Like most Americans, I am very aware of the recent national controversies involving victims, Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, and Trevor Martin. I also believe that I am in the majority saying that I sympathize with the viewpoints of both sides.
Most recently I read the report about the Cleveland Police Department, and the accounts of the behavior of the Albuquerque NM Police Department. Add to that the almost daily postings to youtube.com seeming to show police abuse of power. I am sorry to say that evidence of widespread and systematic abuse of police powers is now well documented. What does that mean for us?
Very much of criminal law and court review has to do with the word "reasonable". What would a reasonable person do in the same circumstances? That brings us to cases involving confrontation between police and citizens. Police have the right to use force, including deadly force, to execute arrests or to assure compliance with lawful orders. Citizens too have the right to self defense. Put those two rights together and the net result is explosive. Indeed, I've never seen a public discussion attempting to balance these rights. Among taboo subjects, this subject is taboo to the highest order.
We must be aware that the exposure and publicity resulting from these incidents affects people's perception of reality. In court, only the facts matter; at least in theory. But when judging "reasonableness" in a legal context, a persons perceptions (right or wrong) are what count. To the extent that extensive publicity changes our perceptions, it changes the standards of reasonable behavior.
To be brief, let me condense this essay to the case of James Boyd in Albuquerque. He was ordered to march down a steep hill, while three policemen aimed their weapons at him with the safeties off. What should a reasonable man do in those circumstances? Walking down a steep hill means that there is a high probability that you may make sudden involuntary movements with arms or legs to keep your balance. Any such movement might be interpreted as resistance, justifying one of those police killing you. The police would be unlikely to be deterred by the risk of accountability because if you are dead, only their version of events will be told. In those circumstances is it "reasonable" to obey police orders or to attempt to flee or to defend yourself with whatever means are at your disposal, perhaps including deadly force? How horrible that we must confront ourselves with such a question.
President Obama has ordered 50,000 body cameras. Cameras should help, but 500,000 are needed, plus huge budgets for managing the petabytes of newly created public video records. Obama also called for more and better police training. That also sounds good, but no such proposal in the past has affected substantial change.
In politics, I usually argue on the theoretical (ideological) side. Today, I speak to the pragmatic side. It is horrible that we find ourselves in this state, but what can we do about it? I have two modest proposals. My son David first told me about the first. The second is my own idea. I am not repeating something I read on The Internet.
- Keep all police laws, rules, and existing protocols unchanged. Just require that swat and riot police vehicles, clothing, and weapons, plus the firearms of all police, are colored shocking pink. Dave's idea is directed at the surges of adrenalin and testosterone that most certainly, influence police behavior.
- Keep all police laws, rules, and existing protocols unchanged. Police must be able to protect themselves and the public. Real life situations are too varied to predefine behaviors in written detailed rules. I propose that use of deadly force should be a once-in-a-lifetime event for any policeman. After any such incident, the policeman involved must be reassigned to duties that do not require carrying a weapon, nor would they be authorized to use a weapon officially ever again. It would not be a demotion. It should not result in reduced pay or promotion opportunities, nor should it carry a stigma. I believe this proposal is a reasonable balance, between the needs and rights of police on the streets and the needs and rights of the public to protect itself against abuse of authority.