Can You Tame a Racist Scaredy Cat?

Increased police training might be one BandAid for a larger systemic bullet wound.

By Marissa Yang Bertucci

If you’re down with transformative justice, you believe in a world where community accountability supersedes the need for a police force, for-profit jails, and overcriminalization of marginalized people. You believe that policing has deep roots in racism that pretty much can never be separated, so even so-called “good cops” can’t repair a fundamentally broken system that assigns criminalization to many harms that are produced by a racist and inequitable society. You believe that criminalizing the often inevitable consequences of our society is inhumane and illogical.

And yet here we are. With a police force of over 900,000 in the United States and over 1,000 in Portland. We have for-profit prisons and a system that isn’t super interested in reforming itself to imprison or kill fewer people. But with public pressure and genius revolutionary activism calling for increased accountability, we see incremental changes like body cameras on cops. And we are ready for the revolution whenever it comes, but in the meantime, it may do us some good to consider where we specifically ought to be leveraging our calls for improvements.

The “fear excuse” is a sensible place to apply pressure.

Just up the road in Seattle, on June 18th, Charleena Lyles called the police for assistance with a burglary, and she wielded a knife, presumably to uphold her right to defend herself, her home, and her children with violence if need be. Even if she may have acted “threateningly” toward officers, family members have expressed concerns about her mental health. The Seattle Police statement alleged that both officers were “equipped with less lethal force options.” Later, one of the two officers on the scene, Jason Anderson, would say that he didn’t replace the battery on his taser because he was “a quite slender guy” and doesn’t “have a lot of room for equipment on [his] belt.” So, because Anderson is too damn willowy to want to carry a taser, they shot her with a gun. Five shots were discharged. She was black. Her three younger children were home. They are 11, 4, and 1 years old.

Again and again, on the rare occasions when police officers who commit these kinds of acts are actually charged with a crime instead of receiving perfunctory slaps on the wrist and paid administrative leave, they snivel on the stand and say, “I was afraid for my life.”

I’ll wager that a world where police are expected to discharge a lethal weapon only after making a calculated assessment of a situation and attempting de-escalation strategies first isn’t too much to ask.

And on those occasions where officers insist that they had reason to believe their lives were in danger, these majority-white juries pardon them again and again. They reason, “Well, it’s unfortunate that these victims were black, and it’s unfortunate that they were unarmed or pitifully armed, but if the officer was afraid, they have a right to shoot.”

In Philando Castile’s case, the jury acquitted Jeronimo Yanez of all charges, conveying that an officer has a right to shoot a man seven times with his hands visible in the seat of his car. In front of his girlfriend and her four year old child. After the officer asks for his ID. After he tells the officer that he is reaching for his ID. The officer then shot Castile…while he was reaching…for his ID. What is there to fear from a man who was cooperating?

Sometimes when I walk to my kitchen late at night for a glass of water, I don’t turn the lights on and I bump into a stray chair. In that moment, I am afraid of the chair. I jump out of my fucking skin and let out a cartoonish gasp. The chair is unexpected, after all.

I’ll wager that a moment of fear isn’t the best place to discharge a lethal weapon. I’ll also wager that a world where police are expected to discharge a lethal weapon only after making a calculated assessment of a situation and attempting de-escalation strategies first isn’t too much to ask.

Yet the illogical impulse of fear is the fulcrum of law enforcement indictments.

This can come as no surprise. Of course the police officers are afraid. Best case scenario, you get a cop who doesn’t think he has overt biases. But when a fight-or-flight moment happens, without adequate de-escalation or anti-bias training, the ugly prejudices that provoke fear come out. The Stanford Implicit Association Test, as well as our common sense and basic observational skills, tell us that several hundred years of systemic racism make most folks associate darker skin with danger. This is why racist Aunt Sharon clutches her purse when a black kid on his way to school sits next to her on the MAX.

So even the well-intending officer is racist. And the system that didn’t adequately curb that known implicit racism is racist too.

Compared to many other countries, the length and content of American police training is laughable.

In the United States, the average training period for police officers is 16 weeks. Oregon is on par with the national average: 16 weeks to complete State Basic Academy. This is one and a half quarters of class at college. You couldn’t complete Woodworking I and II in the time that we take a nobody off the street, teach them some rudimentary target practice and how to write a speeding ticket, and hand them a gun.

This isn’t even the height of hyperbole. Compared to many other countries, the length and content of American police training is laughable.

Germany’s training is at least 130 weeks. The culture of police training heavily discourages ever discharging a weapon, even placing jolly signs that read, “Super shooting! Hope you never have to shoot in real life!” in the target practice rooms. Sure enough, in 2015, German officers fired 8 fatal shots, while the US killed between 975 and 1,186, according to different studies.

In Norway, prospective police must attend a three year Police University College getting a specialized bachelor’s degree, spending two years in classes and the last year in field placements. The bulk of theoretical training focuses on preventative measures like conflict management, ethics, and psychology. To even use a weapon, which stays locked in the car instead of on a tool belt, officers need approval from a higher authority. Between 2002 and 2014, Norwegian police killed two people.

So, okay, it’s a little like comparing apples and oranges. For one, the US’ culture of citizens owning guns is unique amongst most low-police-fatality countries. For another, it’s incredibly racially and economically homogenous. Maybe if there were a similar history of slavery and criminalization, even the best trained Norwegian police officers would be shooting more often. But maybe mimicking other Norwegian cultural norms—like a system of education and healthcare that allows for a smaller disparity like rich and poor—would help the US, too.

Instead of abstractly fretting about the problems in our criminal justice systems, consider focusing your attention on community-based solutions. We can all support efforts and organizations dedicated to closing prisons and weaving more sustainable, humane solutions. The work of prison abolition requires an overhaul of the ways we’ve been programmed to think about why people are criminalized, and what discipline and punishment are purported to accomplish. In Portland, we can look to the leadership of Critical Resistance PDX, Enlace, OPAL, and #DisarmPSU. Seattle’s EPIC (End Prison Industrial Complex) is also doing the work beautifully. And when the revolution comes, be ready.

Header photo credit: id-iom via photopin (license).