When I arrived in Santa Rosa, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, I wasn’t thinking about the news reports I’d read about the police killing of the thirteen year old with the toy replica of an assault rifle in that town of 160,000 a few weeks before. It had been an uneventful trip and now we were driving around the area on a balmy December day.
We stopped at the Bohemian Market in Occidental, a small nearby town in Sonoma County. There I spotted a Sonoma County Gazette, “written by readers.” Wherever I visit, I grab a copy of the local free paper to check out the culture and economy. Lots of ads for local stores, civic announcements, festivals of all sorts, and the occasional news story in such papers give a pretty good sense of life in the area.
In the December issue of the Sonoma County Gazette, I found no less than three articles and several letters to the editor, expressing views on the police shooting of Andy Lopez — some in response to a set of articles on the event in the November issue. Some actions had already been taken in response to citizens’ concern with probable over-reaction on the officer’s part on seeing a thirteen year old with a toy gun. One proposal was for a stonger policy on police use of deadly force.
One writer argued that the City of Santa Rosa had a use of deadly force policy that unreasonably favored the officer. When I read the part of the policy that was quoted, it reminded me of the “stand your ground” laws recently promoted by the infamous Koch brothers and their political action arm, ALEC, and enacted into law in about 26 states. As is well known now, these laws have the effect of excusing the use of the deadly force of a firearm when a person ‘feels potentially threatened’ by another in a public setting.
Neither citizen nor police officer should be allowed to kill anyone on the chance that they may be “dangerous.” A steady stream of news stories about unarmed citizens shot by uniformed officers suggests a serious defect in the credibility of law enforcement in the nation as genuine keepers of the peace. Among the articles and letters in the Gazette, blame was found in every party, from toy manufacturer to parent, child, officers, and department policies. Yet something remained missing.
Guns are dangerous. Guns in the hands of some persons are far more dangerous than guns in the hands of others. The American culture of violence further muddies the waters when guns are involved in an issue. We confuse “training” with wisdom. When police academy cadets are self-selected by their propensity for violence, training will not fix the problem. Most law enforcement institutions today still do not seriously screen applicants for appropriate psychological character. One of my university students several years ago reported that most of the cadets he knew from high school were the guys who liked to beat people up. These are the folks who are now Los Angeles Count Sheriffs — that’s the outfit the FBI investigated over this past year documenting massive violence against inmates and visitors to the LA County Jail, before indictments were handed down by federal prosecutors; some of those charged were high ranking, suggesting the very endemic culture of violence for which the LA County Sheriffs are so famous in minority and youth communities.
Stronger use of deadly force policies, more rigorous training, civilian review boards, and full transparency in police shooting investigations are all important. But they are not enough if you want a compassionate thoroughly disciplined police force dedicated to the safety of all people. Unfortunately, one commentator in the Gazette is right: combat veterans are trained to kill and to dehumanize those they see as the enemy — that is their experience, their outlook, and what they do. Their high suicide rate results from the irreconcilability between their life actions and the human values they once held. They should have no place in any civilian police force. A serious psychological screening would eliminate almost all of those who have killed professionally.
I learned to shoot guns as a boy — younger than Andy Lopez when he was killed — but that was decades ago when the NRA was all about safety and therefore self-discipline, not about promoting the economic interests of weapons manufacturers by pushing the sale of every kind of gun to everyone. Twenty years later I learned, through the practice of Aikido, that centered calm compassion and clarity of purpose can diffuse many situations that might otherwise explode in violence. That is not typical of police culture. One important way for American culture to get over its obsession with violence and with guns is to establish genuinely compassionate and highly disciplined civilian police forces. Unfortunately, the militarization of police in America — largely through the economy of the drug war — is taking us in exactly the opposite direction.