“I am a “Police Officer, please pull over.” “Don’t get out of the car.” The driver’s door is opened. Commands to do this or that are shouted. In the confusion, replete with heighten emotions, shots are fired. Bloodcurdling screams are heard. The passenger lies motionless, or in some instances he is squirming in pain and disbelief, he has been shot. The shooter armed with the gun, the power of the state and many times the knowledge that he will be exonerated, calls for back up.
They all arrive: paramedics, a fire truck, additional police cruisers, representatives from the D.A’s office and, as a matter of course, witnesses and gawkers. “What happened?” “What did he do?” “I saw the whole thing.” Red, white and blue lights are a swirl. The noise is deafening. “Why did you shoot him?” This question is asked by all. Regardless, of what the shooter says, “I feared for my safety,” will be the answer. This answer, as a rule, is a surefire way to be exonerated, no matter what the “investigation” may reveal.
Please understand we know that law enforcement plays a fundamental role in addressing issues of lawlessness. Please know that we understand the danger police officers and sheriff’s deputies face each time they don their uniforms to take to the streets. Please know that we understand that violence is endemic to our society and community. Please know too, that we understand that public safety, trained professionals, cultural competence and a commitment to social justice are the hallmarks of an equitable and good judicial system.
As a person who served on the first Citizens Review Board on Police Practices, I am well aware of the dangers associated with enforcing the law. As a pastor, I understand the pain, heartache and despair endured by so many, whose loved ones have been shot by officers, only to hear that the shooter was exonerated because; “He feared for his safety.”
The phrase “I feared for my safety” is heard too often in officer involved shootings. This oft-repeated mantra cannot be the standard used for shooting someone.
According to a news report on NBC39, last Sunday, May 2, 2010, an off-duty U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent opened fire on a man, who was making threatening statements and refused to stop approaching the officer once he had identified himself as an agent. This shooting is under investigation. It is, of course, too early to know what actually happened, but one would not be surprised if the shooting is upheld as a “reasonable” use of deadly force because the agent feared bodily harm. It is our hope that the “facts” of the case will trump the agent’s subjective feelings in this situation. I hasten to add, in some instances, the officer may have “feared for his life and safety” and took protective action. My continuing question is: Is it reasonable for a trained officer with a gun in hand, facing an individual with a loaded mouth but empty hands, to shoot in self-defense? I am of the opinion that the training and the abilities of the officer would give a higher threshold for fear and the determination of what constitute a threat to personal safety. I know historically it is the judgment of the officer at the moment but should or can that judgment be based upon a predetermined standard other than “fear alone?”
Again, I want to reiterate that the danger associated with being a officer of the law is great; but so is the responsibility to demonstrate the extensive training and experienced garnered from working with seasoned field training officers.
This training and experience should place the officer in a better position to defuse potentially violent situations. I am not advocating greater risks for our officers because I want them to safely return home at the end of their shift.
In other words, there must be a higher bar set for trained officers than the average citizens they encounter. I believe this is an expectation most of us have of our trained officers.
It should be understood by raising the question, I am not trying to indict or blame anyone. My intent is to get all stakeholders in the quest for justice to begin to think about, discuss and begin to engage in the struggle to create and administer a system of justice that recognizes the dignity and divinity of all people. Law enforcement is not just the responsibility of a few but is the responsibility of ALL of us.
I am aware that African American men and other persons of color are disproportionately profiled and pulled over. I am acutely aware there are thousands of formerly incarcerated persons that will be released into San Diego County, increasing the burden of law enforcement. I am acutely aware that many mean-spirited, right wing people are using the media to spread lies and propaganda in regard to issues related to “non-revocable parole” and amendments to California’s Three Strike Law with the deliberate intent to spread fear and division. We must resist any and all such efforts.
I am also acutely aware that our judicial system needs reform. At a minimum, we need to begin, in earnest, the discussions related to the implementation of restorative justice and the collective effort to eradicate many of the known societal distortions in views and values which give impetus to criminal behavior. It is a collective problem for ALL of us and its solution requires the collaborative efforts of ALL of us. There is no community and law enforcement, only community with law enforcement.