to change it.

*R. Weitzer & S. Tuch, Race and Policing in America, Cambridge Univ. Press (New York: 2006), p. 47

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