In the United States, we live in a world where too many folks are shot. With guns so rampant in our country, it makes a difficult job for our police officers even more challenging. This may explain in part a bias to act when fear sets in. There are many fine police officers who do their jobs well day in and day out. Unfortunately, we do have an increasing number of situations that have arisen, where police officers may have acted rashly or too quickly. We need to evaluate these both within the profession and through the court system when necessary.
Yet, one of my concerns that does not get talked about enough is why are so many shots being fired? I am clearly concerned about the racial profiling that appears to be going on, as people of color are the ones being killed by police officers more so than other races. But, the number of shots is appalling to me as it seems double-digit shots are fired to subdue an alleged attacker in too many incidents. What happened to shooting to wound an attacker? Why is it necessary to shoot a teen or twelve-year old boy eleven, fourteen, or sixteen times?
Bruce Springsteen wrote and powerfully sang a song a few years ago called “American Skin.” It is sometimes referred to by its subtitle of “41 Shots” which is the number of shots fired to kill a non-English speaking suspect who did not understand what he was being asked. He thought the police were out to get him and ran. When he pulled out his wallet, he was shot 41 times.
The fact that more Black youth are being shot is troublesome, but the number of shots the police officer feels obligated to use to defend himself or herself is also troubling. We need to be asking ourselves why? Why so many shots? Why are the shots fired so quickly? Were there no other actions that could have been taken?
In Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book “Blink” he mentioned the circumstances behind the Springsteen song. The essence of the book is we use gut instinct which is really our in-tune subconscious that sees situations before our conscious mind can register what is going on. In one example, he notes how a fireman told his colleagues to back quickly out of room as his experience was giving him an uneasy feeling. The fire was not burning as per the norm. What his subconscious experience told him was correct – the fire was actually beneath the room they entered and if they went in, they would be consumed by the fire when the floor collapsed.
Gladwell notes the same is true for police officers. We must train and retrain how to recognize danger and when danger is not present. Those few instances in the “blinking of an eye” matter. This is why the job is so hard. A judgment call has to be made and, unfortunately, those calls are not always right. With adrenalin flowing, the reaction can be to shoot often. I hope that is all it is. I would hate to believe there is an unstated rule somewhere that if an officer shoots someone, they need to be lethal. Yet, we must ask these questions, as the number of shots used to subdue someone are too common and too many.
The best suggestions beyond the training and retraining are two-fold. The police union needs to be as involved and engaged as a pilot union is around an air crash. We need all parties looking to see why something happened, not with the primary motivation to say the police officer was not without fault. Good people make mistakes. Good police officers make them, too. Let’s understand why and use that information to avoid it going forward. And, it needs to be said, not all police officers are equal in experience, talent and temperament, just like everyone else.
The other good suggestion is more community policing. Encounters with law enforcement officers should not only happen in negative situations, where you messed up or someone thinks you messed up. The more interactions that are positive will help reduce crime. More police officer visibility will help reduce crime.
Let me end that we need to get to better answers. A better answer does not include police officers getting shot. That serves no purpose other than making a bad situation worse. And, a life is lost. Saying All Lives Matter is 100% correct, but this theme usurps the reason for the Black Lives Matter protests. We need to help police officers serve the community better in a tough job. That involves training, evaluation and improvement and community policing. It also involves understanding that difficulty.
I recognize fully that as a White man I am treated differently and can go anywhere I want, treatment that a Black man is not afforded even when dressed in a suit. When a Black man is stopped by the law, he knows he must move deliberately or this may be the last thing he does on earth. Black youth are given “the talk” by their mothers to do this very thing – be respectful and move slowly. This is sage advice for all of us, but please know how hard a job the police officer has, even when less biased to act. All it takes is an instance and someone is dead. So, we must respect the law, while we still seek answers. But, we do need answers.