Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

21 August 2014

Racism and Excessive Force


[For a recent post on global threats to democracy, click here.]
    “Paranoia strikes deep
    Into your life it will creep
    It starts when you’re always afraid
    Step outta line, the Man come and take you away.”
      —Stephen Stills, for Buffalo Springfield (1967)
The results of the private autopsy that Michael Brown’s parents commissioned make you wonder. There were four or five shots tracing their way up Brown’s right arm. Then there were two to the head. The official police autopsy confirmed the placement of shots and their number, within one.

The private-autopsy doctors opined, but couldn’t be sure, that the head shots came last. But how could it be otherwise? Would a rational, trained police officer continue to fire carefully and methodically at an arm after putting two shots in the victim’s head, killing him?

No, those shots tell a story, clearer than any eyewitness’. Apparently the officer was a good shot. He put at least four bullets right through the victim’s right arm, splattering flesh and splintering bone. Since the victim and his clothing had no powder residue, the consequently one-armed victim must have been more than two feet from the officer at that point.

For some inexplicable reason, the officer then decided to kill him.

Up to that point, there might have been a rational excuse. Maybe the officer thought he had seen a weapon in the victim’s right hand. But now the arm was disabled, and nothing had dropped.

Maybe the victim, although over two feet away, was still advancing. Maybe the much older officer was afraid of the younger man, even with a shot-up right arm. Maybe he didn’t want any witnesses to his tragic mistake. Maybe the hard logic of shooting just led to its tragic conclusion.

Police tout the need to make fatal decisions in a split second, at great personal risk. That’s often true.

But whatever was actually in the officer’s mind at the time will remain a mystery. Whatever he tells us now will be coached by lawyers and his own conscience, and the knowledge that what he did may put him in jail for a long time. His own mind may play tricks on him.

Yet the question raised by the autopsy still burns. Why kill the victim?

There were other options, at least for a lean officer well trained and in good shape. He could have backed up or rolled to the side, putting distance between himself and the victim, and giving himself more time to think and aim. He could have shot out a leg, making it hard for the victim to keep coming. He might even have said something. But the killing shots came instead.

Was all this necessary? Was the force excessive, even if the officer’s claim of some kind of altercation holds up?

The same questions arise with respect to this week’s St. Louis killing of an apparently deranged African-American man brandishing a knife and some convenience-store sundries. How much threat does a deranged man holding groceries and a knife really present to a trained officer with a firearm?

And what about the man in New York—also an African-American—recently killed with a choke hold after being arrested for selling cigarettes without a license? Do you have to be African-American to consider that use of force excessive?

Of course there are two problems. The first is excessive force. The second is profiling, which often motivates excessive force. Which should we tackle first? Which is easiest to correct?

Police profile the public. They do so unconsciously, ever hour of every day. How could they do otherwise? Their work and lives are on the line, all day every day. People don’t come with labels saying “criminal” or “honest citizen” tattooed on their foreheads. So police have to make snap judgments, sometimes in milliseconds, on which their careers, their health and their very lives may depend.

You can order them not to profile all you want. You can give them sensitivity and diversity training. But when push comes to shove and they stand alone in the field, they are going to rely on their instincts, all instruction and training notwithstanding.

When questioned later, they are going to make up some story to justify their profiling rationally. When they must act in split seconds at risk to themselves, they are going to use every clue that their senses give them, filtered by their own prejudices. That’s human nature.

So the best way to avoid incidents like the killings in Ferguson, St. Louis and New York is not, in my opinion, to try to stamp out racism, even among the police. That’s a laudable goal, but it will take another two generations at least.

The best way is to train police hard to use a minimum of absolutely necessary force always, no matter whom they are facing. We must give them non-lethal weapons like Tasers and train them to prefer them over lethal ones. In short, we must train them to preserve the lives and health of all citizens at all times, including suspects.

And we must hold them strictly accountable when they use excessive force, regardless of the provocation. If complete accountability drives otherwise good and courageous police from our streets, that will only improve community policing and bring civil peace more quickly.

I find it astonishing how many people still fantasize that we live in a “post-racial” society, just because we have a “black” President. Where have they been the last six years?

Bill Clinton infuriated his political enemies because, as a Rhodes Scholar, he was soooo smart, and he let people know it. He also had his little affair with a White House intern and then lied about it. So at least some of the mindless opposition to him had a rational explanation.

But Barack Obama is and did nothing of the kind. He’s infinitely patient, thoughtful and courteous. He never rubs his intelligence in anyone’s face. He never raises his voice. And his family life and personal behavior are exemplary.

Yet from the day he took office, a whole bunch of people have been dead set against him and his policies, no matter what he says. And the GOP, having absolutely no program of its own, has made significant political gains by bashing everything he does, unabashedly and relentlessly. (Hint: trying fifty-plus times—all unsuccessfully—to repeal someone else’s law, and criticizing his executive orders is not a program.)

I voted for the President every time because I believed (and still believe) he was the best candidate in the entire field, in both parties. But I also voted for him because I thought he could teach us something about race.

Little did I know. With his extraordinary thoughtfulness, empathy and restraint, and in the face of mindlessly adamant opposition, he has taught us how racist our nation still is, and how far we have to go to realize Dr. King’s Dream. The recent killings in Missouri are but a brief refresher lesson.

We will get there some day, I’m sure, but probably after I’m dead. In the meantime, the President and Attorney General Holder will maintain their infinite patience and professionalism, showing us all how much better off we could be if we could just put aside our prejudices and look at facts. In the process, these two consummately moderate men will show us just how much race still matters here at home.

Excessive force is a fact of life in many, but not all, of our cities. It’s a matter of training, police culture and style. It can be fixed with legal and administrative changes, plus some judicious culling of personnel. Fixing racism is a matter of national culture that will take a lot longer.

While we try as hard as we can to fix both, let’s not confuse the two. It’s true, of course, that victims of racism are most often victims of excessive force. But you can cure the excessive force much more easily than the racism. Fixing racism and other forms of dangerous tribalism is a long-term project for our entire species, and not just here at home. Take a quick look at Syria, Iraq and Ukraine.

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