I have been horrified to sleeplessness tonight reflecting on the fatal police shootings of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell in Ferguson. Yesterday morning I came across the smartphone footage of Kajieme Powell’s death. In the video, you first see a mentally ill, suicidal man pacing the side of the road with a couple of drinks that he’s just stolen stacked at the curb, harassing passers-by. A white police SUV pulls up, and the man begins screaming at the police, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” while holding a knife at his side, weaving towards and away from the officers in the truck. The officers scream at the man to stop and drop the knife, and, within fifteen seconds of arriving, they step out and pump nine bullets into him. He collapses, immediately dead. One officer turns over Kajieme’s limp body, pointlessly handcuffing him, while the other clinches his gun with rigid arms still trained on the body.
My uncle worked as a staff psychologist with the Los Angeles Police Department for more than a decade. He told me that most police officers don’t use their gun even once during their career. However, he said, if they do fire their gun, they are going to empty it completely into whoever’s coming their way. I guess this is how the police are trained: try to avoid violence, but if the situation merits it, use full deadly force.
Kajieme’s story, and the vividness with which it was captured, immediately brought to my mind a Buddhist parable that I’ve heard several times from my teachers (I’m a practicing Tibetan Buddhist). Buddhism is on a far extreme of nonviolence. So much so, that quite a few people who have gotten this far in my story may have just stopped reading, dismissing whatever I might have to say next.
The parable is one that I’ve not heard spontaneously, but rather in response to a specific question. When students hear of the Buddhist precept of nonviolence, they often start to catalog the various “unavoidable” scenarios that could happen, or that have happened to some of us. What do you do if someone attacks you unprovoked? If someone threatens your family? If someone is clearly trying to kill you? The answer from my lamas has been consistently the same, told in the form of a story.
“Imagine,” my teacher says, “that your mother comes rushing at you with a knife and you are holding a gun. What do you do? Do you shoot her in cold blood to stop her? Most certainly not. She seems to have the intent to kill you, yet some temporary mania must have struck her to want to murder the child she invested her life in; the one she nursed, bathed, and taught good manners. No, you wouldn’t shoot her, you’d probably put down the gun, and struggle hand-to-hand to get the knife from her. You’d sustain some wounds, maybe some serious, but it would be worth it: far better than the lifelong pain of having killed your own mother. Your motivation would be wholly one of compassion: to try and stop her from harming you and herself, to restrain and calm her.”
This, my teacher says, is the attitude we should have towards any violent person. The only type of force we should consider is one motivated by compassion: force used to stop violence and prevent someone harming themselves and others. I know we can’t see into anyone else’s mind, but from the cell phone footage I saw, it seems unlikely the officers in Ferguson had such a compassionate motivation. Perhaps they unthinkingly played out pre-programmed scenarios from their “rules of engagement” that taught deadly force as the only solution to a knife-wielding person who doesn’t stop when commanded. Perhaps they were filled by fear and adrenaline, as you or I might be, and acted out of life-preserving instinct. And, possibly, as some claim, anger and racism motivated the men.
“Suicide by cop” claims somewhere between 35 and 120 people a year in the U.S. The term was introduced in the 1980s and is an active area of psychological study. In an article on the tragic phenomenon, I am reminded of Stewart Brand’s saying “Bad things happen fast. Good things happen slow.” Florida police psychologist Laurence Miller says that an officer’s most important weapons are his brains and mouth, and that “Ninety percent of potentially lethal situations in law enforcement can be talked down through negotiation.”
Miller’s research seems to offer hope that with better training, and possibly more compassion, many of these deadly situations could be avoided. Unsettling, though, is research by former Los Angeles Police Department psychologist Kris Mohandie showing that most “suicide by cop” victims hadn’t actually decided to die until the police became involved:
Mohandie’s research found that 81 percent of the suicides by cop he identified were incidents in which the subject — often someone feeling hopeless or self-destructive — did not decide he actually wanted to die until the police became involved. Such a definition, other researchers say, leaves open the possibility that police could have done something to escalate or even provoke the subject’s reaction — and still have the shooting called a “suicide.”
I’ve seen His Holiness the Dalai Lama speak in person a few dozen times. More than once he’s been asked by the audience, “What can I do to diminish violence in the world?” I have heard him give the same answer each time: resolve the conflicts in your own personal life and make up with those whom you have quarrels.
This is the “good things happen slowly” answer. The long-term solution to ending violence is person-by-person, starting with eliminating the mildest forms of conflict in our daily lives. But is there anything we could do to speed this process in our country and world, and, particularly, to diminish or end preventable killings by those with the day-to-day monopoly on “legitimate” violence: the police?
Many have asked why officers didn’t use a Taser to knock out Kajieme Powell, rather than shooting nine metal slugs through his body. The answer, apparently, is because Powell was wearing a sweatshirt. According to the St. Louis police, Tasers must make contact with the skin in order to be effective. St Louis police could also learn from UK tactics for dealing with knife-wielding threats. Take a look at the novel technique of getting out of the way used by UK police against a man brandishing a giant machete:
I am skeptical of technological solutions to social problems. But is shooting metal slugs through people’s brains and organs really the best way, in 2014, to stop someone from harming themselves and others? Is it not possible for the great minds of our generation who create drones, iPhones, and Tesla batteries to turn “set for stun” into a reality? I’d like to make a call to all the Kickstarter heroes to put their minds to this problem. Imagine a world ten years from now where a safe, fast, and effective stun gun replaced firearms for a majority of police conflicts. When people like Seth Pyers, who survived a suicide by cop in New Jersey, live to say , “Tell that officer I’m sorry, Mom.”
And, more deeply, for all of us, including police officers, to examine our minds and motivations, and turn towards valuing every human life as much as we value our mother’s. How much better would our world be then? And when there was a killing — accidental or not — would conflicts diffuse if the officers involved expressed deep remorse for their actions and sympathy for their victims? If they apologized to the mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends of those they killed?
The Dalai Lama’s advice suggests that our own anger and violence towards the police will only serve as a further cause of violence in the world, as we saw in the escalation of the Ferguson riots. Could diminishing our own small conflicts, including anger at the police, help to reduce and eliminate violence in the world? Or do violent protests and harsh words help the cause of nonviolence?
The clearest voice of fearlessness and compassion in this conflict has been Captain Ronald Johnson’s, who directly confronted protesters not with riot gear and guns, but with open arms and understanding. His actions almost instantly diffused tensions with protesters, at least for a little while, as summed up in the Washington Post headline “With Highway Patrol, hugs and kisses replace tear gas in Ferguson.”
If we take the Dalai Lama’s advice, then we need to see the Ferguson officers as human beings who deserve our compassion as much as our mothers do. The patterns in shootings like Brown’s and Powell’s suggest something beyond isolated incidents or rogue racists. But if these are systemic problems, then they are amenable to systemic solutions — whether problems of police forces’ culture and training, or deeper problems of institutional racism and dehumanization. For those reading who are experts in any of these fields, or in a position to make a direct impact, may you quickly find ways to eliminate needless and tragic killings like those we’ve seen this month in Ferguson. And may anyone reading this with true expertise in these areas forgive any of my errors or naiveties.