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Licensed to Kill: The Growing Phenomenon of Police Shooting Unarmed Citizens

John W. Whitehead | 9/18/2013, 5:08 p.m.
Here’s a recipe for disaster: Take a young man (or woman), raise him on a diet of violence, hype him ...

Later that same day, in New York’s Times Square, police officers shot into a crowd of tourists, aiming for a 35-year-old man who had been reportedly weaving among cars and loosely gesturing with his hands in his pockets. The cops missed the man, who was unarmed, and shot a 54-year-old woman in the knee and another woman in the buttock. The man was eventually subdued with a Taser.

Just a few weeks earlier, in Florida, 60-year-old Roy Middleton was shot in the leg by police when he wandered out to his Lincoln Town car, which was parked in his mother’s driveway, in search of cigarettes in the wee hours of the morning. A neighbor, seeing Middleton, reported him to 911 as a possible robber. Police, after ordering the unarmed black man out of the car, began firing on Middleton, who likened the experience to a “firing squad. Bullets were flying everywhere.” The car was reportedly riddled with bullets and 17 shell casings were on scene. Defending their actions, the two police officers claim that Middleton, who had a metallic object in his hand, “made a lunging motion” out of the car causing them to “fear for their safety.” That metallic object was a key chain with a flashlight attached.

These are not isolated incidents. Law enforcement officials are increasingly responding to unsubstantiated fears for their safety and perceived challenges to their “authority” by drawing and using their weapons.

For example, Miami-Dade police slammed a 14-year-old boy to the ground, putting him in a chokehold and handcuffing him after he allegedly gave them “dehumanizing stares” and walked away from them, which the officers found unacceptable. According to Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, “His body language was that he was stiffening up and pulling away… When you have somebody resistant to them and pulling away and somebody clenching their fists and flailing their arms, that’s a threat. Of course we have to neutralize the threat.”

Unfortunately, this mindset that any challenge to police authority is a threat that needs to be “neutralized” is a dangerous one that is part of a greater nationwide trend that sets law enforcement officers beyond the reach of the Fourth Amendment. Equally problematic is the trend in the courts that acquits officers involved in such shootings, letting them off with barely a slap to the wrists.

This begs the question: what exactly are we teaching these young officers in the police academy when the slightest thing, whether it be a hand in a pocket, a man running towards them, a flashlight on a keychain, or a dehumanizing stare can ignite a strong enough “fear for their safety” to justify doing whatever is deemed necessary to neutralize the threat, even if it means firing on an unarmed person?

The problem, notes Jerome Skolnick and former New York City police officer/Temple University criminal justice professor James Fyfe in their book Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force, is that

police work is often viewed by those in the force as an us-versus-them war rather than a chance for community-oriented engagement and problem solving. The authors also point to a lack of accountability as one of the reasons why police violence persists. They acknowledge that, yes, police officers are placed in dangerous situations that at times require immediate responses. But they maintain that that doesn’t excuse using more force than is needed to subdue someone, the lack of professional training that leads to such fear-based responses, or treating citizens as enemy combatants.