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Re-evaluating when police should use force

Written By | Aug 1, 2015

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, MD., July 31, 2015 – This year appears to have had an inordinate number of cases of police-involved deaths. The latest is the case of Sandra Bland, where a routine police stop ended in a suicide, with controversy all along the way.

Sandra was stopped by Officer Brian Encinia for not signaling to change lanes. He informed her of the violation and told her he was just giving her a warning. That changed when the officer asked Ms. Bland if she would put out her cigarette and she responded that she was in her car and she refused the request by the officer.

After an almost surreal escalation, Ms. Bland found herself on the ground, handcuffed and on her way to jail. Three days later, she was dead, apparently from suicide in her jail cell.

One has to think that three days in jail and a death is too much punishment for changing lanes without signaling and refusing to put out a cigarette.

There is a common thread that has been repeated in many of the high-profile cases involving civilian deaths at the hands of police. This is true in the cases from Ferguson to New York City to Charleston, S.C, to Baltimore to Prairie View, Texas. When the officer was confronted with either resistance or perceived resistance from the person he had stopped, the subsequent escalation gave way to actions that resulted in the death of the person taken into custody. The recent shooting by a University of Cincinnati officer appears to have had no escalation at all.

Men, especially police officers, demand respect and obedience from others when they are in a position of power. The idea behind this is that when a police officer gives you an order, it is to protect you and others in the area. This makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is for a police officer to give a command or perform an action that may raise the level of violence in a situation. It makes even less sense that the police officer would continue to give orders and physically attack a person when there is no threat to him or anyone else in the area. Even in cases involving a threat, as allegedly happened in Ferguson, the officer could take actions to de-escalate  the situation and prevent the death of a civilian.

In most cases, the officer has the option of stepping back, moving to a safe location and calling for reinforcements. In the case of Officer Wilson in Ferguson, he pursued Michael Brown after he had called for reinforcements. According to Officer Wilson, after a confrontation, Michael Brown ran away. Wilson then pursued him and shot him to death after he noticed that Michael Brown reached to his belt. Because Michael Brown is dead, there is no one else to confirm or deny Wilson’s statements.

When Wilson was asked by an interviewer a few days later why he did not go back to his car and call for assistance, he appeared to drop his jaw in disbelief. He then indicated that he had the duty of pursuing Brown as he could have hurt or killed someone else. By all accounts, however, Brown just wanted to get away and didn’t have a weapon to victimize anyone.

In all the cases, there was no realistic threat to the officers or the public. The officer believed he had to pursue and eventually either maim or kill the subject, when in fact the rational action would have been to step back, find safety and then call for reinforcements.

In our current society, prone to violence, still suffering from racism and holding on to ideas of machismo like “hold your ground” and “go ahead, make my day,” it is going to be difficult to change the paradigm of when to use deadly force. Police forces attract individuals who seek to take on roles of authority, and who seek action and excitement. Like Wilson, they believe that their duty is to pursue and apprehend or kill.

This paradigm must change. Police officers must train to de-escalate and to be less confrontational. They have to suppress their first instinct to choose the more direct route of violence and instead take a step back and call for support.

The public also must change. The general public must regain trust in police and believe officers are  trying to protect us and not hurt us. We have to recognize when to keep our mouth shut and listen to the mostly helpful directions the officers provide.

Unfortunately, there will be occasions in which either the person is impaired by the use of drugs/alcohol or by mental illness. In those cases, the officer has to recognize the impairment and behave in a way to minimize harm to himself and the individual or call for help from someone who knows how.

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, believes that there are too many cases in which deadly force is used by police and that this should change. He is in Twitter (@chibcharus), Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook (Mario Salazar).


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Mario Salazar

Mario Salazar is a combat infantry Vietnam Vet, world traveler, renaissance reconnaissance man, pacifist, metal smith, glass artisan, computer programmer and he has a Master of Science in Civil/Environmental Engineering. Now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and living in Montgomery County, Mario will share with you his life, his thoughts, his musing on living in yet another century of change. He will also try to convey his joy of being old.