The drumbeat never seems to stop. Aug. 9 marked the second anniversary of the killing of Mike Brown on a street in Ferguson, Mo. – the death that triggered the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement and a renewed national focus on policing. Since then, there have been hundreds of protests and rallies (mostly non-violent) both for police reform and showing support for the cops, a political debate that’s touched on the 2016 presidential race and the heartbreak of several murderous attacks on officers.
Yet the rate of police-involved killings in the United States – roughly three a day, or more than 1,000 a year, and considerably more than any other developed nation – has barely budged. And despite calls for justice, all but a couple of the officers involved in the most contentious deaths have been either cleared by prosecutors or grand juries or at trial. Worse, the reaction to these killings follows the same tired dance.
On Aug. 7, in Harrisburg, Pa., police shot and killed 20-year-old Earl “Shaleek” Pinckney. The victim had two things in common with a disproportionate number of those who die at the hands of law enforcement: He was black, and, according to his family, he was mentally ill, suffering from bipolar disorder.
Also, as is the case in so many police-involved confrontations, accounts of what happened vary wildly between the official version and the family’s version. Police were reportedly called to the apartment where Pinckney lived because of a report that he was threatening his mother with a knife. The authorities said Pinckney was shot by officers because he refused to drop that weapon, but Pinckney’s mother said her son was shot through a window, didn’t have a knife and “wasn’t dangerous.”
In some ways it was like the reports a few days earlier out of Baltimore County, Md., where 23-year-old Korryn Gaines was shot and killed on Aug. 1 by law enforcement officers after a six-hour standoff. Gaines reportedly brandished a weapon while holding her 5-year-old son and ultimately engaged in a shootout with the officers; the boy was wounded. There are many unanswered questions about the case. Police didn’t get a search warrant for Gaines’ residence until after she was dead, nearby family members weren’t asked to help persuade her to surrender and body cameras were not deployed by the officers.
Does any of that matter? According to the back-and-forth I read on social media, Gaines signed her own death warrant when she didn’t obey officers’ demand to drop her weapon. That’s how we’ve come to frame our viewpoint on such police encounters. Any evidence that a suspect had a weapon can and will be used to justify the instant karma of our mostly-unique-to-America on-the-spot death penalty. And even when the suspect is unarmed or there’s clear-cut evidence that police didn’t follow proper protocols, few officers are ever punished. We’re locked into a ritual of death and denial that no one is happy about.
Any change won’t come without first acknowledging this: American cops are more likely to kill suspects in part because they’re also more likely to be killed than their international counterparts. And that’s largely because guns have flooded this nation’s streets in a way that compares with no other land. Our police are too often required to defend themselves and defend other citizens. There will always be situations where officers can’t do that without lethal force. But does the death toll have to be so high, and does the politics need to stay hopelessly gridlocked?
No. But we need to change the conversation. Imagine an America, where – instead of debating “deserved to die/didn’t deserve to die” long after a suspect is 6 feet underground – we talked about:
• Protocols and training for medical aid. In the smartphone video era, how many times have we seen this: Police officers handcuffing a dying man (or woman) and not offering first aid in those precious first few minutes when life and death is in the balance. We’re told that lethal force is a defensive move, but it doesn’t look that way in some cases.
Some police departments, such as New Orleans, are trying to improve medical training so officers will know how to apply tourniquets or take other lifesaving steps before the paramedics arrive. Likewise, a modified version of the “scoop and run” technique that Philadelphia police use to get injured people to emergency rooms could trim valuable life-or-death minutes off response times.
• De-escalation. It requires training and highly skilled officers to know the various techniques that reduce, rather than escalate, tensions during a traffic stop or a potential standoff. In Los Angeles, a city with a particularly strained history of police-civilian relations, top brass launched a major campaign to better train its officers in de-escalation – using less lethal force such as Tasers or bean-bag bullets, taking a slow-down approach to dealing with suspects who appear to be mentally ill, even giving “preservation of life” awards to officers who defuse situations.
In Dallas, the tragic killing of five officers while guarding a Black Lives Matter march obscured the fact that the department has become possibly the best in the entire nation in reducing both police-involved deaths as well as arrests – at the same time its murder rate was, for the most part, continuing to drop. Here, too, de-escalation and community policing has been key. Dallas increased training and urged officers “to ‘slow down’ when engaging with a suspect and to speak calmly rather than immediately shouting.”
When a police-involved shooting does occur, Dallas actually decreases the number of cops in the neighborhood – the opposite of the military-style policing tactics that helped make such a mess out of Ferguson in 2014.
• Keeping people informed. Likewise, Dallas became a leader in releasing information to the public, including elaborate spreadsheets on police-involved incidents over time and detailed reports on various uses of force including not just firearms but Tasers, batons, etc. In the aftermath of Ferguson, where key information was kept secret, Dallas Police Chief David Brown noted that his department releases the name of both victim and shooter as quickly as possible and “we have continued to share as much information with the public as we can without jeopardizing the investigative process.”
Meanwhile, we’re also two years into the rapid acceleration of body cams and other devices meant to capture both video and audio of every encounter. In some cases, these cameras have done wonders to improve the public’s understanding of both the risks that officers face and the mistakes that are occasionally made. Too often, though, the cameras aren’t working or even turned on. We don’t know how often that’s an accident and how often that’s intentional. We just know they need to do better.
There’s no quick fix for the two things that make police-civilian encounters so much more violent here: The plethora of guns, and racial tension – the same factor that led to the scathing report about systemic discrimination in traffic stops and use of force by the Baltimore Police Department. And both the U.S. court system and individual police departments do a horrible job meting out justice to those officers who break the rules and sometimes break the law.
That’s why it’s so critical we take a deep breath and look at these common-sense steps that will reduce the number of people killed (both civilians and officers), injured and arrested. Think about the long list of names that have become national flash points: Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines, Paul O’Neal. Now imagine an America where some of them made it to the ER three minutes faster, or weren’t stopped for a broken tail light or raided over traffic violations, or if an officer had other first words besides “get the [expletive] on the sidewalk!” Imagine how much shorter that list would be, and how much better America would be as a result.
Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.