The group Public Enemy asks this question in their early 1990’s single Hazy Shade of Criminal. In it, they question actions related to the S and L Scandal and other issues of concern, including the excessive use of force by those in law enforcement. Given that a mere year or two prior to the song’s release, the videotaped beating of Rodney King at the hands of four members of the Los Angeles Police Department and their subsequent acquittal (which takes place in Simi Valley, CA, a known retirement community for members of law enforcement) leaves people wondering just what exactly is taking place.
Fast-forwarding to the past 2 or so years, and cases like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, and Miriam Casey (among others) are putting similar questions regarding the latitude law enforcement has regarding use of force, along with what measures are in place to better address this issue. As of July 10th, of the 605 reported deaths of people at the hands of law enforcement, there are some notable disparities present in regards to the makeup of the victims; based on FBI data, white officers kill black suspects at a rate of 2 per week, as the contributing factors not only include socioeconomic differences, but the larger possible inherent immersion of racism within the system.
And then there’s the case of Sandra Bland which is taking such conversations and concerns to an even higher level of intensity and concern.
The 28 year-old Chicago native, Prairie View A & M alumna, and member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. is making her way to her alma mater to start her new job in the agricultural department. En route through Waller County on Friday, July 10th, she is pulled over by state trooper Brian Encinia for failing to make a signal for a lane change.
Many feel this is a routine stop; however, based on the complete dash-cam video initially released, there are those who question the actions of law enforcement. Even in light of Bland asking questions as to why she is being stopped (and while some note her tone directed towards the officer), armed with a mere cigarette, the actions of Encinia and the officers on the scene are questionable at best. If their assessment of risk of the aforementioned items results in her forced removal and subsequent “handling”, then it does make a number of people wonder what the course of action would be if she is armed with something more dangerous.
And then the story gets even more confusing, or so it seems.
Monday, July 13th, Bland is found dead in her cell. The initial report by the official at the Waller County Jail note she hangs herself from her cell with a trash bag. While this may be plausible to some, it draws some serious questions:
- Normally, in a holding cell or any cell for that matter, there’s usually nothing housed there for fear of it being used as a weapon, so it has to be bolted down; otherwise, it cannot be housed in a cell. Initial photos and related reports note the use of a black industrial-sized bag; this is seemingly refutable and questionable as the bag would not be strong enough to hold her body, let alone is a different color (white) than the photo released by officials showing the trash can and its placement within the cell.
- The partition from which she is supposed to hang herself from is 5 feet tall; Bland is 6 feet tall. While it may be possible that she could hang herself, it is extremely questionable as to how likely this is.
- While the autopsy does not show evidence of a physical struggle, it also shows there is not any evidence of impact to her trachea (windpipe) or esophagus (which would possibly be consistent with a hanging).
There are more questions that are coming from this case that are drawing serious concern regarding law enforcement, including frequently called for changes in the policy, procedure, requirements, and legal latitude they seeming have and seeming abuse.
Some would call for changes in educational attainment (i.e. having at least an associate’s degree instead of a high school diploma), continuing education and certification beyond the use of firearms and defense tactics (i.e. education grounded in social sciences, community engagement, and other related fields in order to be able to better interface with the people they are serving and having improved awareness of the demographics within said communities), and a possible return to the time-honored model of improved community immersion (i.e. living in the communities they police, as well as improved partnerships with the businesses, nonprofits, places of worship, schools, and other community entities). While it may not be a cure-all, it can possibly lead to marked improvement in the model and making it a less adversarial model than what is seemingly evident given the aforementioned cases.
A bigger issue is a change and clarity in the use of force and subsequent potential for recourse.
Based on the National Institute of Justice, the use of force is deemed necessary in cases of individual self-defense or that of another individual or group. In other words, once a swift and sound assessment is made based on the potential risk, officers are supposed to respond accordingly, ranging from basic verbal or physical restraint, less lethal force, and lethal force as a last resort. Given that those within the profession can’t even agree on a clearly defined definition of use of force, it’s already problematic in regards to determining best practices or any other measures.
And that’s a small part of the problem.
What’s worse is the fact it is left to the officer’s discretion to determine the nature of the situation and the appropriate response. In other words, not only is it extremely arbitrary, but there is wide-ranging latitude for officers to essentially respond however they want. Consider the Bland case; based on the original video, she is “armed” with her voice and a cigarette. The police assessment and response is to engage in a physical confrontation which includes dragging her out of her vehicle and slamming her into the asphalt. Clearly, is she truly that much of a risk to the officer and the other officers on the scene that it supersedes the use of a verbal command or warning?
Even worse is the minimal prosecution of officers who seemingly go overboard in their assessment, analysis, and response involving the use of force. Despite the presence of evidence which shows law enforcement is completely out of line with their social engagement, all but 1% of police homicides (i.e. police shooting of civilians, unarmed or armed) are ruled as justifiable.
Protest and review have their place, but the policing model is in beyond serious question and need of repair. With the lack of clear measurables, best-practices, and recourse for abuse, the problems potentially can get more out of hand. It is something that clearly is going to take multiple “moving parts” in order to better problem-solve or improve, including the seemingly silent “good cop” population.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. notes, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people”. As there are those who use the counterpoint of “all cops aren’t bad”, when issues along these lines come into play, their response is deafeningly silent.
While changes aren’t going to bring back those who are dealt with in a suspect manner, there has to be something done in making a more tangible difference. Doing so would clearly be beyond counterproductive.
It may be even more criminal.