Sunday, April 25, 2021

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5, Page One: Some thoughts prompted by the Derek Chauvin conviction

036 The Erickson Report for April 22 to May 5, Page One: Some thoughts prompted by the Derek Chauvin conviction

I was happy that Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Floyd. I have to say that because of my overall feelings about the US criminal injustice system it feels rather creepy to say this, to say I was happy someone was convicted of murder, but I was.

I wasn't really surprised when it happened. First because the case appeared overwhelming and the fact that the usual "split-second decision" excuse was unavailable left the defense reduced to a string of "could be"s lacking any real basis coupled to the notion that some undetermined one of those "could be"s just happened by some truly remarkable coincidence to kill Floyd at the same time his neck was being crushed into the pavement. Second, because the jury came back so quickly, usually a bad sign for a defendant.

I was a little surprised that it was on all three counts - I more expected the jury to convict on two of the charges to give an impression, as juries often wish to do, of really working through the implications of all the testimony. But this jury obviously and I'd say correctly thought that unnecessary. The evidence was that overwhelming.

Which - leave it to me to find the downside - may become our societal means to ignore the broader meaning of the case. Precisely because the abuse was so blatant, precisely because the indifference to human life was so obvious, precisely because the evidence was so overwhelming, overwhelming to the point that even other cops testified against Chauvin, which is almost unheard of, precisely because of that, we can and I fear will dismiss it as an outlier, as not reflecting the day-to-day reality of how black Americans are treated by cops so very differently from how white Americans are.

Which is why the less shocking but for that very reason more important case is that of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, shot and killed by police in Chicago on March 29. It's important because it's a more common one, one where it is not completely cut and dried with no room for questions and so one where all the usual excuses are trotted out, all the usual justifications are cited.

Derek Chauvin

Based on body cam and surveillance video of the event, it appears Toledo had had a gun - notice the past tense - which he might still have had when he was confronted by the cop. At a command to "Show me your effing hands," he turns and raises his hands. They're empty. So either he had already ditched the gun or he tossed it as he turned. Doesn't matter. He gets shot. He later dies. And another unarmed black person gets buried.

To the police, this was an "armed confrontation" and prosecutors initially claimed a gun was in Toledo’s hand when he was shot. The body cam forced them to drop that particular line, but the assertions that the cop was "100% right" are already echoing and the "split-second decision" banners are already being waved.

And the result will likely be that the cop involved will face no charges and not even departmental discipline. Which makes Adam Toledo more revealing than George Floyd - because that is the usual result: In 98.3% of killings by police from 2013-2020, no charges of any kind were filed - and in those that were, only a quarter resulted in convictions.

Meanwhile black people are three times more likely than whites to be killed by cops - and those black victims are more likely to have been unarmed than the white ones, figures doubtless driven in significant part by the same racism that has black males perceived - especially by whites - as bigger and more menacing than whites of the same height and weight and black boys as older than they are. 13-year-old Adam Toledo was described in the initial police report as being between 18 and 25.

Reformers often call for "improved training" but as others have pointed out, that will not solve the problem of the racism driving much of the difference in treatment.

And yes, that's true - but training does impact that problem and it does relate to the overall question of police violence and brutality because not being black is not absolute protection against that. Just ask the water protectors from the Dakota Access Pipeline encampment or for that matter pretty much any '60s antiwar protester.

The fact we need to face is that the way we train police makes brutality more likely. And I'm not referring here to "we should teach them de-escalation techniques" or some such, not to what we should do, but to what we do do.
Adam Toledo

And the reality is, we are teaching police to be afraid. We are teaching them to be scared all the time. We are teaching them to think of every non-cop as a potential suspect and even a potential assailant. One notorious example is the so-called "21-foot rule" or "Tueller drill." Even though it was only intended as a training exercise, it is actively taught in some police academies and widely accepted informally among police forces. It is the idea that someone with a bladed weapon who is 21 feet away can attack and kill you before you as a cop can unholster your gun and get off a good shot. It has been debunked but still leaves police with the feeling that anyone within 21 feet of them is a potential threat.

But it's not just that rule, it's an overall pattern, and overall way of thinking, that gets instilled in cops that leaves them in a constant state of stress. And note I didn't say alertness, I said stress.

I've talked about this before, how in watching videos of shootings by police, I was struck by how often the cops sounded scared. I particularly remember the video of the killing of Philandro Castile. The cop has the gun, it is pointed at Castile, who is sitting and obviously unarmed, but I clearly recall thinking that despite that, the cop sounded terrified - and that wasn't the only example.

All of which brings us to the killing of Daunte Wright by cop Kim Potter in a suburb of Minneapolis on April 11. This was the case where the cop shot him with her gun, supposedly thinking she was wielding a taser. And it demonstrated what I maintain are multiple things wrong with how we train police.

First off, the male cop who first approached the car had his gun out and demanded Wright get out of the car.

Wright says "For what?" and the cop answers "I'll explain to you when you get out of the car." Right off: Cops are taught they they have to be in control of the situation, to dominate the situation, at all times. Why couldn't he have said "You have an expired inspection sticker," which is supposedly the reason they pulled him over in the first place? Why couldn't he just answer the question instead of responding, in effect, "Be quiet and do what I tell you" and so raising the tension and giving Wright cause not to cooperate but to fear cooperation? Why? Because that's what cops are taught: to be in charge and accept nothing other than passive submission.

Daunte Wright

Wright starts to get out of his car but then tries to get back in. Potter runs up to join the other cop. The tension has already soared. Potter is heard shouting "I'll tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!" - and then a second later, "Holy shit, I shot him."

In the wake of this, the police chief said he believes Potter intended to use a Taser but mistakenly drew her gun, a claim widely ridiculed by civil right activists and the local community.

And on its face, it does seem absurd. A cop's gun is about a pound heavier than a taser, is a different color and an at least somewhat different feel.

So here's the question: Can I believe Potter told the truth? Can I believe that she shot Daunte Wright thinking she was tasering him? The answer is yes, I can. And again it relates to failures in how we train police.

Most police departments, including the one here, require that officers carry their guns on their dominant side and Tasers on the opposite side, which is supposed to lower the risk of confusing the two. But the instant I heard that, I said "that's wrong, that's ridiculous, that's the opposite of what it should be." Because under stress, in a high-stress, adrenaline-pumping situation, you are going to default to your dominant hand. Having your gun on you dominant side is going to increase the risk of cases such as that of Daunte Wright.

Betsy Brantner Smith of the National Police Association said it's called "slip and capture" and likened it to getting into a rental car, going to start it up, and reaching for how you start your own car before realize that's not where you are.

It's also called "muscle memory" and you know damn well you have experienced it. Hell, I have a car I've had for six months and I've finally stopped reaching for the gear shift in the wrong place. You've experienced it and you weren't even under stress.

What's more, this is certainly not the first time this has happened, of a cop shooting someone thinking they were firing a taser. There are documented cases of it. So can I believe that Kim Potter shot Daunte Wright believing at that moment that she was tasering him? Yes, I can. Because of the way she was trained. That, it shouldn't need to be said but probably is, does not excuse it. In the immortal words of Mr. Spock, "I understand. I do not approve."

And it also doesn't mean that racism was not a factor in the killing of Wright, if only because our society is such that it's difficult to completely ignore race in any interaction between blacks and whites.

So yes, it's true that we can't address police violence and brutality without addressing racism, particularly in our police forces but in our society as well. But it's also true that we can't address police violence and brutality without addressing how we are training them to think.

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