Thoughts on the Police Shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights

A few thoughts on the recent police shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights:

Both the shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights are very troubling. Video in both instances seems to indicate the police officers overreacted. Although there were signs that Sterling was resisting arrest, he appears to have been subdued and on the ground before the fatal shots were fired. The case of Castile seems more cut and dried. He was pulled over, clearly explained that he had a concealed carry permit, and informed the police officer as to what he was doing. The police officer clearly overreacted by shooting a compliant and respectful Castile.

After shootings like this, a certain segment of the population comes out in blind defense of the actions of the police, and they maintain that any criticism of police conduct is an attack on all police officers. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Police officers are granted wide (and I’d argue, far too wide) latitude to legally use violence as part of their job. With this authority comes great responsibility. I would expect police to use the upmost discretion before resorting to violence, particularly deadly violence against any citizen. Police are charged with the duty to apprehend potential law-breakers. They are not authorized to function as judges, juries, or executioners. Police are only authorized to use deadly force when their lives, or the lives of others, are in immediate danger by a suspect. In far too many instances, police have been granted much more latitude in this decision than would be accorded ordinary citizens. The mere “feeling” that a suspect is a potential threat, or the results of an adrenaline rush after a chase, are not, and should not, be adequate justification for using deadly force.

Although I’d like to think the vast majority of police officers are dedicated public servants, I also realize that there are far too many officers who lack the psychological characteristics to function in this role. Far too many police are on a power trip, taking the job for the sole purpose of expressing their authority and, sometimes, violent tendencies. These officers should be identified, and removed from police forces.

The “thin blue line” in which any police officer automatically backs the actions of another officer, even if those actions are clearly wrong, undermines the confidence of the public in their interactions with any police officer. Those officers who perform their jobs properly, but who turn a blind eye on misconduct by others, are contributors to the distrust many in the public hold towards all police. This distrust will continue until all police officers insist upon the highest standards of conduct by their colleagues.

Some argue that the public does not respond with the same level of outrage when a police officer is killed as when a police officer kills a citizen. There is a reason for this. When a police officer is killed, the perpetrator is automatically considered a criminal, hunted down, and aggressively prosecuted. One who shoots police officers is clearly considered a criminal and is subject to the harshest sanctions allowed by law.

When a police officer kills a citizen, the circumstances are usually far more ambiguous. The first presumption, particularly by other police officers, is that the shooting is justified. Police officers are held to far looser standards in their use of violence than ordinary citizens. They need only demonstrate that they felt, in some way, threatened. Investigations are often suspect, with the colleagues of police officers being the same ones investigating the actions of another officer – a clear conflict of interest. When police officers engage in violent actions, they are not immediately arrested. Instead, when identified, those officers are usually suspended, or placed on modified duty, with full pay. Police involved in shootings of civilians are accorded a presumption of innocence far greater than that accorded to non-police in similar situations.

Finally, I have to shake my head in disbelief at groups, like Black Lives Matter, who protest against what they perceive as racial profiling by government officials (the police), while at the same time, proposing and endorsing the granting of additional powers to the state. Part of the reason for the prevalence of racial profiling and the use of violence against civilians is that police are granted extraordinary authority to use violence by the state. Any time you grant any authoritative body additional powers, there are large numbers of people who will abuse those powers, particularly if that authoritative body possesses a legal monopoly on the use of violence.

Much of the violence perpetrated by police is the direct result of expansive and broadly defined laws that criminalize almost every daily activity. Police are charged with enforcing these laws, many of which are designed for the sole purpose of raising revenue or placating and pandering to select constituencies. As government increases the scope of laws, they also increase the chance of encounters between police and the citizenry. As these encounters increase, so does the potential that a certain number of these encounters will end in violence. Besides the obvious tragedy of a loss of life, law enforcement encounters designed to enforce poorly-conceived laws undermines the public’s trust in the rule of law, and by extension, those who are responsible for enforcing the law.

Those who decry police violence need to stop advocating for a more “activist” government in other areas. An “activist” government, by definition, replaces personal liberty with the whims of those elites in power. Those whims may not be shared by large segments of the population, which leads to inevitable conflict when police are called upon to enforce the law. Even dedicated and professional police officers are put in an untenable position when they are required to enforce bad laws. If certain constituencies truly want to reduce racial profiling and police violence, they need to step back and stop demanding that government intrude upon every facet of human existence. If there are fewer laws, there will be fewer interactions between the police and the citizenry. And if there are fewer interactions between the police and the citizens they are supposed to serve, there will be far fewer instances of questionable and tragic police shootings.