Saturday, 23 August 2014

Do What You're Told And You Won't Get Hurt

The deaths of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell in St. Louis have bothered me. They have bothered me not so much for their details, though I hope for the families of both men that when all the evidence emerges and is weighed that they feel the conclusions arrived at have delivered justice, but because of what they say, when taken together.

For that reason, as odd as it sounds, I want to set aside the arguments about whether Officer Darren Wilson and the two officers in the Powell case were justified in firing the bullets that killed these two men, though that is surely what the trial in the former case and the investigation in the latter will focus on.  I want to look at the total number of bullets fired, and what it says.

As I pointed out in my last blog post, police in Britain fired their weapons three times last year.  In both the Brown and Powell cases, at least three times that number of bullets appear to have been fired in each incident.  This is the aspect that worries me: multiple eye witnesses report that after some sort of scuffle at the police car, during which Wilson's gun was discharged, Brown set off running, and Wilson shot at him as he fled.  Forget what happened next and think about that for a moment.  If the eye witnesses are to be believed, and we now have so many that they are all part of a vast police-hating racially motivated conspiracy (and I am sure there are those who will want to believe that), Officer Wilson shot at Mike Brown as he ran away.  When two police officers fired at least nine bullets into Kajieme Powell at close range, three of these were fired while he was on the ground.  Both of these facts on their own should cause alarm, indeed outrage, among the public at large. In the sad circumstances of the deaths of these two men, however, it is a minor detail, though to me it speaks to the bigger problem.

As is stated in the British police college's guidelines on the discharge of firearms, and very graphically illustrated in the video at the bottom of page 1 of this piece in The Atlantic, (humblebrag: my last blog post got a mention on page 2, and in this Al Jazeera piece) that police officers do not shoot to wound, they shoot to incapacitate, and that can only effectively be done with an unholstered weapon at a distance of 21 feet or more, aiming at the torso.  "Incapacitate" is often expressed in the U.S. by police officers and gun enthusiasts as "neutralize the threat".  I find that worrying like a euphemism for "shoot dead".  Kajieme Powell was indeed close to the officers that shot him.  They could not have missed.  I believe they are trained to open fire with a "double tap".  A 'double tap' at the range in question is going to incapacitate. A 'double tap' is going to neutralize the threat.  A 'double tap' is probably going to kill.  The 9 or 10 bullets fired into Kajieme Powell, including a number while he was on the ground, are going to ensure that.  Threat neutralized indeed.

I will confess I have little appreciation for the stresses police officers in the U.S., or the U.K. for that matter, work under.  They do what is certainly a stressful and at times dangerous job.  32 of them died in the line of duty from gunshot wounds last year.  An even greater number died in Road Traffic Accidents.  What degree of risk the public can expect an officer to take while protecting the public is difficult to quantify.  I worry that too many in the Police believe the answer is none.

This opinion piece in the Washington Post by a 17-year veteran of the L.A.P.D. illustrates the point:

'I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.'  The headline was added by a sub-editor, but it perfectly conveys the essence of the piece. Consider the military grade personnel carriers and weaponry being toted on the streets of Ferguson, and look at the attitude of many of the officers towards the public and even the press and it is clear that the attitude expressed in this article goes way beyond one officer.  When my young nephew came to visit Washington D.C. "Do what you are told, don't argue, and you won't get hurt" was the advice I gave my nephew about how to respond to being robbed, not to being stopped by the Police. It's almost as if Howard Zinn's much quoted line that "The First Amendment is whatever the cop on the beat says it is" was written with this particular cop in mind.

Unarmed British police wear anti-stab vests as a matter of course. Armed British police wear bullet-proof ones.  U.S. cops wear neither as a matter of course.  I know that "offense is the best defense" is a dearly-held adage of American football, but I worry that it has seeped too deeply into the culture of American policing.  I suspect that Authorized Firearms Officers in the UK feel they have been invested with a special authority and responsibility, as pretty much the only people permitted to carry a gun. I believe that fact (combined with the fact that every time they fire a bullet they will have a mountain of paperwork to deal with and be investigated, automatically, by the Independent Police Complaints Commission and be required to justify every bullet) discourages trigger-happiness in England.  In some states in the U.S. everybody you pass in the street could, in theory, legally be carrying a gun, unbeknown to you.  In every state, the really bad guys probably are.  As a police officer that has got to weigh: you do not have a special responsibility because you carry a weapon, what you have instead is generally the benefit of the doubt if and when you do fire it.

I fear, however, that in the militarization of U.S. policing, it has been forgotten that every time a police officer has to discharge his weapon, it represents not the pinnacle of years of training, but ultimately a failure of policing. Even if the law is on the side of the officers in the shooting of Kajieme Powell, it can be viewed as nothing else. The Washington Post op-ed above shows that too many cops view it as a failure of citizenry.

No comments: