Warriors on the Issues: Answering violence with peace
In kindergarten, I learned to view police officers as superheroes in human form, selfless individuals who would sacrifice their lives for the well-being of others. Most of the police officers I have interacted with fit this model perfectly, but I still can’t dispel the lingering doubts which arise when I hear of events like those in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore. Never before have I seen the gilded heroes of my childhood inspire such senseless violence, chaos, and bloodshed as they have in recent months. There must be justice for the unwarranted deaths of both civilians and police officers, but it should come through logical solutions and compromises rather than reckless emotion and vengeance.
The African-American community certainly has the right to demand change and reparations after the shootings of civilians by police officers; the ones we often see on television only comprise a small part of the 258 African-Americans fatally shot by police in the last year. Although many of those shootings were justified, the Washington Post reported in 2015 that police officers shoot African-American civilians at a rate that is 2.5 times higher than the rate for white civilians, a tragedy in itself.
These statistics are not the result of blatant racism. Instead, they stem from what researchers have called “implicit bias” — the act of unconsciously stereotyping. In a highly stressful situation, police officers unintentionally rely on their implicit bias to evaluate their surroundings for signs of danger. And although implicit bias does not justify the killings of predominantly African-American civilians, it does help to explain why officers will sometimes behave irrationally and with extreme prejudice, and it provides an opportunity to limit civilian deaths.
With an awareness of their implicit bias and regular training in the use of nonlethal force, officers can substantially reduce the likelihood of civilian deaths. In Scotland, 98% of officers do not carry guns, but they are trained to defuse tensions using verbal hostage-negotiating tactics and other de-escalation techniques. These methods have proven so effective that Scotland has only witnessed two civilian deaths at the hands of police officers in the past decade. While the United States could not remove guns from the hands of police officers, it should adopt some of the Scottish tactics of de-escalation. When police officers understand how to handle dangerous situations without resorting to lethal force, the risk of civilian injury or death significantly decreases.
But even with such training, incidents of unwarranted police violence or prisoner neglect — such as the custody death of Freddie Gray in 2015 — may still occur. Nonetheless, our response as a society to police violence must be one of peace rather than of vengeance. There is no reason to call for the deaths of police officers when so many of them try to fulfill our superhero expectations. There is no justification for the deliberate murder of five officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge when ordinary police officers throughout the United States perform selfless acts every day to protect rather than to harm civilians. Acts of inane violence will only cripple our society; as Mahatma Gandhi wrote in 1925, "When [violence] appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent."
We must not allow the desire for justice to cloud our judgment and lead us down the bloody path of vengeance. We must not respond to police killings with riots and antagonism. But above all, we must not forget that when the smoke clears police officers will still be the ones who answer our calls in our times of greatest need.