Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Trayvon Martin. These five young men are only a few of the many people victimized by police brutality in the 21st century. Justice has been evading us lately, and the news only gets worse.
Injustice seems to come from those we expect to deliver justice — people in law enforcement. The irony is unbelievable. Those who are sworn to protect the public are a part of the forces terrorizing it.
Thankfully, people have recognized the malice of this situation. People have protested. They’ve demanded the implementation of mandatory body cameras on duty. They’ve held demonstrations and signed petitions demanding action.
Still, police brutality persists. We cannot afford to take ineffective shortcuts any longer. The easier, faster solutions aren’t working. Therefore, we must look to the long-term answer and dig deeper into the root of the problem: ignorance.
First, recognize that the majority of the police population consists of good people doing their jobs and keeping the peace. The minority that do abuse their authority, however, are significant despite their lesser number because they betray the trust the public grants to them.
Such a betrayal is harmful, not only to the people who are directly terrorized by the abuse, but also to society as a whole. This abuse of trust and power is an unacceptable breakage of the social and moral codes that keep society safe and stable, and so police brutality should be condemned by all. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
According to the Washington Post, within the first five months of 2015 alone, there were nearly 400 cases of fatal police shootings in the United States. Of those 400 cases, less than one percent resulted in an officer being charged with a crime.
Furthermore, as affirmed by Jim Bueermann, former police chief and president of the Police Foundation, these shootings are “grossly underreported.”
Deprived of such essential information, we are largely ignorant about the truth of police-involved fatalities, and this lack of awareness makes it difficult to fix the problem. We can’t act on something we know nothing about. Regardless, our own ignorance is only the first half of the overall problem of ignorance involving the police’s excessive force.
Law enforcement is a dangerous field. Paranoia, suspicion and fear are typical among police officers. This is understandable; they’re dealing with legitimate criminals who can and will harm them.
Nevertheless, they are ill-equipped to deal with the emotions that result from their work, and the stress from these negative feelings makes them more likely to make mistakes.
Mistakes are okay. Mistakes that involve shooting innocents, however, are not okay.
Some of the fatal shootings in 2015 involved individuals with toy guns. Police officers shot them, thinking that the guns were real and a threat to themselves. This is a genuine fear, but it could have been avoided with the appropriate training and education.
Further education and training may seem like an inefficient solution to the problem of police brutality, but it is, in actuality, extremely effective. The Washington D.C. police force was once known as “a police department that used its firearms more than almost any other large American city police force,” according to the Washington Post.
The D.C. police department was fraught with problems in the 1990s. According to the Washington Post, in the 1990s, the D.C. police fatally shot more people per capita than did any other officers of more populated departments. In 1996, almost 75 percent of D.C. officers who had deployed their weapons failed to meet basic firearm standards.
Furthermore, from 1994 to 1997, the D.C. force misreported the number of fatal shootings by nearly a third, either undercounting or mislabeling shootings.
“The only thing [a D.C. police officer had] to respond to an attack [was their] gun,” admitted Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.
Clearly, officers were ill-equipped to handle hostile, threatening situations.
However, the implementation of major reforms to use-of-force policies, incident investigations and training created and sustained changes that ultimately reduced officer-involved shootings and excessive force.
The review team’s report stated that intentional firearm discharges had gone down at an average of 40.5 percent. Chief Gorden Eden Jr. attributes the substantial decrease in officer use of force to the better training and education mandated by the reforms, especially involving crisis intervention and de-escalation of dangerous situations. Better educating the police is clearly an effective and durable solution.
We — the people of the public and law enforcement — should have done something about the ineffective practices of police forces before so many innocent people died at their hands. These victims have become martyrs in a war that should not have begun or even existed. The police’s excessive use of force is the result of a dearth of essential information and education. We cannot possibly sit back and allow such terrorization to continue — we must act. And the first step we must take in order to end this abomination is to prevent the ignorance that allows for such brutality.
Hye Yun Lee is a first-year criminology, law and society major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.