Having been raised by a police officer, I heard of numerous encounters my father faced as a sergeant in the Anaheim Police Department in Orange County, California. I grew up fearing and despising the men and women I saw behind bars while idolizing every police officer I came across.
I was taught that officers are often put in situations where they have to defend themselves or the public with little time to think and react. However, my time in Chicago has made me more aware of the harsh reality that unnecessary, excessive use of force by police officers can be racially motivated.
My childhood in a police family did not temper my shock as police officers nationwide have been caught using excessive and unreasonable force in recent years, often resulting in life-threatening or fatal injuries to the victims.
The most prominent example of this occurred Aug. 9 when Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old, was killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri. The city has since erupted in protests and violence as eyewitness accounts contradict whether Brown threatened Wilson. According to the official autopsy report, Brown was shot six times.
There are many instances when police officers do not have adequate time to decipher whether their safety is at risk, but officers should be trained more efficiently to be able to gauge the level of danger and whether a person is armed and dangerous.
According to a July 2013 study published in the International Journal of Human Sciences, a difference in the formal training officers receive at the police academy and the informal world of the streets causes officers to abandon training methods. Based on this finding, police officers should receive training specifically calibrated to the situations they encounter on the streets.
By providing police officers with a more stringent, comprehensive education in handling high-stress events as well as being taught how to interpret dangerous situations, officers may be less likely to use excessive force.
According to a 2013 College Quarterly study, police officers develop strong feelings based on racial background and appearance because of how closely involved they are with the public, also known as racial stereotyping or profiling. It is unavoidable for racial prejudice and judgments to be made, as citizens do it every day, but it should not be the deciding factor of whether a person is attacked, shot or killed.
Since the shooting, the small city of Ferguson, with a population of approximately 21,100, went from an unknown town just outside of St. Louis to the center of attention of protesters, civil rights leaders and increased police patrol. The city awaited a verdict from a grand jury regarding whether Wilson would be indicted and charged with killing Brown. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Nov. 17 because of the “possibility of expanded unrest.” Although it was unknown when the jury would come to a decision, Nixon’s declaration indicated the verdict would be in Wilson’s favor, as the city prepared for public outcry and violence.
On Nov. 24, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced a grand jury had decided there was no probable cause to indict Wilson.
Brown’s death is not just another example of police using force to protect their city. It has turned into a nationwide debate on racism and police brutality. This is reminiscent of other race and authority struggles where police officers or neighborhood vigilantes were acquitted of killing unarmed black citizens, such as the shooting and killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.
The decision to not hold Wilson accountable for the shooting of Brown will weigh heavily on the black community, as did the death of Martin. Police officers are supposed to protect the community at any cost. However, they should not be given special treatment if they abuse their power and wrongfully kill someone. There should be measures in place that allow backup to be called to an officer’s side in any situation so police can effectively detain a person rather than use excessive force that could result in death.
To avoid unnecessary escalation of police force and abuse, officers need to be trained using real life situations and techniques they would encounter in crime stricken areas. They should also be properly taught how to how to decipher dangerous events quickly and effectively with little harm.