Column: Are American police trigger happy?
In recent months we have seen a rash of reports in the newspapers and on TV of encounters between police and members of the public. Many of these have produced claims of excessive use of force by policemen — roughing up or putting strangleholds on individuals, ignoring their medical needs while in custody or shootings, in some cases resulting in death. There is no excuse for such actions, and measures should be taken to prevent them in the future.
But when it comes to incidents in which the police shoot a suspect, often fatally, we should consider the conditions confronting the police officer and put ourselves in the officer’s place before judging the actions.
In the first place, when approaching a suspect, a police officer has no way of knowing whether the suspect is armed. In many of the advanced countries, possession of firearms is strictly regulated, which makes the job of the police much less dangerous. But in the United States where almost everyone can own a gun, officers must assume that there is at least a 50:50 chance that suspect may be armed.
Add to this, the officer doesn’t know the mental state of the suspect. The officer may be dealing with a mental instability, anger or frustration, or the effects of alcohol or other drugs, and the officer’s life and the future of his or her family may depend on who shoots first. Reducing conditions that put the officer in life-threatening situations requires reducing both the social problems that lead to frustration, anger and a “short fuse,” and the presence of firearms in our society that are all too often used in anger or frustration, of which road rage and domestic shootings are common examples.
What are the conditions in people’s lives that generate anger and frustration? They are often economic. Millions of people are unemployed or overworked and underpaid, and see no opportunity to improve their lives or the lives of their children. Many seek relief in alcohol and other drugs as a way of dulling their pain and become a danger to our society.
Unfortunately, a higher proportion of black Americans, particularly young men, are more likely to find themselves in this economic trap than their white counterparts, which brings racial attitudes into the picture, making the situation even more explosive. The result is a tendency of both police officers and black Americans to develop an us-and-them attitude which can degenerate into mutual fear and hatred.
Although a few police shootings of unarmed blacks have been highlighted in the media, they are far more common than we realize. There were 258 reported last year and 136 in the first half of this year. The last two of those, which occurred on two successive days (Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana), and were highly controversial, gained nationwide publicity. One of the worst examples was the police shooting death of 12-year Tamir Rice in Cleveland in November, 2014 because he had a toy gun. When eight police officers were gunned down in Dallas and Baton Rouge we were all shocked, but should we really have been surprised?
The situation is in danger of spiraling out of control. Serious remedial measures are needed immediately. The nation’s police departments need to feature intensive education programs teaching racial equality and weed out officers who harbor racial biases. Racial profiling and traffic stops for inconsequential reasons should be eliminated. A recent newspaper article recounted the fact that even black members of Congress have been pulled over by police because of the color of their skin. Both of the black Americans in the Senate and more than half a dozen black representatives reported having been stopped by police, not just once, but several times.
We also need to eliminate mandatory prison sentences for non-violent crimes such as drug dealing, which have put a third of black American men in jail at some point in their lives, blacklisting them and making it difficult for them to get a legitimate job. The reason many of them have resorted to the drug trade may be because it is so hard for them to find a decent job. Our economy needs to be expanded to provide more jobs, which would benefit all Americans, but especially the underprivileged.
Hal Sundin’s As I See It column appears on the first Thursday of each month.
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