In the loud clamor of opinions both for and against the not-guilty verdict for Jason Stockley last Friday, something extremely important is being overlooked. It has been overlooked in the public dialogue following every case of police shooting or police abuse of civilians.
The elephant in the room is this: We Americans have allowed systems to be put in place in which police error in the use of lethal force, resulting in unnecessary civilian death, will never be the extremely rare event we have a right to expect. Instead, it will be frequent and inevitable. And until we acknowledge this and push for the systemic safeguards we need, such killings will go on relentlessly, our social fabric will be torn apart by rage and grief, and all police officers — including the many who are responsible and non-racist — will suffer distrust.
In our country, police kill about a thousand people a year. In nearly every case, the police or the courts or both would have us believe that the death was justifiable. I am in no way contending that none are justified. But I am asking, how can we reasonably accept that they were? For that we would need to be able to point to credible and effective systems of checks and balances, but we can’t.
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For one thing, the judicial system should act as a check and balance on the use of lethal force by police. But where is the evidence that it ever has? If our courts across this country had histories of convicting the bad apples on the police force, the good ones would not have to face derision or mistrust.
Hasn’t it been clear from all we’ve seen by this time? What it boils down to is that all across this nation, new police are trained in programs that are likely too brief, empowered with lethal force, and told to shoot to kill if they feel threatened. Then when an officer kills someone, that perception of threat becomes not just the motivation but the vindication for the act: I did it because I decided it was right, and it’s right because I did it.
That empowerment to kill and the implicit godlike permission to use it at will, added to the now-realistic expectation that no court will hold a police officer accountable, is a virtual guarantee that the societal norm is weighted toward police error in the use of lethal force.
There are two systemic problems here. One lies in the norms and practices in police departments all across this country. The other is the favorable weight the judicial system gives to police performing their jobs.
I want to assert that many upstanding, responsible individuals choose police work as a way to give back to their communities. They wear the uniform proudly, and energize every day with the desire to serve and protect the public. They want to be the allies of our civil society, not its underminers.
We need these people desperately. Unfortunately for them, their own police departments let them down. How? By providing zero or very little training in how to de-escalate volatile situations and how to eliminate threats without using lethal force. By providing insufficient training in how to deal with suspects who are obviously mentally ill or high. By tolerating racist remarks and behavior. By nurturing an atmosphere in which loyalty to other officers, regardless of what they have done or are likely to do, outweighs the need to hold them accountable through the department’s own disciplinary processes or through the courts.
The other systemic problem is the bias of the judicial system. Numerous studies have made it indisputable that our judicial system is biased against individuals of color. Too often they receive poor legal representation. They are convicted more often, and receive harsher sentences.
The other is the bias in favor of police. Sympathy for the police who bravely put their lives at risk every day should not extend to rubberstamping the “perception of threat” defense every time it is raised.
What can we do about this? Demand — civilly, nonviolently — real systemic change. One avenue would be to pressure our elected federal representatives to investigate the situation, then come up with federal standards for police training and behavior, among other things, tied to all federal grants to police departments.
Tell them: We deserve better. So do our police.
Mary Edwards Wertsch of University City is a freelance editor and author of “Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress.”