Sunday, January 25, 2015

Police Violence

In the past year, a lot of light has been directed at some particularly ugly incidents in which white police officers have killed unarmed African American citizens.  What is really disgusting about this is that in many of these cases - Ferguson, Missouri and Cleveland, Ohio  come to mind -  cops who behaved essentially like thugs in uniform have gotten way with murder.

An unarmed black man named Eric Garner was surrounded by NYPD cops in Staten Island. Suspected of selling cigarettes illegally, he was taken down with a choke hold - a method banned under NYPD rules - - and died as a result from asphyxiation. The corner labeled it murder. The district attorney cleared the officer who killed Eric Garner of wrongdoing. This kind of thing has been happening too often to unarmed black men. 

The vast majority of police officers are honorable people, who take their responsibility to the public very seriously. Most of them go through their entire careers without being part of an 'officer involved shooting'.

It's very clear that some police forces are much better at managing their lethal capability than others. In the case of local police forces as in Ferguson, Missouri, the problem starts with the police force not being representative of the community. The citizens of Ferguson are predominantly black, while the police force is almost entirely white.

Here are some ideas I've heard that make sense to me. First, police hiring practices need to be scrutinized closely to assure that the process excludes individuals with a history of racism or gender discrimination. Second, the training process must be revised to moderate the 'authoritarianism' that prevails in the policing process.  The us versus them (being the citizenry) mentality of some police officers must be rechanneled to favor restraint over escalation.

Another very big problem is the high level of tolerance in cases where there has been clear misconduct or excessive use of force in the policing process. Police unions seem to be willing to protect one of their own no matter the circumstance. Moreover, making district attorneys, who depend on the police for 'making' the cases they work on,  also responsible for prosecuting police misconduct, is clearly not working. 

In recent years, the police have been 'militarized' to a high degree, with assault weapons, body armor  and massive assault vehicles being gifted by the federal government to large and small police forces across the country.  Applying the 'SWAT Team' mentality to misdemeanor crimes needs to stop.

The police have a tough, high risk job. They are our first responders when violent citizens break the law. They need to be equipped and trained to professionally manage encounters with criminal behavior, to minimize the danger to the public and to themselves. That said, they also need to be accountable for their actions, and not be given a pass when their conduct is clearly out of line.     

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