Two days, two police killings caught on video. The first was of Alton Sterling, who was selling CDs outside a store. Based on a tip, the police showed up to arrest him. Sterling, who had a gun, was being held pinned down by two cops when one shouted, “He’s got a gun!” The other officer then shot him point blank in the chest, killing him. There is horrific video of the shooting which you can find at the links but I won’t embed.
The second shooting was yesterday of Philando Castile, a man who worked in a Montessori school, had no record and had a concealed carry permit. His girlfriend claims that they were pulled over for a broken tail light. He informed the officer that he had a weapon, then reached for his wallet when instructed, at which point he was shot and killed. The video starts after the shooting and you can hear the officer yelling that he was going for his gun while the girlfriend says he was going for his ID. Later, they cuffed both the girlfriend and the four-year-old who was in the back seat. It was eerily reminiscent of the South Carolina shooting of a man going for his license.
Naturally, we have to wait until more information comes out. But both of these incidents look very very bad. In both cases, we have cops who reacted to what they thought was a dangerous situation but probably wasn’t. In both cases, they had guns drawn in situations where it’s not clear that was necessary. Sterling did not appear to be going for his gun and we don’t have any information that Castile was either. But in both cases, the officers reacted to the presence of a gun — one in an open-carry state, one with a concealed carry permit — as if the presence of the gun was automatically a threat.
Balko, who thinks the Sterling shooting may have been the result of a miscommunication between the officers:
Was Sterling resisting? It’s difficult to say, as is often the case with these videos. He may have been. But what looks like resisting often isn’t conscious fighting back or an affirmative attempt to hurt or injure police officers so much as instinctual self-defense. If the cops bend your arm in a way that it doesn’t want to bend, you feel pain. Your body tells you to resist whatever or whoever is bending your arm in that manner. So you push back. That isn’t aggression; it’s a natural product of our aversion to pain. Similarly, a suspect flat on pavement with a knee in his back or with multiple officers putting their weight on him may try to lift his chest. That can look like the suspect is trying to get up, resisting orders, and possibly trying to attack the officers. But he may also simply be trying to create some space to breathe. Many people panic when trapped under a lot of weight. Panic isn’t also aggression. It’s an attempt to survive.
All of which is why training police in de-escalation is so important. Physical confrontation like the kind we see in this video immediately raises the stakes and narrows the margin for error for everyone involved. A misheard directive, a misinterpreted gesture, or any other miscommunication can quickly become fatal.
If we really want to reduce fatal police shootings instead of merely adjudicating them, we need to train officers in tactics that subdue threats, reward those who resolve threats without violence, and discourage actions that create unnecessary confrontation, violence, and escalation. And when these shootings are investigated — be it by the DOJ, internal affairs departments, local prosecutors or an outside agencies — it’s time to start looking beyond whether or not the shooting was justified under the black letter of the law. It’s time to start asking whether the shooting was preventable — and if it was, whether the failure to prevent it was due to poor training, bad policies, or police officers acting in contravention of policies or training.
Was it legal? is the question we ask when deciding whether or not to prosecute. Was it preventable? is the question we need to ask to save lives.
That’s the key point. We are constantly told the policing is the most dangerous job in America (it isn’t in the top ten), that there is a war on cops (policing is safer than it’s been in over a century) and that there is a constant danger of ambushes (literally less than one in a million chance). We give officers pseudo-military training and tell them to react before they think because the world is full of people who want to kill cops. We give them military weapons and send them on SWAT raids. And then we act all surprised when a thousand people get gunned down by cops every year.
If you watch the videos, listen to the officers’ voices. They are nearly hysterical. Their reaction is nothing so much as, “What the hell just happened?” They are trying to justify what they just did. That’s a key point that’s missing here — the emphasis on aggressive policing creates bad and dangerous situations for civilians and cops. When you are in an emergency situation, you react on instinct. If that instinct is to be aggressive, you will be aggressive because you don’t have time for thought to intervene. If policing tactics emphasized de-escalation, not only would we have less civilians on the ground, we’d have less cops holding a smoking gun wondering what the hell they just did. And maybe a few less getting shot by deranged or scared civilians.
There are other issues here, of course. We need to decrease the number of laws and the number of interactions between cops and civilians. We especially need to rid ourselves of laws governing non-violent behavior, like selling CDs or having busted tail lights. The issue of race will be at the heart of this. And all the Second Amendment advocates should be appalled by a conceal-carry holder being shot like this (modulo any other facts that come out).
But the main thing we need to do is stop treating our country like it’s a war zone. Twenty years ago, crime was out of control. It has fallen precipitously since then. Even if aggressive tactics were justified in the 90’s — and I would argue about that — they are no longer necessary. If we’re going to give cops guns and body armor and send them out to enforce the law, if we’re going to make sure that citizens can exercise their Second Amendment right, we have to emphasize ways that these two things can co-exist without a law-abiding man bleeding to death in front of a handcuffed four-year-old girl.