For readers who are used to me posting something on Sundays, once in a while, I step away from things that are author and book related to talk about other things that come to mind. It's where I write about things that would be political in nature, whatever happens to pop into my head.
The topic that's weighed on my mind for the past few days was the case of Jeronimo Yanez, the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile. Yanez was found not guilty by jury of second-degree manslaughter and endangering safety. This happened despite much of the evidence indicating that Castile complied with Yanez's orders and Yanez panicked.
As much as I would like to go back and change the verdict, I understand this is how the judicial system works. With that said, there are some lessons that we can learn from this case, which say a lot about the issues we have with society in general and various players within it.
Here are my observations, some of which you may not have considered, but I believe do need to be taken into account to understand why we've gotten to the point we are at now with how police officers do their jobs.
1. Our choices to focus much of the United States on a suburban lifestyle has changed the way police officers do their jobs. Because a suburban lifestyle sees us spread out cities and towns over wide stretches of land with single-family dwellings with yards of all sizes, big box stores with massive parking lots and massive stretches of multi-lane roads designed to move cars as quickly as possible, police officers have no choice but to patrol the cities and towns in cars of their own. The cars keep them removed from the general populace and the only time they may contact you personally is if they pull you over in a traffic stop. The end result is officers don't get much of a chance to establish a rapport with community members and vice versa. Most of us probably couldn't identify all of the people who work for our local departments and those that can identify a couple they happen to know personally probably couldn't tell you more than that.
2. City councils regularly make a habit of politicizing the police department. If the council agrees to create a new officer position and the police chief doesn't hire an officer quickly enough, the council gets impatient. After all, they were elected to reduce crime and more officers reduces crime, right? The problem with telling a police chief he needs to "hurry up ad hire somebody" is the chief might hire a person who isn't qualified in some ways, instead of being patient and finding the right person for the job. The council's politicizing is often done for the sole purpose of making it look like they "did something" when it doesn't have the impact the council thinks it does.
3. Too often, police officers are sent the message that they are not there to serve and protect the citizens of the communities they are in, but to treat everyone as a potential suspect. From the tales about how a traffic stop led to a drug bust to the tales about the suspicious person walking down the street suddenly attacking an officer who just wanted to make sure the person was all right, police officers get the message that they are to be wary of anyone and everyone. It gets in the way of their chances to establish relationships with people and build trust.
4. Of course, officers get sent this message because the federal government spends its time doling out money to make sure police departments are given the latest equipment, training and other amenities and ideas, all in the name of being prepared in case "the worst should happen." Never mind that such situations are rare and only seem to be commonplace because 24-7 news and certain big-name newspapers and websites talk them up so much. The end result is you get situations like Ferguson, in which while it is true that peaceful protests didn't stay that way and a few individuals took it upon themselves to loot and vandalize, it didn't warrant the police transforming themselves into an invading army and treating Ferguson like a war zone.
5. Speaking of Ferguson, I know everyone has their opinions on Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, declaring either one or the other was the problem. In reality, neither were the problem -- the two were symptoms of a larger problem: The citizens of Ferguson did not trust the local police because the local police were used by the folks in Ferguson city hall as a means to balance the budget by pressuring the police to collect fines for whatever reason they could fine to ensure they met quotas. It's understandable you should collect fines for legitimate violations of the law, but the worst thing you can do is depend on those fines to balance the books. Neither Brown nor Wilson are responsible for that practice-- that lies solely at the feet of Ferguson city hall.
6. On another note about Ferguson, something that has always stuck out in my mind was the story about the officer who saw kids playing basketball and figured he'd go out and play with them, considering it was a slow work day. The officer gets told that's not allowed, and besides, they're taking down the courts because they can't afford to keep them. Not only is the officer denied a chance to build a rapport with the kids and let them know he's more than just somebody in a uniform, but the kids get the message that they can't have a basketball court any more, so what are they supposed to do for fun now? To sum up, the Ferguson city hall folks didn't view the citizens as people to serve but subjects to rule. And then they wonder why there was resentment or worse from the citizens.
7. Back to Yanez, it is clear from the video footage that has been released that Yanez had a temper problem. He is initially friendly with Castile, then goes right into panic mode when Castile mentions he has a firearm on him as he goes to get his license. People who keep level heads don't go from zero to panicky in a few short seconds -- people with temper problems do that. I should know -- I have a temper problem. I do my best to control it, but in a tense situation like that, you can imagine I'd freak out. That's why I consider myself unqualified to be a police officer and why I consider Yanez unqualified. The department has fired him and I don't think he should ever hold a police officer job again.
8. Juries are told they must determine if there is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but everyone has their own definition of reasonable doubt and their own ideas about who really should and shouldn't be trusted. From people who tend to give police officers the benefit of the doubt to people who sympathize with somebody who breaks down (even if they don't know the reason why) to people who try to place themselves in the other person's shoes too much, there are many things that can go into the back of somebody's mind that would cause them to give an officer the benefit of the doubt -- a benefit that might not be afford to other people who are charged with a crime. And plenty of times, the instructions a judge gives a jury are used by attorneys on both sides to persuade the jury of an outcome. While I don't have easy answers for another solution, I do think we need to remember that the jury's duty is not to prove the true story, only guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and whatever the jury perceives as "reasonable doubt" is what determines outcomes.
9. I think there is some truth to what Rod Dreher wrote at The American Conservative about the relationship between our acceptance of extreme force used by police and by what is effectively our state of permanent war. We are taught to support the troops, a noble gesture for sure, but questioning why we've spent 15 years in Afghanistan with no end in sight is interpreted by some to be questioning the troops. Similarly, we are taught to show appreciation for our officers, but if a person questions why an officer is panicking instead of keeping a level head, some will reflexively accuse that person of hating the cops. (There are, of course, the polar opposite reactions to a desire to support troops or officers, and those are just as harmful to reasonable debate.) Most of all, we tend to shrug our shoulders when anybody points out the legitimate issues that exist, simply because it doesn't affect us personally. No personal connection means we see no reason to change our minds.
10. I also think Pratik Chougule was on to something when he says we are raising our children to be authoritarians and that contributes to the problem. And as Chougule writes, it's more than just about what people on the right wing of the political spectrum think, but what people on the left wing do. Whether it's never questioning certain types of authority (for some, it's police officers; for others, it's college administrators), or sheltering children from every little thing because the mainstream media keeps telling us their children are always in danger, or lecturing people for every little thing they say lest they upset somebody, or clinging to whatever version of "my way or the highway" we have in mind, we are taught that it's more important to be "safe" than anything else.
If we really want to get to the heart of the issues that would lead to real police department reform, I can think of a few things we can try: Allow police chiefs to carefully vet candidates to find those who will keep a level head, make sure officers are trained to properly assess situations and think of their guns in most cases as a last resort rather than the line of the first defense, stop relying on fines to balance city budgets, don't just rely on the news network and websites that tell you what you want to hear and find those that take a more critical look at issues, and stop worrying so much about what could happen to your kids if you take your eyes off them for one second. On that last one, I'm not saying you should just let your children do whatever they want, but allowing them some flexibility to explore things on their own will get your children to understand what risk means and how to best manage it.
Most of all, when we sit down, examine the issues and come up with ideas, we need to remember to revisit them and not just assume that correlation proves causation, as we do so much with issues these days -- especially if it's a "win" for our side. The way we advance as a society is not measured by how many "wins" our side gets; it's measured by how much everyone works together to find the best possible solution.
Final note: Since I've linked to several American Conservative articles, I'll link to another one by Noah Millman, who writes about Yanez's panic and how, in some ways, it compares to ours.