John Whitehead's Commentary
Killer Instincts: When Police Become Judge, Jury and Executioner
Any police officer who shoots to kill is playing with fire.
In that split second of deciding whether to shoot and where to aim, that officer has appointed himself judge, jury and executioner over a fellow citizen. And when an officer fires a killing shot at a fellow citizen not once or twice but three and four and five times, he is no longer a guardian of the people but is acting as a paid assassin. In so doing, he has short-circuited a legal system that was long ago established to protect against such abuses by government agents.
These are hard words, I know, but hard times call for straight talking.
We’ve been dancing around the issue of police shootings for too long now, but we’re about to crash headlong into some harsh realities if we don’t do something to ward off disaster.
You’d better get ready.
It’s easy to get outraged when police wrongfully shoot children, old people and unarmed citizens watering their lawns or tending to autistic patients. It’s harder to rouse the public’s ire when the people getting shot and killed by police are suspected of criminal activities or armed with guns and knives. Yet both scenarios should be equally reprehensible to anyone who values human life, due process and the rule of law.
For instance, Paul O’Neal was shot in the back and killed by police as he fled after allegedly sideswiping a police car during a chase. The 18-year-old was suspected of stealing a car.
Korryn Gaines was shot and killed—and her 5-year-old son was shot—by police after Gaines resisted arrest for a traffic warrant and allegedly threatened to shoot police. Police first shot at Gaines and then opened fire when she reportedly shot back at them.
Loreal Tsingine was shot and killed by a police officer after she approached him holding a small pair of medical scissors. The 27-year-old Native American woman was suspected of shoplifting.
None of these individuals will ever have the chance to stand trial, be found guilty or serve a sentence for their alleged crimes because a police officer—in a split second—had already tried them, found them guilty and sentenced them to death.
In every one of these scenarios, police could have resorted to less lethal tactics.
They could have attempted to de-escalate and defuse the situation.
They could have acted with reason and calculation instead of reacting with a killer instinct.
That police instead chose to fatally resolve these encounters by using their guns on fellow citizens speaks volumes about what is wrong with policing in America today, where police officers are being dressed in the trappings of war, drilled in the deadly art of combat, and trained to look upon “every individual they interact with as an armed threat and every situation as a deadly force encounter in the making.”
Contrast those three fatal police shootings with a police intervention that took place in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia.
On. Aug. 1, 2016, police responded to a call about a possible abduction of a 17-year-old girl. When they confronted the 46-year-old “suspect,” he reportedly “threw a trash can at them and then charged them with a knife.” When he shouted at them to “shoot me,” they evaded him. When they refused to fire their guns, he stabbed himself in the chest. The officers then tasered the man in order to subdue him.
So what’s the difference between the first three scenarios and the last, apart from the lack of overly aggressive policing or trigger-happy officers?
Ultimately, it comes down to training and accountability.
It’s the difference between police officers who rank their personal safety above everyone else’s and police officers who understand that their jobs are to serve and protect. It’s the difference between police trained to shoot to kill and police trained to resolve situations peacefully. Most of all, it’s the difference between police who believe the law is on their side and police who know that they will be held to account for their actions under the same law as everyone else.
Unfortunately, more and more police are being trained to view themselves as distinct from the citizenry, to view their authority as superior to the citizenry, and to view their lives as more precious than those of their citizen counterparts. Instead of being taught to see themselves as mediators and peacemakers whose lethal weapons are to be used as a last resort, they are being drilled into acting like gunmen with killer instincts who shoot to kill rather than merely incapacitate.
We’re approaching a breaking point.
This policing crisis is far more immediate and concerning than the government’s so-called war on terror or drugs.
So why isn’t more being done to address it?
As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, there’s too much money at stake, for one, and too much power.
Those responsible for this policing crisis are none other than the police unions that are helping police officers evade accountability for wrongdoing; the police academies that are teaching police officers that their lives are more valuable than the lives of those they serve; a corporate military sector that is making a killing by selling military-grade weapons, equipment, technology and tactical training to domestic police agencies; a political establishment that is dependent on campaign support and funding from the powerful police unions; and a police state that is transforming police officers into extensions of the military in order to extend its reach and power.
This is no longer a debate over good cops and bad cops.
It’s a tug-of-war between the constitutional republic America’s founders intended and the police state we are fast becoming.
As former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper recognizes, “Policing is broken. Tragically, it has been broken from the very beginning of the institution. It has evolved as a paramilitary, bureaucratic, organizational arrangement that distances police officers from the communities they've been sworn to protect and serve. When we have shooting after shooting after shooting that most people would define as at least questionable, it's time to look, not just at a few bad apples, but the barrel. And I'm convinced that it is the barrel that is rotted.
So how do we fix what’s broken, stop the senseless shootings and bring about lasting reform?
For starters, stop with the scare tactics. In much the same way that American citizens are being cocooned in a climate of fear—fear of terrorism, fear of extremism, fear of each other—by a government that knows exactly which buttons to push in order to gain the public’s cooperation and compliance, police officers are also being indoctrinated with the psychology of fear.
“That isn’t the word used in law enforcement circles, of course,” explains law professor Seth Stoughton. “Vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, or observant are the terms that appear most often in police publications. But make no mistake, officers don’t learn to be vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, and observant just because it’s fun. They do so because they are afraid. Fear is ubiquitous in law enforcement… officers are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.”
Writing for the Harvard Law Review, Stoughton continues:
From their earliest days in the academy, would-be officers are told that their prime objective, the proverbial “first rule of law enforcement,” is to go home at the end of every shift. But they are taught that they live in an intensely hostile world. A world that is, quite literally, gunning for them. As early as the first day of the police academy, the dangers officers face are depicted in graphic and heart-wrenching recordings that capture a fallen officer’s last moments. Death, they are told, is constantly a single, small misstep away.
Despite the propaganda being peddled by the government and police unions, police today experience less on-the-job fatalities than they ever have historically.
Second, level the playing field. Police are no more or less special than you or me. Their lives are no more valuable than any other citizen’s. Whether or not they wield a gun, police officers are public servants like all other government officials, which means that they work for us. They answer to us. We are their employers. While police are entitled to every protection afforded under the law, the same as any other citizen, they should not be afforded any special privileges. Most Americans, oblivious about their own rights, aren’t even aware that police officers have their own Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which protects police officers from being subjected to the kinds of debilitating indignities heaped upon the average citizen and grants police officers accused of a crime with special due process rights and privileges not afforded to the average citizen.
Third, require that police officers be trained in non-lethal tactics. According to the New York Times, a survey of 281 police agencies found that the average young officer received 58 hours of firearms training and 49 hours of defensive tactical training, but only eight hours of de-escalation training. In fact, “The training regimens at nearly all of the nation’s police academies continue to emphasize military-style exercises, including significant hours spent practicing drill, formation and saluting.” If police officers are taking classes in how to shoot, maim and kill, shouldn’t they also be required to take part in annual seminars teaching de-escalation techniques and educating them about how to respect their fellow citizens’ constitutional rights, especially under the First and Fourth Amendments?
Congressional legislation has been introduced to require that police officers be trained in non-lethal force, go through crisis intervention training to help them deal with the mentally ill, and use the lowest level of force possible when responding to a threat. Unfortunately, the police unions are powerful and the politicians are greedy, and it remains unlikely that any such legislation will be adopted in a major election year.
Fourth, ditch the quasi-military obsession. Police forces were never intended to be standing armies. Yet with police agencies dressing like the military in camouflage and armor, training with the military, using military weapons, riding around in armored vehicles, recruiting military veterans, and even boasting military titles, one would be hard pressed to distinguish between the two. Still, it’s our job to make sure that we can distinguish between the two, and that means keeping the police in their place as civilians—non-military citizens—who are entrusted with protecting our rights.
Fifth, demilitarize. There are many examples of countries where police are not armed and dangerous, and they are no worse off for it. Indeed, their crime rates are low and their police officers are trained to view every citizen as precious. For all of the talk among politicians about gun violence and the need to enact legislation to make it more difficult for Americans to acquire weapons, little is being done to demilitarize and de-weaponize police. Indeed, President Obama is actually reconsidering his limited ban on the flow of military gear to police. The problem is not that police are in any greater danger than before. Rather, by dressing as warriors, they are acting like warriors and increasing the danger inherent in every police encounter.
Sixth, do away with the police warrior mindset in favor of a guardian approach. As Stoughton explains, “Counterintuitively, the warrior mentality … makes policing less safe for both officers and civilians.” It also creates avoidable violence by insisting on deference and compliance and “increases the risk that other officers face in other encounters.” The guardian approach, however, “prioritizes service over crimefighting… it instructs officers that their interactions with community members must be more than legally justified, they must also be empowering, fair, respectful, and considerate. The guardian mindset emphasizes communication over commands, cooperation over compliance, and legitimacy over authority. And in the use-of-force context, the Guardian emphasizes patience and restraint over control, stability over action.”
Seventh, stop making taxpayers pay for police abuses. Some communities are trying to require police to carry their own professional liability insurance. The logic is that if police had to pay out of pocket for their own wrongdoing, they might be more cautious and less inclined to shoot first and ask questions later.
Eighth, stop relying on technology to fix what’s wrong with the country. The body cameras haven’t stopped the police shootings, and they won’t as long the cameras can be turned on and off at will while the footage remains inaccessible to the public. One North Carolina police department is even testing out a pilot machine learning system that “learns to spot risk factors for unprofessional conduct” and then recommend that officer for early intervention. It sounds a lot like a pre-crime program, only aimed at police officers, which sends up its own warning signals.
Ninth, take a deep breath because change takes time. As Stoughton warns, “Earning public trust will take decades and require rethinking how officers are trained as well as the legal and administrative standards used to review police violence. It will require changing the very culture of policing by reaffirming that policing must be done with a community, not to a community.”
Tenth, stop being busybodies and snitches. Overcriminalization has partially fueled the drive to “police” everything from kids walking to the playground alone and backyard chicken coops to front yard vegetable gardens. But let’s start taking some responsibility for our own communities and stop turning every minor incident into a reason to call the police.
Finally, support due process for everyone, not just the people in your circle. Remember that you no longer have to be poor, black or guilty to be treated like a criminal in America. All that is required is that you belong to the suspect class—a.k.a. the citizenry—of the American police state. As a de facto member of this so-called criminal class, every U.S. citizen is now guilty until proven innocent.
You could be the next person who gets shot by a police officer for moving the wrong way during a traffic stop, running the wrong way in the vicinity of a police officer, or defending yourself against a home invasion when the police show up at the wrong address in the middle of the night. People have been wrongfully shot and killed for these exact reasons.
So stop judging and start holding your government officials accountable to ensuring that every American is granted due process of law, which means that no one can be deprived of “life, liberty or property” by a government official without certain fair and legal procedures being followed.
There can be no justice in America when Americans are being killed, detained and robbed at gunpoint by government officials on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, Americans have been so propagandized, politicized and polarized that many feel compelled to choose sides between defending the police at all costs or painting them as dangerously out-of-control. Nothing is ever that black and white, but there are a few things that we can be sure of: America is not a battlefield. American citizens are not enemy combatants. And police officers—no matter how courageous—are not soldiers.
Therein lies the problem: we’ve allowed the government to create an alternate reality in which freedom is secondary to security, and the rights of the citizenry are less important than the authority of the government. This way lies madness.
The longer we wait to burst the bubble on this false chimera, the harder it will be to return to a time when police were public servants and freedom actually meant something, and the greater the risks to both police officers and the rest of the citizenry.
Something must be done and soon.
The police state wants the us vs. them dichotomy. It wants us to turn each other in, distrust each other and be at each other’s throats, while it continues amassing power. It wants police officers who act like the military, and citizens who cower in fear. It wants a suspect society. It wants us to play by its rules instead of holding it accountable to the rule of law.
The best way to beat the police state: don’t play by their rules.
Make them play by ours instead.