Proverbs 14:15 MSG
Last week Stephon Clark, 22, was shot and killed by Sacramento police.
Police were responding to a report that a black man was breaking car windows in the neighborhood. A police helicopter reported seeing a person looking into cars and breaking a patio door/window. This person, they said, ran through several backyards trying to elude police surveillance. Two officers on the ground caught up to the man they believed to be the suspect in the car break-in’s and ordered him to stop but did not identify themselves as police officers. When he stopped they ordered him to show them his hands. When he did, they fired 20 shots, killing him.
The police allege that Clark had something in his hand which they thought was a gun. It was, in fact, a cell phone. That is what separates this fatal, police shooting from the other 243 that have taken place so far in 2018. He was unarmed.
The killing of unarmed civilians by police has been much in the news for the past few years. According to the Washington Post police shooting database and confirmed in two other sources, police shot and killed 68 unarmed people in 2017, up from 51 in 2016 but down from 94 in 2015.
The Guardian ran and in-depth study of police shootings in 2016 called “The Counted.” Here is their conclusion: The Counted was launched on 1 June, logging 464 deaths in the year to that point. At that time 102 or 22% of those killed had been unarmed. This proportion has since fallen slightly to 20% or 198 of the total 1,000. In 59 deaths, however, it remains unclear whether the suspect was armed. [This number would account for the disparity between the figures in the Post and the Guardian.]
As of 1 June, black Americans were more than twice as likely to be unarmed as white Americans when killed by police. At that point 32% of the 135 black people killed by police had been unarmed, compared with 15% of the 234 white people. This disparity has since shrunk, with 26% of the 248 black people and 18% of 490 white people being recorded as unarmed.
If the Sacramento case plays out as most others, the police will rationalize the shooting with one of two defenses, perhaps both:
1.) The victim did not obey a lawful police command; or
2.) I thought the victim had a gun.
The first defense is not offered so often by police as by their civilian defenders on social media and in private conversations. “If he just would have done what the officer said he would be alive, today.” The second defense might be credible if the victim is holding one of those toy guns that looks uncannily like the real thing, but when the item in the person’s hand turns out to be a cell phone or a wallet, the viability of the defense is considerably diminished.
To the families of the victims and, especially in minority communities where the majority of these shootings take place, as long as these two defenses of police officers who shoot unarmed civilians are accepted without question, they sound like a license to kill. Inevitably, we know, that those officers will be placed on paid administrative leave until it is determined by a group of fellow officers that they did nothing wrong. And even if they are found to be at fault the most we can usually expect is that they will be fired from their job or forced into early retirement. And whether this is true or not, it is the perception with which we must deal.
The problem with all of this lies at the very foundation of our justice system. When unarmed people are killed by police, the police are acting as judge, jury, and executioner. The victims are assumed to have done something wrong, the police try to make an arrest, the victims resists, the police assume they are guilty and kill them.
But that’s not how our system of justice is supposed to work. We are innocent unless (not until) we are proven guilty in a court of law. “Until” assumes that we will, eventually, be convicted. No, we are innocent “unless” we are convicted.
So, every time police shoot and kill an unarmed person they are executing an innocent man or woman.
I can imagine some, but let me first be clear that it is not my job to create legal remedies for this problem. That’s what we elect legislators to do. If you want me to come up with solutions, elect me to office. That said, however, her are a couple of thoughts.
1.) The law should say in clear terms that police may not shoot an unarmed person simply because they are non-compliant with a command, even a clear and direct command. Use a taser. Overpower the person with physical strength or numbers. But, if no one is placed in danger by the non-compliance, you aren’t allowed to kill them. That seems like a no-brainer to me but, given the number of unarmed shootings we see each year, maybe not.
2.) Police must be trained to tell the difference between a cell phone and a gun. Cell phones are ubiquitous and of a size that young people routinely carry them in their hands. If you can’t tell the difference between a cell phone and a gun you are going to be shooting a lot of innocent people. So, let’s turn the training up a notch. This may mean waiting just an extra beat or two before opening fire. I know, people will argue that that beat or two could cost police lives but police officers are paid to risk their lives and I am confident that they can come up with a safe way to wait two seconds before killing someone. As it is, the absence of that beat or two is costing the lives of innocent civilians.
3.) The command, “let me see your hands” must be abandoned. In several cases the victims have complied with this command while holding a cell phone or something else in one hand and, upon seeing it, police have opened fire. A command to “empty your hands” would be more reasonable and safer. People are not going to show their hands if they think that doing so will lead to them being shot and killed.
4.) Toy manufacturers must be held to account for making toys that look like real guns. This goes for BB guns and pellet guns as well. States must begin to require clear, identifiable markings that differentiate between real guns and toy guns. I’ll let them figure out the details but those details are crucial as the cost of inaction will be the loss of more lives.
5.) Police officers who shoot unarmed people must be held to the same standard as civilians who shoot unarmed people. The same laws should apply to both. “It was an accident” may make it a tragedy but it doesn’t mitigate the fact that a person’s life has been lost and someone is accountable for that death. Losing your job and moving to a different community to be a cop does not seem adequate.
Our democracy cannot stand if police killings of unarmed civilians are dismissed with equanimity. We have always been a nation not of persons but of laws and we will be safe in our homes only as long as we continue to be precisely, that.
Dean Feldmeyer is the author of 5 novels, 4 non-fiction books, three plays, and over 100 essays, articles, poems, and short stories, some of which can be found on this web site.