Keeping Peace, Not Waging War

Wednesday, October 30th, 2019

By Robert C. Koehler

Another shocking, divisive police video pops up in the news. This one shows a 16-year-old boy getting shot in the back of the head as he runs from the officers about to arrest him.

And as he lays dying — unconscious, bleeding to death — a second officer cuffs the boy’s hands behind his back, kicking him over on his stomach to do so, as though he were no more than a piece of hunted prey.

The shooting of Isiah Murrietta -Golding occurred in April 2017, in Fresno, Calif. The incident was reviewed and found to be justified. The official determination was that the officer feared for his life.

No surprise: The video was not willingly released.

It shows the officer firing the lethal shot from behind a fence after the boy, who was unarmed, had just climbed over it. The video only became public a few days ago because the boy’s parents have sued the Fresno police and their lawyer released it.

“He’s unconscious and in the process of dying. What is the threat?” the lawyer said. “They just saw him as an animal who had been shot. They hunted a target. It’s inhumane.”

The boy was eventually taken to the hospital, where he soon died. A paramedic report indicated that the police refused to remove the handcuffs when an EMT arrived; the cuffs were removed at the hospital.

All of which adds up to . . . USA! USA! This land is your land, this land is my land. When it comes to maintaining social order, a pulsating darkness is part of the picture. Here’s another piece of data about the story: The boy who was shot was a suspect in a murder. Is this at all relevant?

It’s not, unless it added to the officers’ sense of danger and urgency to make sure their suspect, who was continually pulling up his sweatpants as he ran, didn’t get away. I’m sure those whose impulse is to defend the police action would declare it relevant. Some might even say: “The kid was asking for it. He deserved to be executed.” This is the thinking that emerges from a war zone.

To address the issue of police violence — indeed, the issue of all violence in this tottering country — we have to first acknowledge that it’s not a simple issue, nor a matter of finding and enforcing blame. Perhaps it begins thus: Maintaining social order may well have a level of complex difficulty equivalent to rocket science, a fact that first must be acknowledged by the nation’s police departments.

“But another key difference between the U.S. and elsewhere is training,” writes Olivia Goldhill at Quartz, pointing out that U.S. police officers “are trained for an average of just 19 weeks. Compare that to police in Norway, who have three years of training before they’re fully qualified.”

She quotes sociologist Paul Hirschfield, who notes that 19 weeks of training means the focus will mostly be on matters of immediate urgency, such how to defend yourself and avoid getting hurt. He adds: “If you have three years, you can also learn how to protect people, how to avoid these situations from arising in the first place. It fosters a whole different orientation and culture in law enforcement.”

That is to say, keeping the peace is far more complicated than waging war.

At this point I bring in Cheri Maples, a teacher and friend, who tragically died two years ago from injuries in a bicycle accident. She was a 20-year veteran of the Madison, Wis., Police Department, where she had attained the rank of captain and headed the department’s training program. She was also a Buddhist and student of Thich Nhat Hanh. She thus stood squarely in two worlds that are often regarded as utter opposites.

In 1991, when she had been a cop for seven years, she went — warily — on a Buddhist retreat. Many years later, she wrote: “Thay (that is, Thich Nhat Hanh) convinced me that part of the skill set of a police officer was the ability to employ both the gentle compassion of understanding and the fierce compassion of setting boundaries to protect others, including using force to intervene if people were physically harming one another. For a police officer, wisdom is being able to discern when gentle compassion is called for and when fierce compassion is called for.

“. . . I know it is possible to aspire to be kind and compassionate as a police officer, and that, that way, the job is safer and more fulfilling. Back at work after my first retreat, I couldn’t understand why everybody seemed to have gotten kinder in my absence — including the people I was arresting.”

Compassion, policing — these words don’t go together! I put them out there and I can feel the cynicism waiting to pounce, even though the writer spent most of her working life as a member of the criminal justice system (she was also a lawyer).

“In our police departments,” she wrote, “we hear loud internal cries that we are losing the ‘war.’ . . . The problem is that we are not at war. We are protecting and serving our neighbors and fellow citizens.”

All this is the opposite of how we tend to view the police, especially if you are an American of color or live in a non-affluent community. The police may then be more like an occupying army; and indeed, the militarization of police departments around the country is becoming common. Armored vehicles are almost standard police equipment. SWAT teams serve search warrants. Racism, both conscious and unconscious, permeates many departments. And Killed by Police is a website.

Waging war creates a feedback loop of mistrust, fear and danger. “(C)ops live in a hostile world,” Seth Stoughton wrote in The Atlantic. “They learn that every encounter, every individual is a potential threat. They always have to be on their guard because, as cops often say, ‘complacency kills.’”

Cheri Maples found the way out. With mindful awareness, she carried a gun and wore a badge, but she was able to let go, she said, of her cynicism and her armored heart.