Letter From Away — May 1, 2021
On April 20, while a Minneapolis jury announced the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, not quite a year ago, the lives of at least two other citizens were taken by police guns. Within 24 hours of the verdict, that toll had risen to six. Some of the dead were armed; some were not.
In Columbus, Ohio, sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was killed by four shots from an officer’s weapon as she ran close in to another young woman. The bodycam footage is all over the internet. The following Sunday, on Face the Nation, former Orlando police chief and current Democratic Congresswoman Val Demings said the officer who shot Bryant was acting “as he was trained to do.” But, what does that mean?
Training should enable officers to fulfill their responsibilities legally and safely, for themselves and the communities they serve. Prior to 1989, that meant police could only shoot at a suspect who posed a significant threat of injury or death to an officer or other third party. That changed, after Charlotte, N.C., police beat DeThorne Graham, a Black man suspected of shoplifting when he skipped a long convenience store checkout line and passed out in a diabetic coma.
The Supreme Court, under William Rehnquist, returned the case to a lower court, advising that police officers, under the pressure of their jobs, had a “reasonable” right to make split-second decisions about the amount of force needed in any specific situation. Since then, the “split-second” standard has protected law enforcement agents from prosecution, thorough investigation, and conviction. Chauvin’s nine minutes of violence made it impossible for him to use this defense, but the deaths of Ma’Khia Bryant, Adam Toledo, Tyrell Wilson, Michael Brown, Brionna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Saheed Vassell, and hundreds of others are a clear legacy of this misguided decision.
The overreach could be rectified through training and frequent counseling of those under the stress of a very difficult job, but training varies widely from state to state and police officers are notoriously resistant to the sort of emotional vulnerability that makes counseling effective.
Here in Maine, a candidate for the position of police officer is required to complete The Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s 40-hour online pre-service training program, before beginning an 80-hour interactive, scenario-based classroom program. This second part of the training must take place within two years of the initial phase, and all students must be at least 21 years old, 20 years old with at least 60 credits from an accredited college, or age 19 and currently enrolled in an accredited post-secondary education program, with at least 40 credit hours.
In addition, candidates for Maine law enforcement must have a background investigation form signed and notarized by a Police Chief, Sheriff or Law Enforcement Administrator from a full-time Maine law enforcement agency stating that there has been no disqualifying conduct or conviction. Students must pass an ALERT test of reading comprehension and writing skills based upon the level required to master the basic MCJA curriculum.
There is a physical fitness test that includes one minute of push-ups, one minute of sit-ups, and a 1.5 mile run. A written test is required along with a medical physical.
Finally, after being hired by a specific law enforcement agency, the newly minted Law Enforcement Officer must be issued a Firearms Proficiency Form signed by a Certified MCJA Firearms Instructor. The employing agency must provide 80-hours of documented supervision before a regular certification as a Law Enforcement Officer is granted by the Criminal Justice Academy.
In Ohio, where Ma’Khia Bryant died, all a police officer needs is to be a citizen of the United States, 21 years of age by the completion of the academy, a high school graduate or equivalent, in possession of a valid Ohio driver’s license, and free of any felony convictions.
In addition to those expectations, George Floyd’s home state of Minnesota also requires a written application, background search and fingerprinting, a thorough medical examination including an assessment that the candidate is free from emotional or mental conditions which might adversely affect the performance of peace officer duties, and a job-related examination of the applicant’s physical strength and agility. Minnesota candidates must also complete an oral examination and pass the Peace Officer Standard Training test.
North Carolina, where seven deputies are on leave after the killing of 42-year-old Anthony Brown, Jr. less than 24 hours after the Chauvin verdict, law enforcement candidates must be at least 20 years old. In addition to Minnesota’s requirements, they must be of “good moral character.”
None of this explains why seven deputies shot a man instead of the tires of his car or why it made more sense for the Ohio officer to shoot at the torso of a woman in close proximity to her alleged victim, rather than at her legs, for example. Deadly force may be allowed in these situations, but it might not have been any more necessary than Derek Chauvin’s 9-minute kneel.
According to the website at fbi.gov, in 2019 there were 150 deaths in which police officers were killed in the line of duty. Of those, almost half were due to illness not related to the crime being investigated and only 51 were the result of gunfire. For last yea, the FBI lists 360 deaths as taking place in the line of duty, giving COVID 19 responsibility for 232 of these and crediting 9/11-related illness for another 14. Guns killed 49 cops in 2020.
Meanwhile, 235 Black people were died at the hands of law enforcement in 2019. If you want to see their names, visit this Washington Post story. Another 231 were killed by cops last year and more than 210 have been killed so far this year.
If you’re wondering why I am comparing Black deaths at the hands of police to police deaths at the hands of everyone, it is because “ … the rate of fatal police shootings (of Black people) between 2015 and March 2021 stood at 35 per million of the population, while for White Americans, the rate stood at 14 fatal police shootings per million of the population.” In addition, “About 17% of the black people who died as a result of police harm were unarmed, a larger share than any other racial group.”
In response to the killing of Ma’Khia Bryant, Fraternal Order of Police General Counsel Larry James said, “If the officer doesn’t act, there’s a strong probability that an individual will be killed.” Perhaps, but officers who think their only option is deadly force are ensuring that result, not preventing it.
State legislatures are finally beginning to look toward solutions. Here in Maine, more than 20 new laws relating to law enforcement have been proposed. Of these, four would address bias and previous employment history in officers’ hiring and ongoing review. Another four bills attempt to deal with bias and background in law enforcement training and behavior. Three bills, LDs 214, 1416, and 1480, directly address qualified immunity and the use of deadly force. More information on the proposals can be found in Erin Rhoda’s excellent story in the Bangor Daily News.
I don’t want to abolish law enforcement. I want to end the hiring and continued employment of unfit officers. I want training to emphasize stress management, empathy, and minimizing risk to witnesses and alleged perpetrators. I want the killing of innocents to end. And I want us to be honest about how easy it seems to be for the people we hire to protect us to shoot Black people.
Sure, all lives matter, but some seem far too easy for our society to discard, and those must be defended.
Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.