Police officers across the country are making headlines, and citizens are wondering if enough checks and balances are in place to prevent use of force by police from getting out of control. From the controversial and historical assault on Rodney King to the recent fatal shooting of Cameron Tillman, the state of security and justice is in question. Given the focus of media attention, widespread concern plagues minority communities.
Police use of force entails the extraction and use of an external service weapon. The weapons include, but are not limited to, batons, pepper spray, conducted energy devices (CEDs) and firearms. Officers are trained to use these weapons in extreme cases where suspects are both non-compliant and a threat to themselves, a civilian or the officer. Most weapons are intended to do harm, and officers are trained with their firearms to shoot to kill.
The use of force by police is a sensitive subject among minority, inner-city civilians. Tension between police agencies and disadvantaged minority communities throughout the U.S. is palpable. While various efforts, i.e community policing, have been made to mitigate discord between civilians in these areas and the police forces intended to protect them, cases of police brutality and death-by-cop aggravate distrust.
This summer added fuel to the fire for those outraged by excessive use of force by the police. That heat descended upon the NYPD in July when an officer placed a chokehold on 43-year-old Staten Island resident Eric Garner. Garner, standing 6 foot 3 inches and weighing 350 pounds, was being placed under arrest for illegally selling cigarettes. On smartphone-recorded footage, Garner could be heard complaining that he could not breathe. He would later die from injuries sustained in his death.
In August, Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, was gunned down by a police officer. Eighteen-year-old Brown was unarmed at the time of the shooting and committing the crime of jaywalking during the time he was approached by police. Visiting his grandmother for the summer, Brown was standing in the street talking to friend, Dorian Johnson, when they encountered the officer. Confrontation ensued when Brown and Johnson failed to comply with the officer’s order to retreat to the sidewalk.
As accounted by Johnson, the officer shifted the squad car into reverse nearly colliding into the friends. The officer attempted to climb out of the car when the door hit them and closed on them. From the car, the officer grabbed Brown and fired his weapon. Brown and Johnson ran to get away when the officer fired again striking Brown a second time. That is when Brown turned to face the officer saying he was unarmed and pleading for the officer to stop shooting him. The officer riddled Brown with six bullets before ceasing fire. Brown was scheduled to begin classes at Vatterott College that following Monday.
Minorities have become so desensitized by the fear of “fitting the description” that they often poke fun at it. But considering how officers’ decision making processes are influenced by environmental (i.e., neighborhood characteristics and crime rates), demographic (i.e., poverty, percent minority, vacant housing, public assistance, percentage renters versus home owners, unemployment, female-headed households, and residential stability), and individual factors (i.e., age, gender, physical size of offender, social class), it appears their fears are rather legitimate. Theoretically, these factors have been significant influences on police use of force, deadly force, and arrest rates.
One hundred and sixty-five D.C. police officers are making the effort to observe, if not control, police conduct. In a pilot program requiring the officers to attach cameras to their uniforms, their interactions with civilians will be recorded for review. The $1 million six-month program is aimed at restoring trust between police officers and the civilians they are sworn to protect. Video captured on the $400 and $700 cameras worn on officers’ shirts and eyeglasses is said to not be used for criminal and administrative investigation and will be deleted after 90 days.
While this pilot program is by no means a solution, it is a step in the right direction. Cameras do not lie and officers will be held accountable for their conduct while on the job. It is expected that officers – knowing their actions are being recorded – will be on guard and avoid misconduct at the start of the program. But those who ride the fine line of honorable and questionable police work will do well to remember that old habits die hard. With the evolution of technology and the success of the program, perhaps cameras will become the standard in police uniforms. If so, citizens may begin to find comfort in police accountability and checks and balances on police use of force.
By Charice Long