Benefit of the doubt is gone for American police



In the United States at least 5,600 people have been killed by police officers in the last 15 years. This might even be a low ball estimate, because for a reason only known to the almighty wisdom of our legislators, there is no database set up to track police killings.

If a database existed it could be used to scour over data to draw a larger picture of just what percentage of officers use deadly force, what proportion is justifiable, and who makes minorities their target and how often. But police have lobbied hard against this type of database, which leaves us to assume the worst.

Last year, as protesters descended on Ferguson, Mo., many people, myself included, gave police the benefit of the doubt, but law enforcement have lost that privilege as violence becomes more and more publicized. It is beginning to feel like the only difference between a justifiable use of deadly force and murder, as far as police are concerned, is whether or not a bystander brave enough to press record on their smartphone observes the incident.

The NFL rightly took a lot of heat for how it handled some high profile domestic abuse cases over the last twelve months. They were criticized for their “protect the shield” priority, setting the league brand above justice or morality.

Somehow, as police and prosecutors team up to cover up violence and avoid indictments, nobody has leveled the same scrutiny upon the justice system. The argument that it is simply a small minority of violent police officers that continue the pattern of targeting citizens is getting harder and harder to believe.

Another comparison with the NFL is pertinent: the brutal mindset of the NFL was blamed for the prevalence of domestic violence in the league, but domestic violence is much more prevalent among law enforcement officers than the general population. If it truly is only a small minority of officers giving the rest a bad rap, then it is time for the vast majority to ostracize the few for the greater good of police.

Some sympathizers have attempted to defend the violence by saying that the nature of the job makes violence unavoidable —as if putting eight bullets into the back of someone running away from you is simply a job hazard. If the fact that officer Michael Slager knew the severity of his actions fast enough to plant evidence on Walter Scott does not sink in, maybe a few facts will.

Police officers in the United States killed more citizens in the month of March than officers in Great Britain have killed in more than 100 years. A recent study found that of the disciplinary action cases taken against Florida officers between 1997 and 2002, 75 percent were filed against officers without a college degree, and just 11 percent were filed against officers with a bachelor’s degree.

Some police departments have purchased body cameras for officers to wear, a common sense step that protects both the public and an officer that may have no choice but to use deadly force. As long as officers do not turn their cameras off — a clear sign that they have violent, or at least nefarious inclinations — body cameras have been shown to reduce violence by as much as 60 percent.

A solution is possible, and it starts with city leaders. Municipalities across the country can take a few steps to save lives and, considering the cost of legal battles for police violence, probably money. The first step is a change in culture.

Officers deserve an innocent-unless-proven-guilty approach, just as citizens do, but the process should not be rigged from the start. The people investigating the violence cannot be the people committing it.

There should be a zero tolerance policy for police brutality; independent investigators finding fault for an offense of the officer should result in immediate termination and loss of pension benefits. But the solution starts even before the investigation.

The mindset of police seems to have shifted from the good ole’ days of Barney Fife. Too many officers these days seem to be of the mindset that “protect and serve” is an outdated pleasantry, the way “the customer is always right” has become, rather than an essential paradigm.

Citizens have come to be treated as the enemy of law enforcement, but the exact opposite is true. Citizens are the customers, the clientele and the employers of police — not the subjects of brutal overlords.