In the days since the election, the conversation surrounding use of force by police has quieted some. The death of Walter Wallace Jr in Philadelphia and the subsequent release of bodycam video forces us to revisit the issue and this time, with a different perspective. Wallace Jr’s family has asked that the officers not be charged with murder as they were not trained and properly equipped to deal with the situation.
Quite magnanimous and a shift from families who, understandably, demand indictments and convictions. And while the district attorney will decide whether to press charges, who determines how are officers are trained and equipped? Wallace Jr’s officers didn’t have tasers. In the video, a woman can be heard yelling, ‘he’s mental!’ What changed in how the officers approached him? The police involved with George Floyd observed his distress and erratic behavior. What shifted in their treatment of him?
Answers to these questions matter if you believe civilians shouldn’t necessarily die for suffering from mental health issues or drug induced impairment. We are, after all, in the midst of an opioid crisis. ‘Comply and you won’t die,’ assumes that all who are in contact with police are able to follow orders. The Wallace family’s comments addresses a crucial need: retraining of police and properly equipping law enforcement, and indirectly, the need to educate communities on safe interactions with police.
A two-prong approach recognizes that both parties have a responsibility in avoiding, as much as possible, a fatal incident; it is possible to say that Officer Sheskey didn’t need to shoot seven times (or at all) and also say that Jacob Blake shouldn’t have resisted arrest; we can say that police misconduct and abuse exist and that it needs to be addressed and at the same time still respect officers and the sacrifices they make.
We can also admit that death by the hands of law enforcement is a rare occurrence. Roughly 1,000 Americans died in police shootings in 2015, representing .00031% of the general population. Around 25% of those killed are black men even though (in 2015) black men were only 6.6% of the general population. White men are also disproportionately represented, though not as drastically, at 32% of general population in 2015, but nearly 48% of victims. The vast majority of those killed are male (95%), but the conclusions the media makes about black male deaths (i.e, police officer bias and racism) aren’t made as it pertains to sex. Men make up 49% of the United States’ population, but account for nearly all of those killed by police. Is that also a matter of bias? Are police using more force against men as they assume men are more likely to be dangerous? Does disproportionateness automatically prove bias?
Use of force (lethal or otherwise) by police is sorely (un)(under)reported, but numbers alone aren’t enough to address matters of injustice and lack of accountability.