In his latest article, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie takes a little while to cut to the chase – some of us do that sometimes – but he finally gets to it starting in paragraph six.
What’s pressing about the Rice case [see here] isn’t what it says about racial prejudice and implicit bias—lessons we’ve already learned from too many other killings—but what it says about the police themselves.
Strip away the rhetoric, and [Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy] McGinty has made a clear statement about police conduct: If police perceive a threat to their lives then they’ve de facto justified their actions regardless of context, even if it ends with taking the life of a child. That includes situations like the Rice shooting, where police chose to create a confrontation, rather than manage an encounter.
Hmm. “Manage an encounter” when someone – even a kid – draws something that looks like a gun when you pull up in your squad car? What, exactly, is there to “manage” about that — especially in the jumpy context of 2015, with killings of law enforcement officers on the rise?
If he prefers, Mr. Bouie should by all means wait around to see if people who are drawing gun-looking things when he approaches are actually armed with guns. But why anyone else should have to do that, including the police, is not obvious.
Bouie clarifies his mindset with this additional commentary:
It’s tempting to see this with sympathy. Police, after all, are just ordinary people. They want to go home to their friends, partners, and children. Blue lives matter, goes the mantra, police have a right to go home safely. This is true, but only to an extent. Part of policing is risk. Not just the inevitable risk of the unknown, but voluntary risk. We ask police to “serve and protect” the broad public, which—at times—means accepting risk when necessary to defuse dangerous situations and protect lives, innocent or otherwise. It’s why we give them weapons and the authority to use them; why we compensate them with decent salaries and generous pensions; why we hold them in high esteem and why we give them wide berth in procedure and practice.
What we see with Tamir Rice—and what we’ve seen in shootings across the country—is what happens when the officer’s safety supercedes [sic] the obligation to accept risk. If “going home” is what matters—and risk is unacceptable—then the instant use of lethal force makes sense. It’s the only thing that guarantees complete safety from harm.
I think of this as the “Star Trek” perspective on security forces: that they are hired to die, so other people don’t have to. Probabilities aren’t the point here. If Bouie’s belief is that at the point of decision, a cop must avoid preemption and be prepared to die so that no one else has to adjust his behavior, then he is stating the position of the “Star Trek” perspective.
This has never been the premise of either policing or military force in the real world, however. There is no overarching requirement that police accept risks that they could minimize by using force preemptively. This is for a reason beyond the point that blue lives do matter. It’s because policing becomes less effective, the more vulnerable the police are understood to be. The community as a whole loses out, if the police are assumed to be slow to react, and hamstrung by a “requirement” to accept unnecessary risks.
Only someone who doesn’t understand the use of armed force could speak of “requiring the police to accept risk.” The police already accept risk, just by showing up at ambiguous, scary, poorly understood situations, instead of hiding behind walls or running away, as frightened citizens are likely to do. Jamelle Bouie is insisting that the police should accept more risk than that: the risk that being wrong, if they choose not to act preemptively, will cost them their lives.
Maybe you have to have been in the military or the police yourself, to understand that this is never an academic point. Under the traditional “rules of engagement,” America’s troops have not historically been required to take the first hit on the battlefield either. American military commanders have the “right and obligation” of self-defense, including preemptive self-defense.
That’s how armed force makes sense: as, precisely, a method of gaining control of a situation, and not as a mythical “reaction-only” response if someone else starts shooting. Try this in your home some time, with your children exposed to the home invaders’ line of fire. Be sure to warn the cops not to shoot unless the home invaders shoot first. Be sure, for that matter, that you don’t shoot too early either. Leave the initiative with the criminals. Take a chance on what will happen to your kids.
We have no hierarchy of moral value that says security forces are hired to be more expendable than the people they protect. Rather, we expect that security operations have their logic, rules, and practices, like the other disciplines of life, and that everyone has responsibilities related to them.
Of course those dimensions of security operations should be subject to public scrutiny and criticism. But members of the public are responsible too: to not engage in suspicious, ambiguous activities and then demand to be treated as if they aren’t engaged in them.
Hundreds of thousands – millions? – of young black adolescents manage to do exactly that as they grow to adulthood. It’s not the police they owe this discipline and responsibility to. It’s their parents. The others in their families. Their friends, neighbors, teachers, preachers. All the people who love them. They owe it to themselves.
If they deliver on this requirement for themselves and the people who love them, they’ll be on the right side of the law, wherever it shows up. Neither they nor the cops will have some unequal, morally unjustifiable “obligation” to put themselves at special risk.
A tragedy like Tamir Rice’s death should be an exceptionally high priority to avert. But putting the police at greater risk is not the way to do it. It’s not the police who need to change here; it’s the expectations the community has of itself.