License to Kill

No one knows how many times police shoot and kill Americans every year. Most estimates put the number at a few hundred a year, but we don’t know the details, including how many of these killed people presented a real threat to anyone. The U.S. government does not do body counts, as it admitted during the Iraq war. And the same appears to be true in domestic policing, where law enforcement has become comparably brutal to the armed forces overseas, including in what has become standard operating procedure in the hundred SWAT raids performed every day across this country, the vast majority of which are launched to serve warrants to people accused of non-violent offenses.

Three news stories in the first couple weeks of this new year remind us of the unsettling culture encouraged in modern policing. It is a culture that values officer safety, however dubious the threats against it, above the rights of everyday Americans, a culture that holds police above the law.

On Sunday, January 5, a North Carolina family called the police for help with their schizophrenic teenaged son, Keith Vidal, who was threatening the mother. As with many calls to the police, this proved to be a terrible mistake for those seeking help. Two officers showed up and managed to help subdue the ninety-pound eighteen-year-old. Then a third officer arrived, and within a couple minutes, the boy’s life was over. The last law enforcer on the scene said, “I don’t have time for this,” according to the boy’s stepfather. Keith was held down, tased, and then shot. The officer “reached right up, shot this kid point-blank, with all intent to kill,” the stepfather said. “Keith was not threatening anybody, Keith did not want any part of it. He was having a bad day. . . . He was flat out murdered, there was no need for deadly force. No reason.”

Yesterday, January 13, a jury acquitted two officers who beat a homeless schizophrenic man to death. On July 5, 2011, Fullerton, California, officers, responding to a tip about car vandalization, came upon a confused man, Kelly Thomas, and attempted to search him. According to the officers, he resisted a search. According to witnesses and video evidence, Thomas apologized and tried to comply. An officer put on latex gloves, and, according to the prosecutor, an unprovoked beating began. They hit him with batons and tased him five times. They called paramedics, one of whom says the police asked that an officer’s minor injury be treated first. Thomas was a bloodied pulp. Here’s how he looked, lying in a coma, before he died from his multiple wounds, if you can stomach the image. The prosecutor closed his argument with Thomas’s last words:

“Dad help me.”
“God help me.”
“Help me. Help me. Help me.”

Unless these officers face justice in federal court, their acquittal sends the message that police are above the law that the rest of us must follow. Of course, police and the public hear this message time and again, over and over. And although I am speculating, I strongly suspect this cultural problem serves as background to another news story from yesterday.

In Wesley Chapel, Florida, a man sat in a movie theater texting his daughter. An older man complained about his disruption, and the two argued. The older man left the theater and came back, the arguing continued, until finally he shot the offending texter dead. Such a frightening public shooting in a movie theater would typically fuel calls for more gun control, to keep weapons out of the hands of everyone but police. Conservatives often respond that trusted citizens should carry weapons to defend the public. But the shooter here was a trusted citizen—a retired police officer, the type of person almost no one thinks should be categorically disarmed.

We don’t know the shooter’s psychology, but a lot of criminological literature has indicated that police officers tend to have more in common with the criminals they arrest than many people assume. Studies indicate, for example, that 40% of police families experience domestic violence—a rate two to four times as high as we see in the general population.

The institutional and cultural realities surrounding modern policing compound the problem. Even if police were less prone to criminality than the general population, they have many incentives to commit violence, to trample rights, to shoot first and ask questions never, to flat-out lie in courtrooms to protect their own. And they face very little accountability for what they do. These realities infect almost every department, to varying degrees, across the nation, and cannot help but instill a widespread attitude in police that they are at war with large segments of the populace and do not need to follow the same rules the rest of us do.

The Florida shooter will likely face comeuppance for murdering a man over an argument in a movie theater. But we can say this with much more confidence because he was retired. If he were a police officer on duty, things could very well be different. He could say the man was refusing arrest—a convenient excuse for police brutality. He could say he was afraid for his life. The police union and many of his colleagues would come to his defense. This is not so far-fetched. After all, in April 2011, Florida police tased a man to death, claiming he was being disorderly outside a movie theater.

It is the nature of the state that acts that would be considered criminal if conducted by private individuals are legal if done by the government. Government is a monopoly on legal violence, after all. In today’s America, this reality is no clearer than with the burgeoning police state, whose agents routinely commit violent acts that would condemn most of us to a cell for decades.

There are plenty of reforms that could move us toward a more civilized future—personal accountability for wrongdoing, ending the drug war, slashing government spending on military weapons. But the biggest shift needs to be cultural. We need to talk about these horrors, every day, and make them a permanent national political issue. No politician should be allowed to be elected to any office at any level without answering questions on the rising American police state. If this trend isn’t stopped, most other issues will eventually become obviously trivial in comparison.

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