Citizen Down: The Loss of Trust in American Law Enforcement
To Protect and Serve
To protect and serve. This is the reason we have a police force. They are there to protect us, the general public, from the evil that walks among us. They exist to serve the public good. But what happens when the system that is supposed to defend us instead does us harm? What happens when the police fail or, even worse, turn out to be the bad guy? How do we as a society react?
It would be comforting to believe that there are no bad cops. But in reality, the police force is made up of humans, all of whom have human traits, characteristics and flaws and who are capable of acting all to human. It is certainly understandable that law enforcement officers are under a great deal of stress on a daily basis. And humans under stress unfortunately do not always rise to the occasion but can sometimes crash and burn under the pressure instead. Maybe with an intentional act or maybe by just losing control.
Control is something all peace officers are taught from the earliest stages of their training. Control the situation. Control the suspect. Control the crowd. Control yourself. Obviously this is a heavy burden for an officer to bear and the very fact that they take on this task daily is a tribute to their dedication and something for which we as members of society should be eternally grateful. The vast majority of law enforcement officers accept this challenge because they want to make the world a safer, better place for the fellow man.
But things do get out of control and, sadly, when an officer loses control, very bad things can happen. While we owe it the law enforcement community to generally give officers the benefit of the doubt, law enforcement owes it to society to hold officers who fail to uphold the public trust or those who simply go bad accountable. Whether the turn to the dark side is a result of an error in judgment, on-the-job stress, personal problems at home, or just a bad apple that found its way into the barrel, society must be able to fully trust those given the task of protecting us.
Video: Oscar Grant Shooting
A Question of Restraint
It is always painful to read a story in the news where the actions of police officers are brought into question, but this scrutiny is necessary to maintain our faith in the police force at large. Recent stories have been especially disturbing, particularly the events surrounding the shooting deaths of 7-year-old Aiyana Jones and 22-year-old Oscar Grant III in separate incidents. The loss of these two young lives show us how important showing proper restraint is when officers must interact with the public.
Oscar Grant III died after being shot in the back while lying on the ground on January 1, 2009. Officers with the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police in Oakland, CA, were attempting to restrain individuals they believed to have been involved in a reported fight. BART Officer Johannes Mehserle stepped back from Grant, pulled his firearm and shot Grant in the back once. Since the killing, Mehserle has stated his intention was to Taser Grant and pulled his handgun by mistake.
No one would claim that Oscar Grant had led a perfect life prior to the events leading to his death nor would they try to make him out to be a saint. He had been in prison twice for various felonies including a conviction for drug dealing. But despite errors in his past, he still deserved a chance to change those ways in the future. Oscar Grant was engaged to be married to the mother of his four-year-old daughter.
Aiyana Jones on the other hand never even had a chance to choose a path in life. At the age of seven, she was just a child sleeping with her grandmother on the living room sofa when a bullet fired during a police raid in Detroit took her young life. Police, believing a murder suspect might be in the house, first fired a flash grenade into the room where Aiyana and her grandmother were sleeping.
At some point which is still being disputed, Officer Joseph Weekley fired a single shot killing the young girl. Weekley claims Aiyana's grandmother was involved in an altercation with him once inside the home, but she has stated she never touched the officer, rushing to her injured granddaughter instead. Officer Weekley is also a target of a federal investigation that alleges he was involved in a 2007 raid where two dogs were shot unnecessarily and guns were pointed at children.
These are just two examples of instances where one has to wonder, did the police go too far? Were officers in the right frame of mind to deal with these situations? Did stress play a factor in these shootings. Had the constant pressure of walking around practically with a bulls-eye painted on their back finally become too much for these officers? Clearly something went wrong and it is hard to imagine that things could not have been prevented had the officers shown more restraint.
When Bad Men Wear a Badge
But as sad as both the story of Aiyana Jones and the tale of Oscar Grant III may be, it seems likely that in neither case was the police's intention to kill someone. In young Aiyana's case, it seems almost certain that her death was accidental and the question is did officers follow proper procedures and use adequate restraint in the incident. There are more questions in the case of Oscar Grant III, but there is still a strong chance that the officer never intended to kill him. But what about situations where those who are supposed to be dedicated to upholding the law clearly set out to break the law, even to the point of murder?
Perhaps the most notorious case of murder involving a police officer is the death of Derwin Brown, at the time, the sheriff-elect of DeKalb County, Georgia. Derwin Brown was gunned down in front of his home on December 15, 2000. The mastermind of the murder? Defeated incumbent DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey. Sheriff Dorsey conspired with his deputies to kill sheriff-elect Brown to prevent corruption during his tenure from being exposed.
Then there was the case of Abner Louima who was beaten with fists, nightsticks and police radios after being arrested then strip searched and sexually molested by arresting officers from the 70th Precinct in Brooklyn, New York. The 30-year-old married father of one had no criminal record at the time and had become involved in an altercation at a nightclub when he along with others tried to intervene in a fight between two women.
But these are not isolated cases with intentional incidents happening almost everyday. Recently, Jon Burge, a decorated former Chicago police commander was found guilty of torturing suspects to get confessions. Long Island, New York, corrections officer Kim Wolfe was accused of killing three people including her lover. And the number of officer's charged with domestic abuse can be somewhat staggering.
An Ounce of Prevention
An ounce of prevention, they say, is worth a pound of cure. In other words, it would be better to prevent an officer from ever ending up in a situation where he cannot cope rather than to try to do something about it after the fact. But what can be done in a case like this?
Most law enforcement agencies, in fact most likely all agencies, have programs to offer counseling to officers either in house or through local mental health organizations. But usually an officer enters these programs either after an incident occurs or at the officer's own discretion. What can be done for those peace keepers who maybe do not see the dangerous path they are on?
The officer's co-workers, friends and family must play a primary role. If signs of stress are seen, the officer should be encouraged to seek counseling. In extreme cases, the officer's superiors might need to be contacted. There is more at stake than the safety of the public as an officer under duress can be a danger to those close to him and even to himself as well.
Of course, ultimately, the best person to encourage an officer to seek counseling would be the officer himself. An officer should not wait until things are pressing down upon him to act. There is no reason to not seek counseling even when stress seems to be at a manageable level. The days when mental health care was taboo are gone. For the most part, people understand the need to care for our psychological health in this day and age.
Together, everyone working toward the same goal, we can make a difference. Can we prevent every accidental shooting or incident of excessive force? Of course not. But hiding from the facts and pretending members of the police force can do no wrong solves nothing and in fact encourages the problem. We must face the reality if we want to make any progress toward changing it.