Sick Standards

What played out in Ferguson, Missouri, this week was completely predictable. The grand jury’s decision that there were no grounds to indict police officer Darren Wilson was just as predictable as the ramifications of that decision. In August, Wilson shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown to death. The grand jury’s decision resulted in demonstrations and riots in Ferguson where several cars were torched and others vandalized. In the days following, there were other demonstrations in well over 100 U.S. cities protesting racism and police brutality.

For Americans of color, the decision confirmed a narrative they had long since come to accept: You can do anything you want to us without fearing any consequences. President Obama announced that while he respected the grand jury’s decision, the complaints of disadvantaged blacks weren’t imaginary.

About 400 Americans are shot by police every year. That’s 10 times the number of people sentenced to death and executed in the United States. That might be fewer than the number killed by the police in Brazil, but compared with other developed countries, the number is still shockingly high — in Germany, eight people were killed by police gunfire in 2012, and eight killed again in 2013.

American police are not trained for as long or as thoroughly as they are in other countries. That is especially true of municipal police forces, those that have the most contact with local citizens. Many local police have little knowledge of the laws they are expected to enforce, but mainly they are not trained in nonviolent conflict resolution.

The mentally disturbed run a special risk of not surviving encounters with uniformed police. A study published in Los Angeles last summer showed that in areas where police had received special training in dealing with the mentally ill, the mortality rate was much lower. But too many local police jurisdictions lack the funding or the will to invest in such training.

Nothing will change very much as long as a police officer can claim to feel so threatened that he is justified in firing 12 shots at an unarmed man as was the case with Mike Brown. Even if Darren Wilson’s allegations were 100 percent true — and that’s doubtful — that doesn’t mean the conflict couldn’t have been resolved in some way other than with gunfire. Excessive self-defense as a legitimate excuse: That was another outcome of the Ferguson decision.

Feeling Threatened Is Enough

But that can’t be viewed in isolation or it follows the same logic as the “stand your ground” laws in effect in so many states. Should a citizen be required to avoid a violent encounter or solve it in as nonviolent a way as possible? Laws that permit people the free use of deadly force anytime they feel threatened only encourage more violence.

Citizens and police officers who respond with violence are being equally irresponsible. The laws do nothing to raise the standards and, in fact, act to continue downgrading them. It’s in this context that the legal use of force becomes excessive. That it affects mainly black people isn’t due solely to the police: It’s just a continuation of the disadvantages that blacks experience in all other aspects of daily life.

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