A number of years ago one of my students told what has become my favorite gun story since I moved to Texas. Gun ownership is much more common here than in, for example, California. So, over the last six years, I’ve heard lots of gun stories. This particular student was pulled over by the police for speeding. The police officer approached his car and the student gave him his driver’s license and immediately informed the officer that he has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The police officer asked him, “do you currently have a weapon?” The student replied, “yes sir, it is locked in my trunk.” The police officer replied, “Well, son, what good is it going to do you back there?” The officer went on to tell him that “I better not stop you again and find that you don’t have that gun up in the car with you where it will do you some good.”
Until this morning, I thought that was a funny story. Until I read the story of Philando Castile, one of two African-American men shot and killed by police officers in the last day or so. Mr. Castile was pulled over for a broken taillight in Minnesota. According to his girlfriend, he told the police that he had a license to carry a firearm. As Mr. Castile reached for his identification, the police officer shot him four times. Mr. Castile died.
It seems like the big difference between my student and Mr. Castile is race. They were both pulled over for minor traffic infractions. Both had a license to carry a fire-arm. Both had identification. My student was white while Mr. Castile was African-American.
Unfortunately, stories of police killing young African-American men have become common news items in the United States. But, what now? A few days ago Art posted a story from the Atlantic about the use of restorative justice processes, instead of criminal or civil trial processes, in the death of Freddy Gray in Baltimore, Maryland. Is that a way forward?
I have serious concerns about using restorative justice in the face of what seems an unending stream of excessive force and police killings of African-American men in this country. I am skeptical because what we need is far-reaching institutional and cultural changes to make a difference.
One place to start is stopping what seems to many (including me) to be a culture of impunity for police officers who use excessive force. One step towards ending it is already happening. These incidents are now routinely being captured on tape and broadcast for the world to see. Technology is one important part of ending a culture of impunity.
But, the legal system has a crucial role to play. Prosecuting police officers who commit unjustified killings and who use excessive force that doesn’t result in death, is important. California took an important step last year when it banned the use of Grand Juries to investigate these cases. Prosecutors all too often hide beyond the cloak of a Grand Jury and declare that they cannot prosecute because the Grand Jury did not indict. One important step is to have prosecutors make the decision, as lawyers, whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute police misconduct.
We also need to keep better track of what is going on. There is no federal database for police shootings. The FBI will begin tracking this information and have it available by early 2017. Until then, the Washington Post is tracking how many people have been killed by police.
Of course, formal trials and better data collection are only a few small steps and are unlikely to result in quick cultural changes in police departments. Many in the wider dispute resolution community are involved in training police officers in non-violent dispute resolution skills. Many police agencies already include basic dispute resolution skills in their training programs and value police officers with a proven track record of deescalating situations. And, no doubt, many police officers use these skills daily.
The question is how do we make these approaches more wide-spread so we aren’t suffering on average, as we did in 2015, more than two police killings a day in this country? And, how do we make it so that “driving while black” doesn’t so commonly result in death?
I wish I had some answers. Unfortunately, like so many of us, I am left with more questions and deep sorrow for the needless loss of life at the hands of those charged with protecting us all.
UPDATE: Just as I was about to press “post” the news broke that there was a shooting tonight (July 7) during a demonstration in Dallas. The early reports are that eleven police officers were shot, four fatally. There is a database tracking police fatalities here. The questions remain, how can we do better to prevent violence and needless loss of life?