Friday, July 22, 2016

The Big Muddle

I recently saw a former police officer talking on Twitter about how the don't-get-involved-just-dial-911 way of thinking has exacerbated things in the US.  (Probably other countries too.) So, if someone calls the police to complain that their neighbor's music is up too loud, and then the police - who in many jurisdictions are required to follow up on all complaints - show up, and knock on the door. That neighbor is then startled to see police on their doorstep, and now irritated to discover someone reported them to police instead of just asking.  Now, sure, it's never that simple.  I had a friend who tried knocking on her neighbor's door over and over, and the neighbor would turn it up louder.  Some people are not good at living places where your neighbors can here you. 
But when we look at cases from the free-range children in Maryland, to Tamir Rice, a lot of this starts with people dialing 911.  
So this recent case in Florida I think is in many ways an example of how many aspects of this are a problem.  Someone dialed 911 and said they saw someone acting strange with a gun, possible suicide.  So, of course, the police rolled up, prepared to engage with a possible shooter.  As it turns out, the man in question was an autistic man who had wandered away from his caretakers, and at the time that police arrived, the caretaker, who was black, was already trying to talk to him and get him to get out of the road and come with him.  The caretaker kept his hands in the air, and explained to the police that the autistic man did not have a gun, he just had a toy truck, and well, this ended with the caretaker being shot by police.  And then being handcuffed. 
The good news, if we want to call it that, is that the caretaker is alive.  (I have no idea what happens with medical bills and lost work time when the police shoot you while you are doing your job, here's hoping worker's comp covers that.) 
1. People who see a man acting oddly in the street are pre-disposed to dial 911 rather than get involved.  I recognize that if you think a person might be armed, getting involved is not a good idea, which brings me to the next point. 
2. People assume anyone acting strangely might be armed.  This is not necessarily a bad assumption given the number of guns in this country.  But our unwillingness to do anything to reduce the number of guns, means people are acting as if everyone is armed and that has consequences. 
3. Police are trained to deal with shooters more often and more frequently than they are trained to deal with mentally ill people or even people who are just having a day.  And as anyone who has dealt with autistic or even just excited or agitated people knows, adding people with guns to the situation often escalates rather than de-escalates. 
4. Racism is alive and well.  And that's why, in a moment of heightened agitation, a police officer shot the black man* who was trying to calm the white man down.  I watched that video and there was nothing in there that suggested either man was a deadly threat, but if they were acting on the assumption that the white man was armed, then that's who should have been their priority. 
So, to sum up.  There are too many guns.  We are asking police to be involved in things that should not require police.  We are not allowing police to back down.  We are adding police to situations where they only have the training to escalate and not de-escalate, and when you add in structural racism, people get shot.  This is a lot of things we need to work on.  
I have started conversations with my city council member about this, since many of these things are based on local procedures.  But there's a lot to be done. 

*After I wrote this post, the North Miami police indicated that while the investigation of the incident is ongoing, the officer intended to strike the white man and missed.  I am not sure that's terribly credible, it sounds very much like what you say after the fact to make it seem not like a racism issue. I am not always so suspicious, but given the fact that the police responded by handcuffing the man they shot, I am not clear how they are now saying we shot the wrong guy, we meant to shoot the one we didn't then handcuff. I don't think this changes the core issues, but I wanted to note that they have said that.