Sunday, August 21, 2016

Use of Force

We're all shocked by the murder of Jose Chavez, one of Hatch's finest. I share the community's sadness for him and his family and anger at the killers. Let's each donate what we can to the fund to help educate his daughters.

A week earlier I attended DASO's “Use of Force” training session. Its major purpose is to educate citizens on what the cop really faces on the street, and why some shootings that sound like police brutality may be reasonable responses to situations. 

Bill McCamley (right) plays a police officer being attacked by "knife-wielding maniac" -- but Detective Larry Louick (back to camera) takes advantage of Bills concentration on the attacker to launch a surprise attack of his own, with a gun 
We learned how long it takes an assailant with a knife to reach you if you don't shoot first; why a cop shooting someone in the back is not necessarily an unjustified shooting; and the almost insurmountable advantage a driver in a routine traffic stop has if s/he wants to shoot you.

I played a deputy making a routine traffic stop. A DASO officer played the motorist. My instructions were to ask for his license, but draw and fire if he pulled a gun. I have pretty quick reflexes, but I got killed before I could draw. Then we tried it with my gun already drawn. Not pointed at the driver, because you don't point a gun at someone before there's a reason to. But the driver knew what he was going to do and when. He shot me three times before I could point my gun at him.
I thought of this when I first heard about Officer Chavez. The session taught us vividly what a sitting duck a police officer is for a motorist's surprise attack. That's a fact everyone should keep in mind.
This excellent session was run by Major Brent Barlow and Detective Larry Louick.

Often folks attending believe that whatever a police officer does is inherently right. This one was different: representatives of CAFé, pastors working with CAFé, journalist Heath Haussamen, a black history professor, Rep. Bill McCamley, and me. People receptive (I hope) to the deputies' message, but with serious questions about how so many ethnic minorities get killed by cops.

I think the detectives – who were open to dialogue, not just intent on explaining everything to us – learned a little too. Everyone seemed to find the session useful.

What struck me was how desperately we need similar frank but civil dialogues, between people with strong opinions and a willingness to listen.

The civilian population needs a better understanding of the ugliness and danger of the police officer's world. For police dealing with that world, better knowledge of the communities they serve could help save lives, including their own. 
In one sense, the relationship between police officers and ethnic-minority or low-income populations is like a marriage, in which communication is essential. We're all stuck with each other. Neither poverty nor prejudices nor police are going to disappear any time soon. We all have different backgrounds, outlooks, and priorities. Friction, even some tragedies, may be unavoidable; but enhanced communication can only help.

Sarah Silva of CAFé called the session “a really good event” that contributed to “building relationships and trying to understand each others' perspectives.” Of the officers who ran it, she said, “even if they didn't agree, they listened.” The Las Cruces Police Chief is reportedly open to similar sessions, and possibly an implicit bias session. 
No dialogues or sensitivity training would have saved Officer Chavez. The men he stopped had killed before and were ready to kill him instantly to escape. Critics of the police would do well to reflect on his death.

But many killings seem to be tragic mistakes. Officers in fear of their lives, for reasons both sound and unsound, shoot young black men who pose no threat. Angry, frustrated young black men assassinate innocent police officers. Increasing mutual understanding isn't just a nice idea. It's a survival mechanism, for police and civilians – and society.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, 21 August 2016, and is also posted on the newspaper's website and the KRWG-TV website.]

[It's in the column, but I want to make it real clear that I don't mean to suggest that the killing of Officer Chavez was related in any way to the kind of cultural misunderstandings, semi-conscious biases, and the like discussed in much of the column.   It was plain murder.  However, it was a grim and tragic illustration of the lesson the DASO officers were trying to teach regarding the dangers of even the most routine police calls.]

[Someone suggested that I mention also the politicization of this tragedy by Governor Martinez, who's now calling for re-institution of the death penalty in New Mexico.   I notice that Walt Rubel in 
his column this morning calls it  "an obvious and shameful attempt to make political hay of the tragic shooting death of Hatch Police Officer Jose Chavez," which sounds about right.  Like Walt, I oppose that effort because the courts convict too many innocent people of capital crimes, and because the burden of those wrongful convictions falls disproportionately on poor people who can't afford top-notch defense lawyers.  But her timing is impeccable!  I feel like flipping the switch on Chavez's killer myself.  I guess I'm not so Buddhist as I should be.  I feel that way; but the reasons to avoid the death penalty remain good
It might feel satisfying to see the State kill Chavez's killer; but it would not honor him to use his death as the mechanism to revive a system that killed too many people turned out not to be guilty.] 


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