On this Memorial Day weekend, filled with meals with friends and phone calls to family, when barbecue and corn on the cob are the order of the day and half the country travels to see the other half, I am disturbed by an image I can’t banish from my mind. It is the video clip of two policeman in a town nearby, guns drawn and pointed, following a man carrying a pair of garden shears down the street. They are shouting at him to lay down the shears but he keeps walking away from them. The end of this tableau comes when the officers shoot this man, killing him.
At the news conference following this event, an event which has sparked tremendous community outrage, the chief of police displayed the garden shears and explained how it was a deadly weapon and caused the officers to fear for their lives. This explanation has done nothing to mollify the residents of that town who feel that racist attitudes underlie the shooting. It surely didn’t mollify me.
In my recollection this is the sixth or seventh officer involved shooting in the past several months and there is a disturbing element in all of them. Racism cannot be ruled out as motivation for the fear clearly felt by the police. Going back to the Trayvon Martin shooting, the shooting of the teenage boy with the fake gun, and all the other instances where black or brown men are killed by the police, the spectre of racism is certainly present.
Not all victims are black or brown. Many are mentally deranged, clearly unable to respond to shouts from the police in ways the police desire, sometimes unable to understand the shouts. When these people are shot in “self defense” it seems particularly egregious.
We need policing. We want policing for the security it’s supposed to provide but we want intelligent, well trained policing. We want policemen and women who can recognize the difference between truly life threatening situations and those for which a lower level of force than a bullet is required.
Non-lethal methods of controlling a person are abundant. The training that would keep the police calmer than they appear to be in many situations is widely available. Sending a SWAT team to a domestic disturbance gotten out of hand is overkill. Send in a psychologist, or marriage counselor or someone who knows that blowing your top is not necessarily the prelude to murder. “He reached for something in his waistband,” should not be a license to shoot someone down in the street.
The problem that jumps out of the news reports seems to be the attitudes of the police. There is fear in their body postures, and whether it is justified in any particular case it certainly is inappropriate for a well trained peace officer. Better training would reduce the level of emotions among the police and lower the incidence of officer involved shootings.
With the amount of armament on the streets of our cities the police have legitimate security concerns in any confrontation and I would not want them to place themselves in the way of harm. Still, they need not be ruled by their legitimate fears, and learning to lower the fear level will ultimately keep them and the rest of us much safer.
A cool head and even temper will often win out over anger and hot bloodedness.