No longer is it unusual to hear about incidents in which police shoot unarmed individuals first and ask questions later. What is unusual is our lack of outrage, the relative disinterest of our elected representatives, the media’s abysmal failure to ask questions and demand answers, and our growing acceptance of the status quo in the United Police States of America—a status quo in which “we the people” are powerless in the face of the heavy-handed tactics employed by the government and its armed agents.
However, as I document in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, it’s all part of the larger police state continuum. Thus, with each tragic shooting that is shrugged off or covered up, each piece of legislation passed that criminalizes otherwise legal activities, every surveillance drone that takes to the skies, every phone call, email or text that is spied on, and every transaction that is monitored, the government’s stranglehold over our lives grows stronger.
We have been silent about too many things for too long, not the least of which is the deadly tendency on the part of police to resort to lethal force. However, as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
For the sake of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, we can be silent no more. The Santa Rosa teen was shot dead after two sheriff’s deputies saw him carrying a toy BB gun in public. Lopez was about 20 feet away from the deputies, his back turned to them, when the officers took cover behind their car and ordered him to drop the “weapon.” When Lopez turned around, toy gun in his hand, one of the officers—a 24-year veteran of the force—shot him seven times. The time span between the deputies calling in a suspicious person sighting and shooting Lopez was a mere ten seconds. The young boy died at the scene. Clearly, no attempt was made to use less lethal force.
Rationalizing the shooting incident, Lt. Paul Henry of the Santa Rosa Police Department explained, “The deputy’s mindset was that he was fearful that he was going to be shot.” Yet as William Norman Grigg, a commentator for LewRockwell.com, points out, such a “preoccupation with ‘officer safety’ … leads to unnecessary police shootings. A peace officer is paid to assume certain risks, including those necessary to de-escalate a confrontation with someone believed to be a heavily armed suspect in a residential neighborhood.”
Unfortunately, this police preoccupation with ensuring their own safety at all costs—a mindset that many older law enforcement officials find abhorrent in light of the more selfless code on which they were trained—is spreading like a plague among the ranks of police officers across the country, with tragic consequences for the innocent civilians unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet the fatality rate of on-duty patrol officers is reportedly far lower than many other professions, including construction, logging, fishing, truck driving, and even trash collection. In fact, police officers have the same rate of dying on the job as do taxi drivers.
Nevertheless, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 400 to 500 innocent people are killed by police officers every year. That does not include the number of unarmed individuals shot and injured by police simply because they felt threatened or feared for their safety. This is the danger of having a standing army (which is what police forces, increasingly made up of individuals with military backgrounds and/or training, have evolved into) that has been trained to view the citizenry as little more than potential suspects, combatants and insurgents.
Consider what happened in Cleveland, when two police officers mistook the sounds of a backfiring car for gunfire and immediately began pursuing the 1979 Chevrolet Malibu and its two occupants, a woman driver and a man in the passenger seat. Within 20 minutes, more than 60 police cars, some unmarked, and 115 officers had joined the pursuit, which ended in a full blown-out firefight in a middle school parking lot that saw 140 bullets fired in less than 30 seconds. Once the smoke cleared, it quickly became evident that not only had the officers been mistakenly firing at each other but the “suspects”—dead from countless bullet wounds—were unarmed.
I doubt the police officers involved in this massacre are bad cops in the sense of being corrupt and on the take, or violent and abusive, or bloodthirsty and trigger happy. Just like you and me, these officers have spouses and children to care for, homes to maintain, bills to pay, and worries that keep them up at night. Like most of us, they strive to do their jobs as best as they know how, but that’s where the problem arises, because they have clearly been poorly trained in how to distinguish what is a real threat.
So what is the answer?
If ever there were a time to de-militarize and de-weaponize local police forces, it’s now. The same goes for scaling back on the mindset adopted by cops that they are the law and should be revered, feared and obeyed. As for the idea that citizens must be compliant or risk being treated like lawbreakers, that’s nothing more than authoritarianism with a badge.
In other words, it’s time for a reality check, for both the police and the citizens of this nation, and a good place to start is with the words of that gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who warned: “Coming of age in a fascist police state will not be a barrel of fun for anybody, much less for people like me, who are not inclined to suffer Nazis gladly and feel only contempt for the cowardly flag-suckers who would gladly give up their outdated freedom to live for the mess of pottage they have been conned into believing will be freedom from fear.”