Anderson-Clark Exchange: Is policing and police training too heavily based on use of force?

Question: On April 20, a jury found Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, guilty of three counts of murder in the death of George Floyd, a black man who had a drug history. What was not admissible at the trial was the fact that in Chauvin’s 20 years on the force, 18 complaints of misconduct had been filed against him.

Within 24 hours of Chauvin’s conviction, police shot and killed four other people in the United States, at least two of them black.

• One was a 16-year-old African-American girl in Columbus, Ohio who had swung a knife at two different girls or women.

• One was a man who drove up to a home in San Antonio, Texas, went into a shed in the back yard, and shot and killed the resident, who was in the shed. When police arrived, the man started shooting at them. They returned fire. His name and ethnicity were not released.

• After being called out to serve a warrant, at least eight sheriff’s deputies, some with assault rifles, unloaded a hail of gunfire on Andrew Brown, Jr., 42-year-old black man in Elizabeth City, N.C. Most body cam footage was not released, but the man’s family was shown a 20-second segment. They said it showed Brown was sitting in his car with his hands on the steering wheel when he was shot. One of the man’s relatives called the shooting an “execution.”

    The chief deputy for the Sheriff’s Office said Brown was a convicted felon with a history of resisting arrest. The chief deputy said, “Our training and our policies indicate that under such circumstances, there is a risk of danger.”

 • In Escondido, Calif., police responded to a call about a man, who was white, hitting cars with a 2-foot metal pole. An officer repeatedly told the man to drop the pole and threatened to use force. When the man continued to walk toward the officer with the pole, he shot and killed him.

Escondido officers said the man was well known to them. They said he was homeless and mentally ill, and had a history of violence, including assaults on police officers.

But a witness said, “Really, the police officer had no reason to shoot him. He wasn’t really a threat. He was crazy but he was not swinging at the cop, he was just walking up to him and the cop shot him.”

 An organization called Mapping Police Violence says in a typical year, 1,000 people are shot by police officers in the United States.

Do these incidents demonstrate a need for change in our police culture and practices? If so, what specific changes are needed? Or do these deaths, and the number of deaths, come with the territory in policing a large nation.

Steve Clark: Stories of alleged police brutality have dominated the news lately. What reasonable person would condone Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes? However, there’s a common thread that runs through all the incidents you’ve cited. All of the suspects chose to ignore police commands.

The 16-year-old black girl in Columbus, Ohio ignored police commands to stop and appeared to be in the act of stabbing another person. We all saw the knife. The threat of death or great bodily harm to an innocent person was obvious and eminent had the cop not acted.

The man in San Antonio had already demonstrated his willingness to kill. When he shot at police, they had no choice but to shoot back.

In Elizabeth City, N.C, cops were executing a felony warrant against a man who had a history of resisting arrest and who was not complying with police orders at the time he was killed.

The same in Escondido, Calif., with the man who was ignoring police commands to stop and drop the weapon in his hand. (For those unaware, an aggressor can close a gap of 15 feet in about a second.)

Do police need more training? Probably. I’ll address that in my next tranche. But let’s not forget who the police were dealing with here. These were not pillars of the community; they were men and women, mostly felons, actively resisting arrest. It’s easy to be an arm-chair quarterback, but if you were the one holding the gun, what would you have done? Glad it wasn’t me in their place, how about you, Alison?

Alison Anderson: Well, Steve, the first thing I’ll admit is that I don’t know what it is like to be a policewoman or a policeman, and that I think they have a difficult, no-win job as law enforcement is currently defined.

That said, as a citizen, I ask myself what I want from the police. I want to be safe in my home and neighborhood. I don’t want my possessions taken from me, either through burglary or fraud, and I want to be able to live in a law-abiding space, safe on the roads, on a plane, or in a crowd.

What I really want is for my fellow-citizens to obey the law, but if I’m the victim of a crime, I want the police to help solve the crime and ensure that the criminal is prevented from harming anyone else.

It seems to me that instead of being asked to ensure our safety, law enforcement is asked to solve the problems of our society with force. They have guns, they’re trained to use them, and at least some of the time, instead of diffusing a violent situation for which they don’t have the skill set, they feel threatened, so they shoot.

Much of the time, the police are watching for petty crimes—they’re generating income for their towns or cities by ticketing speeders, or people with expired car registrations or broken tail-lights.

They’re keeping an eye out in sketchy neighborhoods for drug dealers and vandals, and trying to prevent violent crimes. But they’re over-trained in use-of-force tactics, so they respond in the way they’re trained to do.

Steve Clark’s response: It is always a tragedy when police have to use deadly force. I applaud programs that train police to de-escalate and to use non-lethal weapons when they can. But lost in the cacophony of sensational negative reporting on police tactics is the fact that for every Eric Chauvin case there are hundreds of thousands of police/public interactions, including arrests, that are resolved without loss of life. Far more swat team incidents result in apprehension than death.

I reiterate, all of the cases cited, including George Floyd, terminated as they did because offenders did not obey lawful police orders. Is the problem disrespect for law enforcement more than law enforcement’s disregard for the civil rights of perpetrators?

Black Lives Matter and liberals should be outraged by the fact that blacks comprise 12.6 percent of the U.S. total population (2010), yet account for more than 51 percent of the murders in the U.S. (FBI statistics for 2019.) Is it any wonder that police are wary while policing the black community?

While blacks may perceive that law enforcement is singling them out, a substantial percentage of crime complaints in many urban areas originate within the black community. Are cops racially profiling or simply going where the crime is?

In my opinion, intercity blacks have created a culture built on drugs and violence, buttressed by a near total disrespect for law, and are now trying to blame the police for the culture they themselves developed.

Are there a few rogue, racist cops? Yes, and they need to be gone. But for every one of them there are tens of thousands who place their own lives in jeopardy to protect lives, and serve their communities with honor, dignity and integrity.

Alison’s response: I disagree, Steve. Yes, blacks are disproportionally arrested and convicted—but I suspect they’re often unfairly perceived as a threat by police and may be wrongly accused and incarcerated.

Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer who wrote the book, “Just Mercy,” (later made into a movie) says, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated and the condemned.”

I think police are expected to punish people—arrest them and see to it they’re prosecuted. But sometimes they arrest people because they’re poor (maybe they can’t afford to pay their car insurance and registration) or they’re mentally ill, and acting strange or violent.

They may be addicted to alcohol or drugs, so they’re driving under the influence, or they’re committing a crime to feed their habit.

They may have no education or training or opportunity that enables them to find or keep a job, so they’re stealing to survive. They may come from an abusive home, so they have never learned to treat their spouses with patience or kindness.

It seems to me that these people need help—they need a case-worker to help them to get counseling or job training, or take them to an AA meeting. They may need a good meal and a place to de-tox.

Law-enforcement personnel can be trained to de-escalate tense situations—but our society needs to provide safe places that are not jails, and help for people who have problems.

As you say, most policemen and policewomen are doing a good job—and there are times when crime must be stopped or investigated—and punished.

I think, though, that many times, police are doing the wrong job, one better done by someone without a gun.