Recent YouTube videos have treated us to the sickening spectacle of police again shooting unarmed black and brown men – one with hands raised, the other lying on the ground. The one with raised hands was shot 17 times by police in Pasco, Washington. The one on the ground was shot 5 times by 3 Los Angeles police officers with several others standing nearby.
Couple that with what we know of Ferguson and our government’s donation of military equipment to local (even rural) police forces in the name of fighting terrorism, and there’s ample cause for concern about U.S. policing. The names Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others, reveal the swift and easy transition from “protect and serve” to “harass and dominate.”
Why are trigger-happy police officers so easily excused by simple invocation of their favorite mantra, “I feared for my life”?
Is it that the officers caught on tape are essentially cowards? Dangerous situations emerge when fear-filled men are given license to kill unarmed people with raised hands, or those lying on the ground, even when the latter are surrounded by five or six men in blue with guns drawn. If the surrounding men were not uniformed, most of us would find their actions contemptible.
Of course, no one denies that policemen are on the whole good people and have very dangerous jobs. African-American and Hispanic communities themselves need and want good police in their neighborhoods, regardless of the officers’ skin color. And besides there are plenty of non-white officers on the Los Angeles and New York City police forces (though not on their Ferguson counterpart).
In any case, it is clear that there is something dreadfully wrong with police training. Obviously, their weapons instruction teaches them how to fire guns. It is evident however that officers need even more training about how to avoid firing those weapons. Backing off is not cowardly; neither is shooting to wound rather than kill.
As for the hazards of policing, it doesn’t even rank among our country’s ten most dangerous jobs. Those belong to loggers, fishermen, pilots, roofers, steel workers, garbage collectors, electricians, truck drivers, farmers, and construction workers.
That list puts into perspective the “I feared for my life” defense inevitably invoked by police allegedly mistaking wallets, pens, candy bars, and sandwiches for lethal weapons.
As retired NYPD detective, Graham Witherspoon puts it: if policemen are that afraid to put their lives in danger, they’ve chosen the wrong profession. It would be better, he said, to “go home to mommy,” and find some other line of work.