Even when police violence is justified, we should ask whether it was unavoidable. (Photo courtesy of ACLU of Minnesota)
ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — Police officers are agents of state violence.
There is nothing particularly radical about that notion. After all, they strap on Tasers, nightsticks, pepper spray, handcuffs and guns every day.
Society has bestowed these men and women with an enormous responsibility.
Their job is to keep order. And they have special sanction from the state to use violence to do just that.
Rock Island Alderman Dylan Parker caught heat recently because he referred to cops as “agents of state violence.”
It was not a diplomatic statement. But it is an accurate one.
In response, 50 Rock Island police officers showed up at a city council meeting in uniform, stood at the back of the chambers and stared down the city’s elected representatives.
It was an intimidation tactic, plain and simple.
Sure, the officers have the right — like any citizen — to petition their government for a redress of grievances. Free speech is the foundation of democracy.
But they didn’t show up in T-shirts and jeans, shirts and ties or their other off-duty clothes. They came under the color of law. They were using their state-sanctioned authority to send a message to those who are charged with holding them accountable.
I’ve seen this play out before. In 1991, the police department in Davenport, Iowa, fired Officer Anthony Chelf after authorities found he used excessive force when he beat a man with his department-issued flashlight. Records show the man ran a red light on a motorcycle, and Chelf gave high-speed chase. Chelf beat the man with his flashlight after other officers had subdued him, facedown, on the ground, according to court records.
I was standing in the room when the Davenport Civil Service Commission affirmed his firing. The commissioners were visibly frightened. Hands were shaking and eye contact was avoided. In fact, they voted behind closed doors, not in public as the law required.
Why the fear? Why the refusal to disclose how individual commissioners voted? Well, it might have had something to do with the department’s entire SWAT team standing in uniform in the room glaring at them.
Police unions are too quick to defend the worst in their ranks. Take for instance the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Americans were horrified to see him beg for his life as Officer Anthony Chauvin knelt on his neck and slowly asphyxiated him.
But Robert Kroll, the head of the city’s police union, didn’t see it that way at all. In a letter to members, he referred to Floyd as a “criminal” and bemoaned that Chauvin and officers with him had been denied their “due process rights.”
He seemed oblivious that Floyd’s rights were violated.
Labor contracts negotiated by these unions make it difficult to fire even the worst officers.
We employ police officers to make tough, sometimes violent, decisions on the street. It’s an important job that can determine whether someone lives or dies. We know from the deaths of George Floyd and others that sometimes officers use lethal force inappropriately.
And sometimes deadly force is unavoidable.
But what rarely gets discussed is whether deadly force, even that which may be legally justified, could have been avoided. Could a situation have been deescalated that ultimately resulted in police officer shooting someone?
Instead, after every police shooting I’ve covered during the past 33 years, public discourse devolves into jingoes: Back the badge; Blue Lives Matter; The Thin Blue Line.
They’re catchy sayings. But they fail to answer the basic questions: How can we ensure public safety and reduce the number of people police officers kill?
Over the past 50 years, capital punishment has been debated in just about every statehouse in the country. At election time, politicians are routinely asked their position on the death penalty. Theologians, philosophers and ordinary pundits weigh in on the issue.
Last year, 17 inmates were executed in American death chambers. But during the same period 970 people were killed by police officers.
Almost all state-sanctioned killings happen at the hands of police, not judges and juries.
We need to ask how to increase public safety and minimize police shootings.
The ire of Rock Island officers was raised when a member of the city council dared to raise such questions after a police shooting.
On April 1, four Rock Island police officers engaged in a foot pursuit of DeShawn Tatum, who was carrying a gun and attempted to hijack a car. Officers responded by shooting the 25-year-old man four times. He died of his wounds.
The Rock Island County state’s attorney ruled that the shooting was justified. Having watched the videos of the pursuit and slaying, it’s difficult to see it as anything but appropriate. In fact, I believe the officers showed restraint in not shooting him earlier in the encounter.
But Alderman Parker was critical of the department for not having a policy on foot pursuits before this happened. Could the outcome of the encounter have been different if the officers had handled it differently? Were bystanders needlessly endangered when bullets started flying?
These are questions that need to be asked. And it’s appropriate for a policymaker such as Alderman Parker to be asking them.
After a deadly encounter such as this one, we need to ask not only were the officers’ actions legally justified but if anything could have been done to avoid such an outcome.
Take for instance a March 5 incident in Chatham. Jonathan Small’s mother called police and told dispatchers her son had a knife and was harming himself and threatening others in the family home, according to the Chatham Police Department and Sangamon County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Upon arriving at the residence, a police officer reported that he found Small, 30, holding a knife and attempting to harm himself. According to police, Small did not listen when the cop told him repeatedly to drop the knife and instead advanced toward the officer. The officer shot Small four times. He is recovering from his wounds.
An investigation by Illinois State Police and review by Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright concluded the officer was justified in his use of force.
While the officer was justified in using violence, we now need to ask ourselves deeper policy questions. Should police departments offer additional training on how to deal with mentally ill individuals? What, if any, steps could officers take to deescalate these situations? Could non-lethal alternatives have been pursued?
And while police officers are sanctioned to, at times, employ violence, it’s an alternative that needs to be turned to far less than it is today.
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