This article will open a new series and discussion regarding issues of racism, militarization of local police forces, the responses of a diverse and socially conscious populace, and possible solutions.
Unfortunately, incidents over the past weekend have brought law enforcement officers, and their use of lethal force, roaring back into the national consciousness. Riots broke out in St. Louis, Mo. over the acquittal of a former police officer, accused in the shooting death of a fleeing, alleged drug suspect. On Friday, St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson found White, former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley not guilty of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black drug suspect, after a high-speed pursuit and crash. A chase in which Stockley was recorded saying to his partner, “we’re killing this motherfucker, don’t you know,”. This mere minutes before unloading 5 rounds into the victim’s chest at point blank range after the chase had ended and as Smith sat in the driver’s seat.
Video then appears to show Stockley going to the rear of his police SUV to rummage through a small duffel type bag before returning to sit in Smith’s car. This case was unique in that Stockley chose a Bench trial instead of the customary jury of his peers. The prosecution alleged Stockley stated his intent to kill Smith, administered a “kill shot” at very close range after the initial volley of 4, and then proceeded to plant a gun in the Smith vehicle. Shockley was not charged with planting the gun but it was tested. The gun had DNA of Stockley on it but none from Smith.
A tale of two videos.
One of many questions we will look to address is: When is lethal force legal and necessary?
Law enforcement officers are trained by police agencies and outside private entities (depending on locality and policy). Many officers are ex-military or trained by people with military history as a part of their resume. Officers are being taught techniques that favor acting decisively and acting upon split-second/ self-preservation decisions instead of scenario evaluation and intuitive risk assessment. Simply stated there has become a substantive shift in the way law enforcement as public servants view their service. At one time officers swore to put their lives on the line at all cost to protect and serve the public. Now, officers are being trained that self-preservation is of the utmost importance, even over that of public safety. Therefore we are seeing incredible problems developing.
William J. Lewinski is a psychologist who has specialized in police shootings and has developed a training methodology based upon his personal findings. Lewinski is also a much sought-after expert witness whenever a law enforcement officer is put on trial for the use of excessive force in the line of duty. Lewinski founded a company called Force Science LTD and has trained tens of thousands of law enforcement officers nationwide in recent years. In 2015, The New York Times considered the problem of law enforcement overuse of lethal force. A problem just then in its infancy but in the spotlight after a string of police killings of Blacks in Ferguson, Mo. and elsewhere. Social media and the proliferation of smart-phones was beginning to have a profound influence on how law enforcement of citizens is handled.
The NYT noted that Mr. Lewinski, as an expert witness, always testifying for the defense of a police shooter, regardless of situation, had always found the accused officer justified. Always. According to Lewinski there is never an unjustified instance where a police officer, in the line of duty, shoots and kills a citizen. Not if shot in the back. Not if unarmed. Not if posing no apparent threat. Never. Mr. Lewinski and the departments and officers he has trained have turned “Protect and Serve” into “Protect myself and serve a threatened public”.
In recent years, our country has seen a severe and serious shift in the baseline thought process of front line police officers. We have also seen a steady decrease of officers killed in the line of duty in recent decades. A look at the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund annual statistics is a compelling exercise. While overall numbers of law enforcement deaths due to all reasons, including health and accident are on the rise, it should be noted that the total number of police officers on the job has risen considerably as well. 2008 numbers estimate 750,000 sworn officers in the United States. 2016 NLEOMF boasts 900,000 or “the most police ever” in the United States.
Courtesy Aljazeera 2017
Though the overall numbers of officers in harm’s way are up substantially, assaults and firearm deaths are down. NLEOMF numbers show an average of 53 deaths per year on average during the 2010s slightly less than the 55 average deaths due to traffic accidents. 64 officers were killed by firearms in 2016 with 21 of those coming in ambush style attacks (a spike in 2016 due to multiple victim terrorist type attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge).
In 2016, 963 people in the United States were killed by law enforcement officers. 258 of those were Black. 39 of those Black citizens were unarmed. 22 White, 8 Hispanic, and 1 “Other” unarmed citizens were shot and killed by police in 2016. So, 70 unarmed Americans were killed in confrontations with law enforcement in 2016 versus 64 officers killed in ALL situations of any type. Let that sink in for a minute. More unarmed citizens died in 2016 at the hands of our protectors than did officers due to armed criminals. Clearly the current model is not working. Are 7.5 of every 100 Americans killed by law enforcement in 2016 an acceptable tradeoff for police safety? I think a better question would be who will protect our populace if trusted law enforcement continue to kill this many unarmed people. Of any color.
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