Images of American Violence: What Sense Do They Make?

I watched the entire dash-cam video over and over again. The South Carolina State Trooper shot a young black man when he reached for his drivers license as directed. Many major news outlets played it. Maybe that is because it wasn’t a gruesome bloody scene and the victim fell beyond the dash-cam range upon being shot. Yet it was certainly dramatic. But the audio helped me get a sense of the flow of the aftermath. It was an unusual video in that the viewer could clearly see the sequence of events in relation to hearing what was said. That did not make it any less incomprehensible, without placing it in the larger social context. Watch it and you will see what I mean.

Clearly, the victim believed himself to be following the orders of the officer. After patting his back pocket, he reached into his car for the license. Clearly the officer appeared to be reacting to what he defined as a threat, firing his weapon four times. But from the viewpoint of the camera, no threat was apparent. It is only when we explore the definitions of the situation at play that we can make sense of what happened.

Interpreting Police Violence

All inferences of racism aside – I have no way of knowing the extent that the white trooper may have harbored racist images of young black males – the officer’s actions spoke volumes about his expectations. So did his words. The apologetic victim kept asking why he had been shot as he lay on the asphalt off camera. Obviously, the officer defined the young man’s action of reaching into the car as an existential threat, which drove him to draw and fire four times. The officer tried to explain that “you dove head-first back into the car” causing him to shoot. A word of advice: if you are ever stopped by the police, whoever you are, wherever you are, never make any quick movement.

To be brief, even in the disturbing implications of this video, it illustrates several important factors at play in police-citizen interactions. Until these factors are understood, little progress will be made in police-civilian relations in Ferguson, L.A., Albuquerque, Chicago, New York, or anywhere else in America.

First, most police officers are poorly trained. Second, it is a dangerous job. While many police officers get through their entire career without firing a shot at another human being, those who do fire their weapons are trained to shoot to kill. But even those who are a good shot at the range miss the majority of their shots in the heat of the moment. Yet, on the street an officer never knows whether a sudden move or a quick turn might involve a weapon. So, the NRA wants to arm everyone!

Third, most civilians fear the police (even when they respect them) because we all know they have the physical and institutional power to kill us. We are aware that in most bad shootings the officer escapes any serious consequences, while the consequences for us can be fatal.

Fourth, we all expect the police “to protect and to serve,” but we pay little or no attention to the fact that they are poorly trained, most are hardly educated, and many are self-selected into law enforcement because they like to beat on people. In the academies, such as they are, an attitude of rigid authoritarianism is encouraged. Now we have added to the macho ethos the new image of the “Warrior Cop” and all the military weapons and hardware that encourage the attitudes that lead to perceiving all civilians as ‘the enemy.’

Police in Civil Society

As I have argued in some previous posts, a truly civilian police force composed of actual Peace Officers, can only happen if our communities force the standards to be raised to the highest levels and the officers to be paid very well if they meet those standards. If they do not, they should be removed from the force after a two or three year probation period. A college degree in the appropriate field, such as sociology, psychology, or criminal justice, should be required. Extensive training to at least first-degree black belt in a martial art is a must. Aikido, for example, was developed to subdue an assailant, not to injure or kill him. How many people have been shot when a properly trained officer could have easily subdued them? Far too many. An apprenticeship with ‘master cops’ with proven expertise and attitude of service should be instituted.  Only with the development of a strong culture of service can the culture of violence be diverted.

But none of these standards will mean much at all if a police department is not led by highly dedicated public servants who view the police as committed to serving the people. That is not currently the case in most police departments today. It may seem odd to compare the crisis of policing in America to the climate crisis or to the economic crisis. But each is a fundamental predicament ignored by the political and economic elites that make the key decisions in this nation and benefit from the status quo. In all three cases, the change we should believe in will never happen unless the people make it happen. Occupy Wall Street and the fossil-fuel divestment movements have begun to demonstrate that it can be done, as have other historical movements. The entrenched interests in each of these sectors can be overcome by the power of numbers.

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