I worked night shift last night. So, heading to gun calls, mental calls, Domestic Violence calls – all three combined at times – while hearing the updates about what happened at Dallas. One of my fellow officers had a decent conversation, apparently, with an African American man, subject of one of the investigations, and I had an all too brief one that I hope to revisit later with my favorite Starbucks barista, also African American, about what the fuck are we going to do about all this….
My normally poor sleep was even more so today, and I woke up with mind churning over about what this means for the future. So I got up to write. This may not be all that coherent but here goes…
The breaking point is reached and in a none too good way….
First off, I don’t think this is about the racism of individual police officers. Does it exist? Yes. But it’s not common.
Rather I think its about fear and cultural misunderstandings and violence. The racial injustice that is in our system has little to do with police use of force, but it has a lot to do with when and why police make contacts, and the reaction to that contact by those being stopped. Once the interaction has begun, its the players involved that will decide how it goes down.There is a calculated and ignorant response to many incidents that demonstrate total lack of understanding of the dynamics of force encounters, lack of understanding of the law surrounding use of force (for citizens and police), lack if knowledge about police training and experience, and refuses to assign accountability for the manner in which people choose to react to the police. This is the soup that we watch when we see things like the Louisiana shooting.
Louisiana is on first blush a totally expected and acceptable shooting. People are ONLY reacting because Alton Sterling is Black. No one notes that police responded not because he was selling CDs but because he was reported to be armed and threatening.
That IS a valid and community safety reason for police to make contact.A local talk show talking…..well its not his head that speaking he’s talking out of something else…misses the point that Sterling was not simply carrying a gun he was being threatening. Threatening people with firearms, or while being armed, trumps your gun rights.
When Sterling then resists, is taken down, and is going for a gun in his pocket (which the video seems to suggest based on the reactions of the two officers, the yell that “he’s going for his piece,” and finally the shooting.
The “execution” that so many pundits are talking about is simple ignorance. What you have is a very dynamic challenging fight over a pistol in tight confines. The fact that we can’t see Sterling moving very much means nothing because we can’t see his right hand, the one that could be holding a gun in his pocket trying to fire it.
Have you ever attempted to disarm a firearm, from within a large, strong man’s hand inside his pocket? Tell me how that works out for you….
When he is non-compliant, when he is armed, when he is attempting to grab, or refusing to let go of that gun, the matter is one of fractions of seconds and fractions of inches. This is unquestionably and lethal threat situation, for one or both officers.
And what would you have them do differently? IF the expectation is that two officers who are on top of, and pretty much physically controlling a man, should be able to disarm him capably and reliably enough that the risk of either being shot is relatively low, you have both an unrealistic understanding of how these things actually work and far too much confidence in the general level of police training. Cops simply are not trained for that. They are trained to shoot in situations like this.
Minnesota, however, is troubling to me.
I don’t think it was about race, I hope it wasn’t. The governor’s foolish and inarticulate assessment notwithstanding. I think it was purely about fear. And that, too, is a problem.
Guns don’t kill people, PEOPLE WITH GUNS kill people. People who are acting a certain way. When a man is being cooperative, he tells you he has a gun, and has a concealed carry permit, and offers to get his ID, he is in my mind now pretty much eliminated from most equations that end with shooting him. Now if he is acting differently, yes, but there is no evidence that Philando Castile did so. He did what so many people do when asked about pockets, or for IDs, or what have you – he made a move to get his ID.
I have many, many, times asked people what is in their pockets only to watch them immediately – and subconsciously – reach for it. I did this with a woman with a gun just a few nights ago and she reached into her pockets. There was no threat, I was confident in my ability to deal with the threat had there been, and her entire demeanor was cooperative despite being under the influence of alcohol and having a bleeding scratch on her nose. Her race (white) had nothing to do with it. It had to do with how I perceived her demeanor and reactions and her overall cooperation.
Thank god, because her gun – which she naturally and legitimately carried for self defense – was in her truck and not on her person.
Depending on where Castile carries his pistol, his hand would naturally cross that gun as he was reaching for his wallet. But this cannot be immediately construed as reaching for the gun. It is perplexing, in fact, that after having cooperated with the officer by stopping, by telling him he had a concealed carry permit, and telling him the gun was on him (in other words, he did everything right), he gets shot reaching for his ID.
“Well, a white guy doing the same wouldn’t have been shot….”
I don’t think so. There are in fact competing studies out there showing cops more likely and less likely to shoot African Americans based on race. So what does that tell us…
But a story was told to me by another officer about a coworker from a law enforcement agency in California, off duty and armed, and stopped for a traffic violation. A white cop. The off duty officer keeps his hand on the steering wheel and is very careful about doing so. He informs the trooper that stopped him that he was off duty police, was armed, and the gun was in his center console.
The trooper, visibly shaken, immediately drew down, pointed the gun at him, and told him to “open the center console.” He told her there was no way he was going to do that and tried to calm her down……this is one thing, and one thing only: an irrational fear of someone else being armed.
I myself had an encounter very similar with another trooper where I live. At least in terms of the stop. My guy was visibly shaking after I told him about the weapon – this time on my person. But he remained composed enough not to challenge me at gunpoint. I could see from the presence of a second, older trooper hanging back that this guy was probably a newbie and on training. But it certainly did not diminish the pucker factor when I saw his reaction to being told I had a gun on me. Despite prefacing that with “I’m off duty law enforcement.”
It is heart wrenching to think that Castile, who carried a weapon for his own protection, was shot because of a fear-based reaction that had not been trained out of the officer. Black Americans have more reason than any other group in our society to lawfully carry to defend themselves: the atrocious rates of Black on Black crime – perpetrated by armed Black men in love with violence – being one reason (also rarely addressed by the Media or Pundits despite its taking far more lives than police officers ever will) , and the presence of actual racist violence by some – not police officers – another.
And then we have Dallas….. And if we think that poorly trained officers are already on edge about Black men with guns, what do we think Dallas is going to do about mitigating that perception. It will be unfair but it should not be surprising.
A fundamental change in how our law enforcers serve and protect is probably on the way. That change will hopefully not be that African American citizens get a “free pass” simply because no one wants officers to end up using force on any Black person for any reason and so just don’t deal with it in the first place. That would be fundamentally unfair and lead to even greater chaos and more carnage in Black neighborhoods as armed thugs would now act with impunity.
But at a time when there are fewer and fewer recruits entering law enforcement, and after Dallas that will be fewer still, demanding very much higher levels of testing, training, and tactical skills development is not going to be workable. And even then we cannot train out human error.
This is a fine mess we are in.