Licensed to Kill: The Growing Phenomenon of Police Shooting Unarmed Citizens

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Here’s a recipe for disaster: Take a young man (or woman), raise him on a diet of violence, hype him up on the power of the gun in his holster and the superiority of his uniform, render him woefully ignorant of how to handle a situation without resorting to violence, train him well in military tactics but allow him to be illiterate about the Constitution, and never stress to him that he is to be a peacemaker and a peacekeeper, respectful of and subservient to the taxpayers, who are in fact his masters and employers.

Once you have fully indoctrinated this young man (or woman) on the idea that the police belong to a brotherhood of sorts, with its own honor code and rule of law, then place this person in situations where he will encounter individuals who knowingly or unknowingly challenge his authority, where he may, justifiably or not, feel threatened, and where he will have to decide between firing a weapon or, the more difficult option, adequately investigating a situation in order to better assess the danger and risk posed to himself and others, and then act on it by defusing the tension or de-escalating the violence.

I’m not talking about a situation so obviously fraught with risk that there is no other option but to shoot. I’m talking about the run-of-the mill encounters between police and citizens that occur daily. In an age when police are increasingly militarized, weaponized and protected by the courts, these once-routine encounters are now inherently dangerous for any civilian unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yet as I point out in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, this is what happens when you go from a representative democracy in which all members are subject to the rule of law to a hierarchical one in which there is one set of laws for the rulers and another for the ruled.

Hence, it is no longer unusual to hear about an incident in which police shoot unarmed individuals first and ask questions later. This is becoming all too common. For example, on September 14th alone, there were two separate police shootings of unarmed individuals, resulting in death and/or injury to innocent individuals—and those are just the shootings that happened to make national headlines.

The first shooting incident took place in Charlotte, N.C., when three police officers responded to a 911 “breaking and entering” call in which a homeowner reported that a man she didn’t know or recognize had been knocking at her door repeatedly. Upon arriving on scene, the police saw a man matching the caller’s description running towards them. One officer fired a stun gun, after which the second officer opened fire on the unarmed 24-year-old, who died on the scene. Only afterwards did police realize the dead man had been in a car accident and was likely approaching them for help.

Later that same day, in New York’s Times Square, police officers shot into a crowd of tourists, aiming for a 35-year-old man who had been reportedly weaving among cars and loosely gesturing with his hands in his pockets. The cops missed the man, who was unarmed, and shot a 54-year-old woman in the knee and another woman in the buttock. The man was eventually subdued with a Taser.

These are not isolated incidents. Law enforcement officials are increasingly responding to unsubstantiated fears for their safety and perceived challenges to their “authority” by drawing and using their weapons.

For example, Miami-Dade police slammed a 14-year-old boy to the ground, putting him in a chokehold and handcuffing him after he allegedly gave them “dehumanizing stares” and walked away from them, which the officers found unacceptable. According to Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, “His body language was that he was stiffening up and pulling away… When you have somebody resistant to them and pulling away and somebody clenching their fists and flailing their arms, that’s a threat. Of course we have to neutralize the threat.”

Unfortunately, this mindset that any challenge to police authority is a threat that needs to be “neutralized” is a dangerous one that is part of a greater nationwide trend that sets law enforcement officers beyond the reach of the Fourth Amendment. Equally problematic is the trend in the courts that acquits officers involved in such shootings, letting them off with barely a slap to the wrists.

As Titania Kumeh reports in Mother Jones, this has been coming on for a long time. Remember back in 1999, when four plainclothes New York police officers shot and killed a 22-year-old unarmed immigrant who was standing in the doorway of his apartment? The cops thought the young man was reaching for his gun—it turned out to be his wallet—and fired 41 shots at him, landing 19 on his body. The cops were acquitted of all charges.

Make no mistake, whereas these shootings of unarmed individuals by what Slate terms “trigger happy” cops used to take place primarily in big cities, that militarized, urban warfare mindset among police has spread to small-town America. No longer is this just a problem for immigrants, or people of color, or lower income communities, or young people who look like hooligans, out for trouble. We’re all in this together, black and white, rich and poor, urban and suburban, guilty and innocent alike. We’re all viewed the same by the powers that be: as potential lawbreakers to be viewed with suspicion and treated like criminals.

Whether you’re talking about police shootings of unarmed individuals, NSA surveillance, drones taking to the skies domestically, SWAT team raids, or roadside strip searches, they’re all part of a totalitarian continuum, mile markers on this common road we’re traveling towards the police state. The sign before us reads “Danger Ahead.” What remains to be seen is whether we can put the brakes on and safely reverse direction before it’s too late to turn back.

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