Monday, April 13, 2015

"F**k Your Breath": Mistakes in Law Enforcement

The other day, another police shooting of a black man made headlines--this one in Tulsa, so it hit close to home.

It was all captured on video: An officer tackled a fleeing suspect, Eric Harris. While he was ordering Harris to roll onto his stomach, a reserve deputy--a volunteer with full law-enforcement authority--decided to subdue Harris with his Taser. Except that he wasn't holding his Taser. He was holding his handgun.

You can barely hear the "sorry" on the video. It's swamped by Harris's cries: "Oh my God, he shot me! He shot me!"

But if you listen closely you will hear that soft "sorry," and it has an oh-shit quality to it. So I'm confident the Taser story is true. The guy didn't mean to fire his gun. It was a mistake.

A fatal one. Harris died later at the hospital.

Another feature of the story isn't included in the video (at least the one I saw and that's linked to above). At the end of that video, Harris can be heard saying, "I'm losing my breath." And then the video ends. But according to reports, a deputy responded to that fading plea with crude disdain: "F**k your breath."

It's impossible not to think about Eric Garner, a black man who died last summer from a police officer's choke hold, whose last words were, "I can't breathe." Was the deputy thinking about Garner? Was his dismissal of Harris's life breath an expression of a deeper and broader disdain?

I don't know. But I can't help but think about lying on the pavement, bleeding, dying, crying out in pain and horror, and hearing my life and human dignity swept away with "F**k your breath." Perhaps they were the last words Harris ever heard, the final punctuation of his life story.

The man who said those words committed no crime. There will be no charges filed. One man shot Harris by mistake, and may face charges. Another sent him into death with a final message: You don't matter.

Both acts trouble me, but the latter strikes me as more inhuman, even if its consequences were less dire.

I don't like to define people by their worst moments. The officer who said to a dying Harris, "F**k your breath," should not be defined by those words. What he said may have been horrible and inhuman. That doesn't mean he was.

I like to think that right now he is mortified. I like to think that he lies awake thinking, "How could I have said that? What must it have been like, to hear those last words just before he died?" Maybe the officer was caught up in the adrenal rush of the moment: the chase, the unexpected gunshot, the furious thought that this would never have happened if the suspect hadn't run.

Maybe it just slipped out. A different kind of mistake.

I've known numerous police officers over the years, all of them good people with a sense of civic responsibility. They recognize the weight of the public trust they've been invested with, and they're committed not to abusing that trust. I can't imagine any of them saying "F**k your breath" to an apprehended suspect dying from an accidental gunshot wound. And I like to think that none of them would ever mistake the firearm in their hand for a Taser, and so fatally shoot a suspect who--whatever his mistakes--didn't deserve to die.

But mistakes happen. Especially when strong negative emotions overtake us, we say and do things we wouldn't do in wiser moments. It was a mistake for Eric Harris to flee the police. So why did he do it? Maybe he was terrified. Maybe he thought, "I might become the next Eric Garner, the next black man killed by the cops." And so he fled. It's not uncommon for fear-driven behavior to actually bring to life the things we fear.

Police work is dangerous, and the moments when police shootings happen are some of the most high-stress, high-adrenalin moments in a police officer's work life. And such moments are the ones when mistakes are more likely to happen. The right kind of training can reduce their likelihood. Did the reserve deputy who mistook his sidearm for a Taser get the same kind of training that a regular officer receives?

I don't know, but the mistake I want to focus on is the other one: the anger-fueled obscenity, the dismissal of a life. I'm going to assume it was a mistake--that is, something said in the heat of the moment and later regretted, as opposed to the calculated, self-righteous dehumanization of a dying man.

My question has to do with the kind of training that reduces mistakes of that kind. In the heat of the moment, with emotions high and blood pounding in our ears, how much more likely are we to dehumanize those we see as our opponents and our enemies? And what kind of training can ensure that even in those moments, we remember the humanity of those who run from us or talk back at us or lash out at us in anger and frustration?

In some cases, the failure to really see the humanity of a suspect might lead to a crushing remark that discounts a human life in its final moments. In other cases, that failure could mean the difference between shooting a suspect and holding fire. Police should fire when lives are at stake--their own, another officer's, a civilian's. But one of the lives at stake in every police shooting is the one who is shot. That life needs to be given its due weight, too. How do we ensure it isn't discounted? How do we ensure that lives aren't cut short or damaged because, in the adrenalin-fueled moment, those lives aren't valued as they should be?

Much of the discussion about this has focused on race--as well it should. There is rampant evidence of subconscious racism operating beneath the surface of our thoughts, influencing our choices without our knowledge. This isn't a police problem. It's been documented in college professors, preschool teachers, Northerners and Southerners, rich and poor, black and white. (Yes, unconscious bias--against blacks--even influences the thinking of blacks through the phenomenon sometimes called internalized racism.)

While there is also overt racism at work in many corners of our society--as the federal investigation into the Ferguson PD makes plain--the bigger issue by far is the covert kind of racial bias that influences the choices of good people without their conscious knowledge. Such racial bias--especially if we aren't aware that it's at work in us--can increase our likelihood of making mistakes of the kind I'm talking about. Mistakes in which we think less of people than they deserve.

Such mistakes are a problem wherever they happen. But they become a bigger problem in high-stress moments. And they become a potentially fatal problem when guns are involved. This means that we will be more likely to see the problem play out in dramatic fashion among law enforcement, precisely because they are in high stress jobs that sometimes require decisions about using lethal force.

This does not mean that police are somehow especially racist. It isn't "their" problem and it isn't "theirs" to fix. Its our problem. It's ours to fix. The social forces that generate implicit bias don't originate in police departments. They come from everywhere. And if we are afraid of the effects that such biases will have on police officers who need to make life and death decisions and may be influenced by unconscious biases, then all of us need to tackle the sweeping social forces that perpetuate these biases.  (We also need to root out overt racism, and not just in police departments.)

But in the meantime, we need to offer resources to police officers who do not want to be influenced by such biases, who are committed to being fair defenders of the public good. The power they're invested with means that if anything, they need to be better than the rest of us when it comes to such things. And the police I know feel the weight of that and want to live up to that weighty trust. What tools and techniques can we offer that will help?

As important as the issue of implicit racial bias may be, it isn't the only source of the mistakes I'm talking about here. Can we imagine the recent events in Tulsa playing out with a white suspect? Of course. The kinds of scenarios that awaken fight-or-flight responses also fuel adversarial, zero-sum thinking: It's him or me. It's us or them. And as soon as another human being becomes one of "them," their humanity begins to be discounted.

This tendency appears to be rooted deeply in our human instincts. And police officers are asked to throw themselves into the very situations that trip these instincts. It's their duty as police officers to step into danger, to confront law-breakers in a way that's inevitably adversarial. Caught up in the emotional intensity of that conflict, the suffering of the adversary might trigger a flush of righteous animosity, spilling out in words like "F**k your breath."

It's only human. But it's a mistake. A tragic moment of staggering inhumanity. The police officers I know want to be the best they can be, even in those moments that have a tendency to evoke our ugliest selves. What kind of training will help?

It should be clear that I'm talking about something very different from the sort of training that will help a reserve deputy keep his head enough to realize that he's holding a handgun rather than a Taser. What I have in mind is something rooted in our capacity to see and respond to humanity in the face of conflicts and emotional forces that have a natural tendency to drive out such responsiveness.

But there are layers of problems here. Police officers have dangerous jobs, and their survival--their ability to make it home to their families--may depend on responses that are rooted in the same fight-or-flight instincts that fuel our propensity to dehumanize. What kind of training can offer the right sort of balance between preserving those essential survival instincts while nurturing our human capacity to see the humanity even in those we are in conflict with?

That's the balancing act we are asking our police officers to perform. And they're being asked to do it in a society where racial biases and other forms of prejudice are being written into our subconscious responses to our environments from an early age.

It should be clear that I don't have pat or ready answers. My aim here, rather, is to ask questions that acknowledge the deep problems and the tragedies we face without drawing good-guy/bad-guy lines, without oversimplifying, without pointing the finger at the other guy.

The Tulsa case is human. It is human because humans make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are tragically wrong. It is also inhuman. Sometimes our mistakes lead us to fall short of our human potential, and to see our fellow human beings as less than human. When it comes to wrestling with such oh-so-human inhumanity, we need to be in it together, to ask what we can do to help each other be better than we thought we could be.

And that means we need to stop saying "F**k your breath," even to those who say it to others.

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