Within the past few years, we have seen no shortage of videotaped murders initiated by law enforcement agents. These are highly publicized murders getting national attention. Can you imagine the probable murders committed by officers that were not taped or that were hidden and not brought to the public’s attention? Some would be quick to cry that we have an epidemic of unmitigated murders taking place, being justified or played down by law enforcement agencies. Even when the public is exposed to vivid and detailed videos of these murders, we are often led to believe we are not seeing what we see.
Please do not consider me as being anti-police, or that I don’t understand the difficulty and pressure of the job of providing the public with protection and safety. But the reality is that there are a growing number of shady and questionable officers making decisions that diminish the credibility and legitimacy of law enforcement agencies as a whole. I can only extrapolate that the training, policies, and practices of officers these days often cause unnecessary killings of alleged law-breaking citizens by such officers.
Unfortunately, many Tennesseans watched the video of a young 37-year-old man yielding a box cutter on the side of I-65 in Nashville. He appeared uncooperative to the demands of several officers coming to the scene. I am not an expert on mental illness, but I did deduct from observation that this man was troubled and was dealing with mental issues. I don’t think a licensed mental health expert was available or on the scene to de-escalate the situation. Nonetheless, the man was fired upon by nine officers (six Metro police officers, two Tennessee state troopers, and an off-duty Mt. Juliet officer). His body was ridden with bullets. Also, one officer repeatedly shot the victim after he was down. This officer has since been decommissioned.
The killing was initiated when the man reached into his pocket and was attempting to pull out a shiny article that the officers surrounding him assumed was a gun. Although he appeared at a distance from the police, these police officers felt he was a threat to their lives and others. What surprised me was that all the officers reacted in unison as if they were taught to react as they did. That made me realize they were only doing what they had been taught. Was there any room for deviation? Police focused on the victim for 30 minutes. If he had had a gun, wouldn’t you think he would have used it during that time? Couldn’t one deduct from observation the probability of him carrying a gun?
There are so many unanswered questions. However, many people watching the video didn’t think the young man presented such a threat as to precipitate him being gunned down—let alone using him as the target for a firing squad. But the police did what they felt they had to do. This leads me to feel there should be more police reform from within. Suffering from a mental illness should not lead to being killed by policemen, especially when the situation could have possibly been de-escalated.
We should look at and revise some of the training policies and practices these officers undergo. Some of their training may be problematic and instrumental in putting some of these officers into what they feel is a no-win situation. This is a national problem. We should also be cognizant that it only takes a few unsavory policemen to make all policemen look bad. But some policemen feel a sense of entitlement, feeling they are above the law or will be supported by their superiors regardless of what transpires.
Policemen have an obligation and responsibility to point out unscrupulous and immoral behavior within their own ranks. They should hold such peers accountable, possibly seeking to have them fired or removed. The unspoken code to ‘look the other way’ and support your peers no matter what they do is a major problem that negatively affects the way law enforcement is viewed by the public.
The shooting death of the young man mentioned above is being investigated by the TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation). Maybe they will make us privy to previously undisclosed but pertinent information. I pray they don’t try to vilify or demonize the man to somehow subliminally justify his killing. Mental illness is not a crime, especially if you are not a threat to anyone but yourself.
Nationally, we must continue to rally for police reform, revisiting and changing in-house training programs, and established policies and practices that appear to justify killing someone instead of shooting to kill only when necessary. Making split second decisions (especially when you feel your life or the public is in danger) is not easy. But accountability comes along with the job in questionable shootings ending in death.
I would also like to thank policemen for what is often a thankless job. They put their lives on the line to secure our safety and protection. You are deeply appreciated. But we cannot dismiss the fact that better training is paramount in preventing what the public sees as ‘unnecessary policing’ that frequently results in many shooting deaths.