This is a follow up to my first post on Police Shootings, so be sure to check it out as well.
Police involved shootings are an extremely emotional subject. And why wouldn’t they be? They always involve someone who has been injured or killed as well as someone who puts their life in danger on a daily basis. Add to that the history of institutional racism in our country and it’s no wonder this is a hot topic. One thing that is clear from the Radiolab and Embedded podcasts is that perspective is everything. Your life experience and worldview will determine what you actually see in most videos of police shootings. And that makes it so much harder to come up with solutions to a deeply painful problem. My hope is that listening to these podcasts will give us a better sense of this complexity and hopefully at least some empathy for everyone involved.
In Part 1 of Radiolab’s Shots Fired, the team talked to Florida journalist Ben Montgomery and discussed the fact there’s no national tracking mechanism like an FBI database to tell us how many times police have shot people. This makes it harder to determine, much less prove, that police are shooting more black people than white people. And it makes it harder to analyze and understand the various factors contributing to each shooting. Montgomery started researching these numbers to put together the most comprehensive police shooting database in Florida for the Tampa Bay Times. The cases from his research made up the individual stories on these two episodes. And you can see more of his research here.
But here are some of the main things I took away from these podcasts:
One of the key things to know is that about a third of police shooting cases involve an individual who has been diagnosed mentally unstable (not just “acting weird”). And a lot of these cases are what’s called “suicide by cop” wherein someone threatens the police with a weapon (or something they want to look like a weapon) in order to get the police to shoot and kill them. Let’s just take a moment and consider what that means for police officers. They have to do their jobs knowing that, at any time, they could be called to a scene in which someone will try to force them to take a life. What the hell kind of job is that??? (Thank you for your service, police officers!) As Jad Abumrad pointed out, “Clearly police are now like the de facto frontline in dealing with mental illness in this country.” This lines up with what I’ve heard from a friend who is a police officer.* The burden placed on police to solve the problem of mental health is an unattainable and unfair one. So I think it’s really important to keep that in mind when we hear about police shootings. And it’s a good reminder that police are expected to “fix” an awful lot. Once they have been called, all other options have apparently been exhausted and often they are summoned because they have guns.
Radiolab’s episode also talked to then-Police Chief of Daytona, Mike Chitwood, who wants officers to learn the history of the country and understand that we are a racist nation. Obviously the history of racism and policing in the United States can’t be distilled in one brief snippet of a podcast episode. But it has to be part of the conversation. If you haven’t yet, definitely check out my review of Slavery by Another Name to get a TL;DR version. But the point is that after the civil war regular daily activity of black people was criminalized so that they could be arrested and put to work in farms or mines. Arresting black men was a way to maintain the slavery economy while just technically avoiding actual slavery after it was abolished. The relationship between police and black people has understandably remained problematic since then, especially when you consider the significance of implicit bias which continues to play a role in police interactions with the black community. There’s a lot more to be said on this subject, but if I keep going, you’ll probably zone out and stop reading (if you haven’t already).
Another really interesting thing I learned from Radiolab’s interview with Mike Chitwood was the importance of hiring older, more experienced applicants. Young people often have little experience with physical fights or the types of high stress situations they will experience in the line of duty and these experiences involve physiological responses. This is so important! Our bodies have natural reactions to high stress situations and those responses are not to play it cool. Older recruits, and especially those who have been in professions that involve confrontation (such as veterans or former bouncers), are more familiar with those physiological responses and more likely to keep calm.
My friend (mentioned earlier) feels strongly that his department receives sufficient training. And I believe him. But there’s no national standard for police training requirements. So even though some departments are probably doing an awesome job, it’s safe to say that others are dropping the ball. In the first Radiolab episode, Mike Chitwood played a video showing the importance of slowing things down and giving everyone time to communicate clearly and better understand the situation. This is actually the topic of a new episode from Reveal called What Cops Aren’t Learning, which I highly recommend. There’s a real tension between police officers who believe in de-escalation training as a powerful tool to minimize confrontations and preserve life and police officers who believe this training simply creates hesitation in a field where split-second decisions can mean the difference between life or death for an officer. I know I am a civilian with no personal experience, but after listening to these podcasts it seems clear to me that de-escalation training should be a higher priority in some departments, especially considering how much training is devoted to use-of-force and how to use a gun. You can see in the APM reporting where this type of training is required by state.
I know that this post isn’t going to solve anything, but I hope that it provides helpful understanding and a little more context for the next time we see a story about a police shooting.
*Since I’m not a professional journalist, I’m not going to share my “source.” But if you saw the post about Fake News and Media Literacy, you should know not to take my word for it. Major red flag.