Breaking News: Another white police officer (this time in South Carolina) shots and kills an unarmed black man. This time the civilian in the altercation is shot in the back. What was the man’s crime? He was driving a car with one of its brake lights out. Fortunately for justice, but not so much for the police officer, a bystander filmed the entire shooting incident and its aftermath with a cell phone. On incident report the police officer wrote that he t the man because he “believed his life was in danger”. However, it is clear from the video that the victim was running away from officer when he was shot at 8 times before he fell to the ground, dead. Then the video then clearly shows the officer walking up to the body and dropping his Tazer next to it. On the incident report the officer also wrote that the victim had taken his Tazer. Obviously the officer was attempting to plant evidence which indicates that he knew he should not have shot the man.
The officer who fired the shots is this case was caught red handed and has been charged with murder, but it is easy to wonder what the initial disposition of the case would have been if the incident had not been recorded. It also makes you wonder how other recent shooting cases around the country would have been handled if videos of those shootings had been available. What if the observer in this case had only observed the incident instead of shooting the video? What if that witness was black and it would have been his/her word against that of the police officer, and perhaps his partner?
The video doesn’t show what happened before the shots were fired, but in this case what does show is amply damning. What kind of man, much less a police officer sworn to protect all of us, would shoot an unarmed 50 year old man in the back. Even if the man had escaped, the police had his car, they would know who he was and where he lived, and could have picked him up at their leisure. There was absolutely no reason to shoot the man.
Unfortunately not all police act like knights in shining armor. We have all had encounters with very professional police officers, but, I dare say, we have all also dealt with cops who loved to throw their authority around unnecessarily. And, it is sad to say that if you’re a minority, you have probably experienced more than enough of those types of encounters.
Let’s face it; in most cases police officers are not well paid. It’s illogical, but we have a tendency as a society to not properly value the people who teach our kids and the people who protect us, two of the most important jobs around. So we don’t usually pay them well. So if pay is not a big incentive to enter law enforcement, what draws people into the field?
Based on what I have observed, aside for those who enter law enforcement because it is one of the only jobs they can handle, those who aspire to become police officers seem to have two main motivations. Some have a calling to protect and serve. Some childhood occurrence may have directed them towards police work or they may have had a father or close relative that they admired who was a police officer. Others, I’m afraid, drawn to the opportunity to wear big pistols on their hips and badges on their chest which gives them authority over everyone in sight. Let’s face it, there are few other professions which offer the insecure an opportunity to be the “big man”. I am decently sure that many of us have met this kind of officer.
However, the jig, as they say, is up. With everyone walking around with a cell phone which contains a high quality video cameras and with their owners shooting video of everything imaginable, police misconduct in some cases are no longer be swept under the rug using incidents reports written by officers who know how to game the system. Today, a police officers never knows if there is someone filming there actions. Until all of them understand this and are not too cocky to accept the inevitable, look for other police bad actors being caught on candid camera. The move of some departments to body cams should also eventually cause officers to think twice before acting.
In addition, minorities, who are the most frequent victims of police abuse over the years, have given every indication in incident after incident that they “are mad and they’re just not going to take it anymore”.
However, the videos and outrage factors will only help the situation; they won’t solve it. Policing is a high stress occupation and people in stressful situations have a tendency to revert to form and often don’t think about the consequences and/or believe that they are not going to be caught on film. The only way to resolve the root of the problem is to weed out the bad actors.
The first opportunity is during the hiring process. Many departments now use physiological cal test and screenings, but these eliminate only 5% of the applicants and obviously are obviously not detecting all of the applicants who have abusive tendenciese or who will let their temper rule in a high stress situations. Perhaps these test can adjusted to better screen out unsuitable applicants, or the scoring system can be reassessed and improved.
Also, police department need to be more determined to weed out bad actors in their ranks. All too often when an officer is involved in a very questionable incident which makes the news channels, there are other minor, but similar incidents on his/her record. In the ranks, police officers seem to have a tendency to protect their own, turning a blind eye or perhaps even lying to protect fellow police officers. In addition, unless an officer is caught with uncontroversial proof of wronging doing, the first tendency of his superiors seems to be to imply that the officer was just doing a tough job. Unfortunately this reflects badly on those many officers who are doing a tough job very well.
Finally we can dig into our pockets and take steps to provide our law enforcement officers with better pay. And why not, they put their lives on the line for us every day. A higher pay scale will allow us to attract smarter, more well adjusted applicants into law enforcement and enable us to reject more applicants for whom police work is not a good fit. Ultimately we are going to get what we pay for.
However, until we take these and other positive steps to clean up our police departments, there are going to be other abuses, other unnecessary shootings, some of which may be caught on video and many, unfortunately, that are not. This is an endemic problem and it is not going to go away anytime soon.