Four problems with American culture converge to make stories like the shootings of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice way too common.
1. Cops are badly trained. Darren Wilson said he was acting as he was trained to do. If that’s the case (and we’ll probably never know if it was), then his training was insufficient. For one thing, he should have been able to deescalate the situation. For another, he shouldn’t have had to kill Michael Brown — and certainly not with six or more shots.
Cops are taught that if they’re going to fire their weapon they need to aim at the biggest target: the torso. That way they have the best chance to disable the threat.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Other countries do things differently. The rule about shooting at the torso is a choice the cops make to protect themselves, too often at the expense of an innocent civilian. They could just as easily train themselves and each other to shoot to scare, to disable, or to wound, especially when they’re a long distance from their target and have plenty of time to react should their initial attempt to control the suspect fail. The cops themselves should not be the only ones determining how cops should be trained.
2. Our culture and our cops are obsessed with Wild West mythology. We hate government, yet we love the military, and the closest thing to a domestic military (and getting closer all the time) is the cops. As a result, we deify cops almost as much as we do soldiers. They can do no wrong.
We love the thought of a cop — Wyatt Earp, John Wayne, or Buford Pusser — violently dispatching a villain. Who needs a judge, jury, and defense attorney?
Let’s face it: We’re a culture that loves violence and war. Our founding mythology is that evil can only be dealt with through violence — whether the enemy is the king, the slave trader, or the outlaw. That mythology continues to plague us as we almost never respond to an international crisis with anything but bombs and bullets (in that order).
3. Yes, it’s about race. Darren Wilson’s testimony describing Michael Brown as “Hulk Hogan” or a “demon” can hardly be read any other way. It’s unlikely that he would have the same description of a big white kid, or that an encounter with two white kids walking down the street would have turned into a killing.
Wilson was irrationally afraid of a black teenager. A person like that should not be patrolling black neighborhoods. If he hadn’t been irrationally afraid, he could’ve deescalated the situation. If a cop doesn’t know how to calm a situation like that, then he shouldn’t be allowed to carry a gun, and he needs better training.
Similarly, the shooting of Tamir Rice was too quick and merciless to be explained any other way. White kids in white neighborhoods don’t get shot for playing with air soft guns, and thousands do it every day.
4. Laws favor cops. It’s almost impossible to convict a cop of anything if they were at work when they pulled the trigger. Commentators have said the law is on Wilson’s side. If that’s the case, then the law needs to change.
The laws — not the cops — need to establish when deadly force is appropriate, but the system we have now gives too much authority to police and sheriffs’ departments and to individual officers.
Despite our aversion to government, we love cops and soldiers — unelected government employees — and give them more respect and power than our elected representatives who should be keeping them in check. The only reason is our love affair with guns and the men (mostly white men) who wield them.
We need a society where politicians tell cops what they can and can’t do. We have a society where cops tell politicians what they can and can’t do.
The cops are not going to change unless someone makes them change. The current rules endanger the public, who are too often punished without probable cause, much less a trial. Politicians love telling teachers and other government employees what they’re doing wrong. It’s time for them to do the same with the police.
Cops are unaccountable and out of control. It’s time for our representatives to rein them in.