Americans do not care much about what people in other countries, including those in friendly nations, say about the good, the bad and the ugly in the United States. Unfortunately, the ugly is often in full view to the world.
Among the things that many friends in America find ugly, the first one that must be mentioned is the appearance of police as military units in many cities carrying weapons more befitting battlefield conditions. In fact, it is a phenomenon that does matter to Americans as well, to the point that it has contributed to the violent behavior of protesters over the killing of Africans Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York.
There is no denying that in many peoples’ minds such war-making equipment is connected to the ease with which policemen are entitled to use deadly force in general. The point that can be made is that the exercise of such deadly force in America is aimed not just at blacks but at a larger mass of people — black, brown and white — who run up against so-called law enforcement. In fact, black Americans are disproportionally the victims of the exercise of deadly force, although they are not the only victims.
The underlying problem with the use of force in America, as expressed by many European criminologists, is that the behavior of police quickly escalates into a show of force as a result of insufficient training that should be imparted to the police officer.
The basic principle of a police officer’s training should be about exercising the maximum amount of restraint in the face of dangerous and threatening situations. The officer should be trained in de-escalating such situations under many strategies of conflict resolution that have been developed by a good many institutions in the United States. Ironically, this is a field in which the United States excels in comparison with European countries.
New methods to prevent and cure violence have been introduced and taught in many communities throughout the nation and have resulted in a significant reduction of gun violence. Organizations such as the Outreach Workers have found ways to work with the local police departments whose behavior must be increasingly guided by well defined rules. Unfortunately, the proliferation of SWAT that is improperly used for minor offenses, deploying teams that strike fear in the public, and the rampant militarization of police forces with surplus equipment of foreign wars have clearly harmed the proportionality doctrine by which the actions of police should be commensurate to the actual threat of individuals or groups facing the agents of law enforcement.
The case of Eric Garner, the petty lawbreaker who was killed by a totally unnecessary chokehold in New York, points to the issue of the degree of force allowed, more so because such choking was expressly prohibited by New York Police Department rules.
Police in European towns open fire only under extreme circumstances that are scrupulously defined. A cursory look at the police records of London, Paris and Rome will show that when a police officer uses deadly force, the police authorities open a legal, intensive investigation that is entrusted to experts rather than to a jury of 12 ordinary citizens.
Granted that the jury system is a bulwark of constitutional guarantees in America, yet the suspicion has deepened that the existing court processes favor the agents of law and order over the rights and protection of ordinary citizens. Retraining police officers is only a first step for changing the unjust equation. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio struck an important note in the aftermath of Garner’s tragic death. “I respect the process” — he said in an interview — but there is a need to initiate a “systemic” retraining of police officers in order to fix the relationship between the police and the community.
According to a private investigating network, in Cleveland police used “excessive and unreasonable force” in up to 600 incidents before 2013. This is the town where 12-year — old Tamir Rice was fatally shot for playing with a toy gun. The video shows that the child was acting quietly before the sudden arrival of a police cruiser. Killings like this are the result of ordinances that entitle police to use deadly force when they “feel” threatened.
Times have changed. America is no longer the Old West where the Lone Ranger takes the law into his hands. The ugliness of the unnecessary use of force and the systematic civil rights violations call for a national reform program. The time for it has come.