Police Violence: Can We Get on the Same Page?

Can we at least agree on two things?

(1)  We have a problem.

(2)  We need to do something about it.

Focusing on these simple truths has been difficult.  We, the public, are partly to blame.  We have been drawn in by the drama and details of individual stories.  Where did this occur?  How?  Was he running?  What really happened?  These are important questions for our justice system to wrestle with.  But they distract from the larger issues we need to be addressing together as a nation.  Namely this: We have a problem.  We need to do something about it.

We have a problem.

Yet again this month we were confronted with stories of police officers in the United States fatally shootingunarmed citizens. The loss of life is tragic.  The videos available to the public are graphic. But what is possibly most alarming is the regularity of these occurrences.  The best estimates put the number of civilians killed by police at nearly 1,000 per year.  Look deeper and the statistics also reveal the disturbing racial disparity in these numbers.  The vast majority of police are white.  The vast majority of victims are black. 

There are many reasons for all of this.  But can we begin by admitting that we have a problem?  The word “we” is intentional.  We, collectively, have a problem.  We will not get anywhere if we see excessive force as an issue that is only “out there”.  It is in our unconscious fears, biases, and culture.  This is not coming to light because of media fixation or a few activists.  While these statistics are fresh news for some Americans, they have been a stark reality for many communities…for decades.  Excessive police force is not rare and is not the work of a few rogue, racist, or merely incompetent officers.  If it were that simple, we would have fixed it.  No, this is a problem we all must accept.  It is systemic.

The human cost and racial disparities should alert us something systemic is going on.  But the problems are also systemic by their very nature.  The use of force touches on one of the most proper roles of government in our lives. “Government alone has the right to monopolize control of force for the purpose of upholding and enforcing the law.”  This is a strong, important claim.  We expect that our police officers will have the option of using force to protect us and themselves.  But this is precisely why our current systems seem so inadequate.  The one institution in our communities that is sanctioned to wield force for the flourishing and just order of society uses that force inappropriately.  When that happens we are rightly unsettled. 

But why don’t people just do a better job of obeying the police?  That is a related problem, but it is tangential to this particular problem.  Running away from a cop should not be a death sentence.  Even resisting an officer should not be a death sentence.  Stealing something from a convenience store should not be a death sentence.  And here we reach the heart of the problem – accountability for officers.  When so many officers are never charged or are acquitted, we are not seeing a problem with grand juries and judges necessarily.  It is much more likely that we are seeing a problem with the laws themselves.  Which is why we need to act. 

We need to do something about it.

Mistakes have consequences.  That is one of the very reasons we often admire and celebrate our police.  They have to make unimaginable decisions on an almost daily basis.  And they are often rightly praised as heroes.  But this incredible responsibility of force must be balanced with a commensurate accountability.  We gratefully grant our officers great power.  How that power is used is absolutely critical to this discussion.  We are glad that our police officers can enforce the laws we make.  But we cannot condone shooting someone who is unarmed and running away.  The badge must come with honor, respectability, and accountability.  Without that sense of accountability, our system begins to feel like it is unraveling. 

Can we begin by admitting that we have a problem?

So we begin by restoring trust with communities.  Trust is fragile, yet can be won back in so many ways.  All those ways are slow and hard fought, but they are sometimes as simple as conversations and relationships.  Unfortunately, most police departments have been unwilling to admit there is much, if any problem in the first place.  This leaves entire communities feeling unheard and vulnerable and angry.

I was pleased to learn recently that in my part of Michigan both the Grand Rapids and Holland police departments have had extensive training to ensure a fair and proper process in the event that an officer kills a civilian.  These processes are implemented in good faith.  But they seem mostly intended at protecting the department against the formation of a potential mob.  And in these procedures was an underlying assumption – if the public only knew what we do and why we do it, then the outrage and anger would disappear.  Education and communication can go a long way to healing trust.  But what the recent videos have demonstrated is that the mistrust isn’t just because the public doesn’t understand.  It is a desire for a long-awaited accountability to the shootings and beatings we do see and have seen for a long time. 

So if change is going to happen then the laws themselves must change.  Currently, most of them look to the “reasonable fear” of an officer as justification.  Obviously, this can be interpreted quite broadly.  A lawyer sometimes only has to convince the court that an officer had reasonable fear in a given encounter.  This is often a pretty easy thing to do when the situations in question are intense by nature.  What this means is that an officer chasing someone through the woods while shooting them from behind can be acquitted.  Prosecutors, as well, are put in the impossible position of having to prosecute the very departments and people they rely on for their cases.

But everyone involved would love to see these deaths avoided in the first place.  So we also need to address the training involved. Training seems inadequate on many levels.  We can see this in the way that so many of these tragic deaths were the result of passionate escalation – often by both the officer and civilian.  Under this system of “reasonable fear” there is an assumption that officers cannot be expected to maintain their composure under pressure.  And the videos we’ve seen certainly do not show any of the clear thinking or restraint we would hope for in our public servants.

No reasonable voice in this debate is suggesting that the power of force should be taken away from officers.  In fact, we should still allow a different standard for police officers in many situations.  I acknowledge that their role is distinct from the average citizen.  I am, therefore, calling merely for a measure of accountability for the lost lives we are witnessing. More than is available in our current laws.

I think it is powerful that we want more.  It is a sign that we believe our officers and the systems that train them and hold them accountable are capable of better.  We are capable of better.

 -Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.  www.calvaryreformedholland.org