Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Erickson Report, Page 3: Listen Up: police training causes murders like that of Willie McCoy

Listen Up: police training causes murders like that of Willie McCoy

Now for one of our occasional features, Listen Up.

First, a little background is in order here. On February 9, an employee at a Taco Bell in Vallejo, California called police to report a man unresponsive in his car in the drive-thru lane.

Six cops came and found Willie McCoy, a 20-year-old Bay Area rapper, asleep at the steering wheel with a gun in his lap. They surrounded the car with their guns drawn, later reporting it as "a confrontation with an armed man," saying that he didn't follow "loud verbal commands" and they were forced to kill him when he reached for his gun.

It was an all-too-typical, an all-too we have seen this movie too many times, of police seeing a young black man and seeing - or, often enough, merely thinking they see or later claiming to have seen, a gun - followed shortly by another young black man dead for no discernible reason - because remember, McCoy was asleep.

That became obvious in March when public pressure forced the release of body-cam footage, which revealed that police made no real attempt to wake McCoy but stood for some minutes with guns pointed at the sleeping man, during which time they noted that the gun had no magazine in it which meant that even if it was loaded, it had no more than one bullet.

And the footage also showed that the only moves McCoy appeared to make just before he was murdered was to stir slightly, scratch his left shoulder, and lean forward, his left arm moving toward his lap. The cops almost immediately opened fire. It's unlikely that McCoy even know what was happening to him.

The shooting, which McCoy’s family called an “execution by a firing squad,” sparked outrage and led to scrutiny of the Vallejo police department’s frequent use of deadly force and its history of misconduct and abuse cases.

Okay, that's the background. The reason for talking about it today is that news on this exploded anew on June 10 when a report from a city-hired consultant revealed that police has fired at McCoy 55  times in the space of 3.5 seconds. He was hit around 25 times in the chest, face, arm and shoulders.

Willie McCoy
What seemed especially shocking to many is that the consultant, one David Blake, a retired cop who has a history of writing reports that exonerate killer cops, declared the shooting to have been a "reasonable" - that was his word - a "reasonable and necessary" response by the cops.

More particularly, he said the killing was “in line with contemporary training and police practices associated with use of deadly force.”

Okay, Listen Up, people: That is the flaming problem!

It being "reasonable and necessary" to shoot a sleeping man 55 times in 3.5 seconds because he dared to scratch his arm is "in line with contemporary training and police practices." That's exactly what's wrong - exactly why the murder of Willie McCoy may anger us, may infuriate us, may even in some way shock us, but it does not truly surprise us.

The point here is that when I say that the killing of Willie McCoy is "in line with contemporary training and police practices," I don't mean that in the political sense - or just in the political sense - of this is how police deal with people, particularly black people, I mean in the literal sense that police are trained to behave this way.

We all know the racial and racist aspects. The equation in the public mind of "black" (and even more "black male" and even more "young black male") with violence and criminality is not merely our assertion, it's been researched and demonstrated repeatedly over decades. And we know how much of a driving force that equation can be in how cops act and react.

At the same time, the victims of mistreatment and police violence are not exclusively African-American (ask pretty much any white antiwar or anti-corporate protester).

So the point here is, the shooting of Willie McCoy is in line with current training and practice because that is what we are actively teaching cops. We are teaching them to be afraid, to be in constant fear, to have adrenelin pumping at the smallest provocation, to be ready - literally - to shoot first and ask questions later. The racism then amplifies it.

Cops are being taught risk avoidance, being taught to regard self-protection as their highest priority. Protect yourself first, fellow cops second, and the public third.

There is for example something taught in at least some police academies called the "21 foot rule," which holds that someone with a bladed weapon who is less than 21 feet away can rush a cop and injure or kill them before the cop could get their gun out and fire. Not only has this rule been questioned, it has been twisted and distorted to mean that if you are carrying a blade within 21 feet of a cop, they are justified in shooting you on the grounds that they felt they were at immediate risk of death; no actual aggressive move on your part is required.

This notion has become bad enough that in December 2014 some 125 Seattle police officers filed a lawsuit claiming that new rules in the city about the use of deadly force violated their Constitutional right not to de-escalate a situation before turning to lethal force, arguing in effect that cops have a Constitutional right to use any level of force up to and including shooting someone to death, any time they think they should, even if alternatives exist.

Meanwhile, a couple of years after that, a cop in West Virginia named Stephen Mader was fired for - and this is no joke - fired for not killing someone on the grounds that he had thus "failed to remove a threat," the "threat" in this case being a man with an unloaded gun who was trying to provoke the cop into killing him. "Suicide by cop," it's called and it's a real thing.

Cops being safe
So again, yes, the shooting of Willie McCoy is in line with current training and practice - and that is the problem!

Yes, police work can be dangerous, no doubt, no question, but if you're not prepared to deal with danger, if you're going to take the attitude, one which appears to be the default stance these days, that your personal safety outweighs any other considerations, even when that means just dumping that risk onto non-cops, then you shouldn't be a cop.

Having certain powers and authorities, including the authority to use force, even deadly force, when the situation demands it, powers and authorities that are unavailable to the general public, are part of what it means to be a cop; they are necessary tools cops must have in order to do their jobs.

But acceptance of genuine risk is another necessity without which the job is no longer that of a cop but that of an occupying military force, something too many police forces increasingly resemble and as which they are increasingly and not inaccurately perceived by the communities in which they operate.

Listen Up, people: The way we train police is screwed up and will only lead to more and more Willie McCoys.

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