John Whitehead's Commentary
Licensed to Kill: The Growing Phenomenon of Police Shooting Unarmed Citizens
Here’s a recipe for disaster: Take a young man (or woman), raise him on a diet of violence, hype him up on the power of the gun in his holster and the superiority of his uniform, render him woefully ignorant of how to handle a situation without resorting to violence, train him well in military tactics but allow him to be illiterate about the Constitution, and never stress to him that he is to be a peacemaker and a peacekeeper, respectful of and subservient to the taxpayers, who are in fact his masters and employers.
Once you have fully indoctrinated this young man (or woman) on the idea that the police belong to a brotherhood of sorts, with its own honor code and rule of law, then place this person in situations where he will encounter individuals who knowingly or unknowingly challenge his authority, where he may, justifiably or not, feel threatened, and where he will have to decide between firing a weapon or, the more difficult option, adequately investigating a situation in order to better assess the danger and risk posed to himself and others, and then act on it by defusing the tension or de-escalating the violence.
I’m not talking about a situation so obviously fraught with risk that there is no other option but to shoot, although I am hard pressed to consider what that might be outside of the sensationalized Hollywood hostage crisis scenario. I’m talking about the run-of-the mill encounters between police and citizens that occur daily. In an age when police are increasingly militarized, weaponized and protected by the courts, these once-routine encounters are now inherently dangerous for any civilian unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I’m not the only one concerned, either. Indeed, I’ve been contacted by many older cops equally alarmed by the attitudes and behaviors of younger police today, the foot soldiers in the emerging police state. Yet as I point out in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, this is what happens when you go from a representative democracy in which all members are subject to the rule of law to a hierarchical one in which there is one set of laws for the rulers and another, far more stringent set, for the ruled.
Hence, it is no longer unusual to hear about an incident in which police shoot unarmed individuals first and ask questions later. This is becoming all too common. For example, on September 14th alone, there were two separate police shootings of unarmed individuals, resulting in death and/or injury to innocent individuals—and those are just the shootings that happened to make national headlines.
The first shooting incident took place in Charlotte, N.C., when three police officers responded to a 911 “breaking and entering” call in which a homeowner reported that a man she didn’t know or recognize had been knocking at her door repeatedly. Upon arriving on scene, the police saw a man matching the caller’s description running towards them. One officer fired a stun gun, after which the second officer opened fire on the unarmed 24-year-old, who died on the scene. Only afterwards did police realize the dead man, a former football player, had been in a car accident and was likely approaching them for help.
Later that same day, in New York’s Times Square, police officers shot into a crowd of tourists, aiming for a 35-year-old man who had been reportedly weaving among cars and loosely gesturing with his hands in his pockets. The cops missed the man, who was unarmed, and shot a 54-year-old woman in the knee and another woman in the buttock. The man was eventually subdued with a Taser.
Just a few weeks earlier, in Florida, 60-year-old Roy Middleton was shot in the leg by police when he wandered out to his Lincoln Town car, which was parked in his mother’s driveway, in search of cigarettes in the wee hours of the morning. A neighbor, seeing Middleton, reported him to 911 as a possible robber. Police, after ordering the unarmed black man out of the car, began firing on Middleton, who likened the experience to a “firing squad. Bullets were flying everywhere.” The car was reportedly riddled with bullets and 17 shell casings were on scene. Defending their actions, the two police officers claim that Middleton, who had a metallic object in his hand, “made a lunging motion” out of the car causing them to “fear for their safety.” That metallic object was a key chain with a flashlight attached.
These are not isolated incidents. Law enforcement officials are increasingly responding to unsubstantiated fears for their safety and perceived challenges to their “authority” by drawing and using their weapons.
For example, Miami-Dade police slammed a 14-year-old boy to the ground, putting him in a chokehold and handcuffing him after he allegedly gave them “dehumanizing stares” and walked away from them, which the officers found unacceptable. According to Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, “His body language was that he was stiffening up and pulling away… When you have somebody resistant to them and pulling away and somebody clenching their fists and flailing their arms, that’s a threat. Of course we have to neutralize the threat.”
Unfortunately, this mindset that any challenge to police authority is a threat that needs to be “neutralized” is a dangerous one that is part of a greater nationwide trend that sets law enforcement officers beyond the reach of the Fourth Amendment. Equally problematic is the trend in the courts that acquits officers involved in such shootings, letting them off with barely a slap to the wrists.
This begs the question: what exactly are we teaching these young officers in the police academy when the slightest thing, whether it be a hand in a pocket, a man running towards them, a flashlight on a keychain, or a dehumanizing stare can ignite a strong enough “fear for their safety” to justify doing whatever is deemed necessary to neutralize the threat, even if it means firing on an unarmed person?
The problem, notes Jerome Skolnick and former New York City police officer/Temple University criminal justice professor James Fyfe in their book Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force, is that
police work is often viewed by those in the force as an us-versus-them war rather than a chance for community-oriented engagement and problem solving. The authors also point to a lack of accountability as one of the reasons why police violence persists. They acknowledge that, yes, police officers are placed in dangerous situations that at times require immediate responses. But they maintain that that doesn’t excuse using more force than is needed to subdue someone, the lack of professional training that leads to such fear-based responses, or treating citizens as enemy combatants.
As Titania Kumeh reports in Mother Jones, this has been coming on for a long time. Remember back in 1999, when four plainclothes New York police officers shot and killed a 22-year-old unarmed immigrant who was standing in the doorway of his apartment? The cops thought the young man was reaching for his gun—it turned out to be his wallet—and fired 41 shots at him, landing 19 on his body. The cops were acquitted of all charges.
In 2003, an unarmed man, kneeling before four Las Vegas police officers, was shot with an assault rifle because one of the officers “feared” the unarmed man was feigning surrender and about to grab a gun. A jury ruled the shooting excusable.
In 2006, plainclothes police officers, again in New York, fired 50 shots into a car after it reportedly rammed into their unmarked van, killing the 23-year-old driver who had just left his bachelor party and wounding his two friends. Police claimed they had been following the men, suspecting one of them had a gun. Again, the cops were cleared of all charges.
In 2010, in California, police shot and killed a young man who had allegedly committed some sort of traffic violation while riding his bicycle. After an altercation in which the young man resisted police and fled to his mother’s house, police officers pursued him, kicked down his mother’s door and opened fire.
That same year, in Long Beach, California, police responded with heavy firepower to a perceived threat by a man holding a water hose. The 35-year-old man had reportedly been watering his neighbor’s lawn when police, interpreting his “grip” on the water hose to be consistent with that of someone discharging a firearm, opened fire. The father of two was pronounced dead at the scene.
Skip ahead to 2013 and you have the 16-year-old teenager who skipped school only to be shot by police after they mistook him for a fleeing burglar. Not to mention the July 26 shooting of an unarmed black man in Austin “who was pursued and shot in the back of the neck by Austin Police… after failing to properly identify himself and leaving the scene of an unrelated incident.” And don’t forget the 19-year-old Seattle woman who was accidentally shot in the leg by police after she refused to show her hands.
Make no mistake, whereas these shootings of unarmed individuals by what Slate terms “trigger happy” cops used to take place primarily in big cities, that militarized, urban warfare mindset among police has spread to small-town America. No longer is this just a problem for immigrants, or people of color, or lower income communities, or young people who look like hooligans, out for trouble. We’re all in this together, black and white, rich and poor, urban and suburban, guilty and innocent alike. We’re all viewed the same by the powers that be: as potential lawbreakers to be viewed with suspicion and treated like criminals.
Whether you’re talking about police shootings of unarmed individuals, NSA surveillance, drones taking to the skies domestically, SWAT team raids, or roadside strip searches, they’re all part of a totalitarian continuum, mile markers on this common road we’re traveling towards the police state. The sign before us reads “Danger Ahead.” What remains to be seen is whether we can put the brakes on and safely reverse direction before it’s too late to turn back.