Sixty-five shots in 15 seconds in Mission Bay in February. Twenty shots to the back in a backyard in Sacramento last week. These are just two of the recent cases of the misuse of deadly force among law enforcement officials. With the steady stream of police brutality cases and the prominence of school shootings, the need for competent and vigilant police officers has never been more imminent. And yet, as the duties of our law enforcement agencies become more important, the public’s trust in police officers has diminished. According to a recent Gallup poll, 18 percent of Americans expressed “very little” to “no” confidence in police – the highest instance Gallup has ever recorded. The rising mistrust in our law enforcement officials and the questioning of their quality has led to a strained relationship between the police and their communities. We need to restructure our law enforcement so that it builds community trust and prevents unnecessary deaths.
The misuse of deadly force has been a serious issue among law enforcement agencies. There are far too many instances of police officers mishandling situations that could have prevented unnecessary deaths. A recent altercation in San Francisco’s Mission Bay saw several officers fire 65 shots in 15 seconds after two shots were fired from a stolen RV they were called in to investigate. As quoted in the SF Gate, Franklin Zimring, a professor of law at UC Berkeley, noted that this “wasn’t a tactic… it was a collective response.” This unmeasured reaction endangered the lives of bystanders and the three people who had come out of the RV. This situation is not an exception. Another case of a misuse of deadly force took place in Sacramento, Calif. where police officers shot 22- year-old Stephon Clark 20 times in his own backyard after responding to a call about a man breaking into vehicles. And although the RV shooting and the Stephon Clark case are different, the lessons we can learn from both of them are the same: the misuse of deadly force is now too common, and the current standards of our law enforcement is not enough.
This is not to say that there aren’t any decent, well-trained people in law enforcement; rather, we need more of those in law enforcement who adhere to a professional code of conduct and truly care for their communities. For instance, the quick actions of school resource officer and St. Mary County’s sheriff’s deputy Blaine Gaskill led to the diffusement of the Great Mills High School shooting in Maryland. Gaskill’s quick response and vigilant actions are an example of how our law enforcement should be. And although the school shooter killed himself, Gaskill is still credited with ending the incident, and preventing it from escalating to tragically familiar situations, such as the recent case in Parkland, Fl.
Despite these instances of good law enforcement officers, we still need to change the standards of our law enforcement and implement effective policies that will encourage better and safer policing. According to a Department of Justice report, basic training for police officers is mostly spent on firearm skills and self-defense, while community policing strategies and conflict management get the least amount of time. We need to shift the priorities of our law enforcement agencies to dedicating more training into deescalating high-pressure situations and handling their firearms safely and only as a last resort.
According to a study by the Force Science Institute (FSI), there are two main reasons for such ineffective police firearms training. The first is the tendency of instructors to use “block education” methods. A block education, according to Dr. Bill Lewinski, FSI’s executive director, is limiting police training to the repetition of basic skills instead of engaging in new, complex conditions. Lewinski suggests that firearm training should be spaced out and more complex, noting that “spacing out instruction and practice over time gives their brains the chance to better consolidate and integrate information about the skill on which you are working.” Another reason police firearms training is ineffective is the tendency of officers to lock into an “internal attentional focus” instead of an “external attentional focus.” The difference between the two, as Lewinski notes, is that an internal attentional focus is the concentration of the officer’s body and weapon, while an external attentional focus is the concentration of the officer’s target and surroundings. Lewinski argues that an essential part of police training should be focused on developing the officer’s external attentional focus, as it would allow for better cognitive-processing and better decision-making. Lewinski’s study exemplifies the need for longer and better training that is currently lacking in our law enforcement agencies.
We owe it to ourselves to explore the choices that will make our law enforcement better. We deserve to have law enforcement officers who recognizes us as members of the same community. To demand improvement in our law enforcement is to declare that our lives matter – that those entrusted with protecting our lives should meet and exceed the standards that are meant to serve us in the first place.
Featured Photo: Our police departments need to be better trained in non-lethal conflict resolution – lives literally depend on it. DAVE CONNOR / FLICKR (LEFT) & SGT141 / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (RIGHT)