I’m sure you’ve all seen this video. If you haven’t, be warned – it’s not particularly graphic, but a guy is shot to death. Here’s what happens: a man robs a convenience store, then goes out on the pavement and apparently waits for the cops to show up. They do, and 20 seconds after the time the officers get out of their car, the robber is shot dead.
Now, it’s a grainy cell phone video, so it’s not the best witness ever, but here’s a few things I noticed:
- The behavior and demeanor of the officers allowed no attempt to de-escalate the situation
- The robber shows no weapon or attempt at aggressive action besides walking forward, though video quality might be at fault here (the dude does have a knife. Kevin thinks this fact is really important because he clearly lacks reading comprehension, but he’s complaining to me and I don’t want to deal with it)
- Two shots are clearly heard after the robber has crumpled to the ground
- The cell phone footage filmed by an independent eyewitness with no connection to the crime was released by the St. Louis police department, not its owner. In a world where police gas journalists and steal their stuff, this is a bit worrying.
Is this an abuse of police force? I’m pretty sure you know what I think about that already. Was it racism? Maybe. I mean, it’s true that police seem to try to de-escalate when the person is white, but I think that a focus on the intent and biases of the individual officers obscures a far more important issue. This issue is systematic. It is inherent to the training, self-image, and self-conception of the police force in St. Louis, Ferguson, L.A., and many, many other places.
Look at how the officers in St. Louis approach the situation – based on the way they got out of their car, the outcome was almost pre-determined. There was no room for any result other than immediate surrender or death. Listen to the voice of the person filming the incident – he goes from thinking this is hilarious, to concerned (shit they’ve got their guns out), and then the robber is dead.
It’s not that the police misread the situation – they didn’t have time to read the situation at all. They arrived with a plan, and because of that plan, the result was almost pre-determined. In other words, this incident occurred because of the way the St. Louis police (and many others, to be sure) train their officers.
A couple years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a course on the ethics of warfare, taught by a philosophy professor who spent a great deal of his time writing and thinking about the use of drones. In the course of the class, he made the following argument: drones are not an ethical problem because of their use, but because of how they affect the decision-making process. Without a bit of skin in the game, commanders become blasé about the use of force. Abuses inevitably follow.
This sounds fairly reasonable and logical, but as my professor pointed out, there’s one huge sticking point. “A bit of skin in the game” constitutes a nice way of saying that we must put US soldiers in harm’s way more frequently. My professor had never served, and readily admitted that this meant that his proposal sounded like the worst kind of ivory tower theoretical nonsense. His response: that’s the job you signed up for when you enlisted. By the virtue of his or her position, a soldier cannot hold self-preservation as the highest goal in every situation.
In St. Louis, we don’t have drones. We have a mentality, a mentality centered on the primacy of a police officer’s right to self preservation. The two officers stepped out of their car with guns drawn because of this mentality. The police responded to peaceful protests in Ferguson in riot gear because of this mentality, and the violence in Ferguson resulted from it, at least in part. This mentality kills, and it kills because it imposes a solution on every situation it encounters.
I give the same answer my philosophy professor gave. The police must have more “skin in the game.” Self-preservation cannot be the guiding principle behind every interaction an officer has with the public. I also give the same caveat. I have never served in the police or armed forces, and I sit very comfortably in my ivory tower. Still, it is the right answer.