You know the protests in Ferguson last year did not occur because of one death. They occurred due to a pattern of killing and mistreatment that extends back for years. The combination of race profiling and police militarization has been deadly for minorities and the poor. Eric Garner sells gray market cigarettes on the street, and the next thing you know, he’s dead. Darren Wilson picks on Michael Brown for an act less serious than jaywalking – walking on the street next to the curb – and the next thing you know he’s dead. You can name dozens and dozens of cases less well known, if you do even a little research.
Now we have the case of Tony Robinson. I do not know the details of this case, but one part of the scenario stands out. After Robinson created a disturbance in a Madison street sufficient to attract attention from the police, officer Matt Kenny followed Robinson to his apartment, forced his way in after he heard a disturbance inside, and shot Robinson under circumstances not yet determined. This is not a scenario that one ever expects would result in death. We’ve started to become used to the idea that police officers can come to your house or apartment, to a child on a playground, to your automobile, or to an individual walking down the street with his friend, ready to draw their weapons if they perceive the least danger, no matter what the circumstances. The next thing you know, someone is dead.
When a police officer draws a weapon on someone – or forces his way into your house, for that matter – the confrontation escalates super-rapidly. Imagine if it happens to you.
For the police officer, it is a simple matter of self-protection, apparently taught to police officers as an okay thing to do. For the subject, as officers like to call the victim, drawing a gun causes two key reactions in the person on the open end of the gun barrel: fear and anger. You see how close the officer’s finger is to the gun’s trigger, and your body’s instinctual fight-or-flight response takes over. Neither response is helpful if you want to save your own life. Fear to the point of panic causes your heart to beat hard. Your blood pushes adrenaline out to your muscles. Anger compounds the fright. If fear makes you want to run, anger makes you want to fight. Without thinking, you respond to a situation where a state authority in uniform threatens you with a gun. Both reactions result in behavior that confirms the police officer’s sense of danger, the desire for self-protection that led him to draw his weapon in the first place.
The next thing you know someone is dead. Police officers have to be trained to deescalate situations, not escalate them. They have to be willing to undergo some risk in doing so. Everyone recognizes that policing can be dangerous work. You cannot try to make it risk-free by brandishing a weapon at people who make you feel uncomfortable, in a situation where the other person certainly feels uncomfortable as well. The police officer’s assignment is to keep the peace, not to kill people. You don’t keep the peace by pulling out your gun every time you feel threatened.
I am not saying that police officers want to kill people, or that they look for black people to assault. Yet without a doubt, police departments have a record of treating people of color differently from the way they treat white people. We argue about whether this treatment results from disrespect, racism, profiling, poor training, poor recruitment of police officers, higher crime in minority neighborhoods, fear some white people have of black males, historically troubled race relations, or other reasons particular to a given community. Given all these reasons for things to go wrong, the last thing a police officer wants to do is pull a gun on a young black male, in circumstances where things can go wrong.
If necessary, when police need to interact with black men, send out a black police officer who has no physical fear: someone who can walk into a situation without a gun and deescalate it with broad shoulders, a commanding presence and a deep voice. The guy who stands by the door at a bar can break up fights without a gun. Find police officers who don’t start fights, and who know how to break up the fights they find. That’s what it means to keep the peace. Stop shooting people, no matter what their race. You do not need to be so aggressive, nor do you need to have such a heightened sense of self-protection. The people you shoot have no way to protect themselves from your weaponry, and they are scared of you. Don’t make things worse by pulling out your weapon at the first appearance of danger.