Over two days, millions of people have watched phone camera videos of men fatally shot by police officers. The images are brutally clear. Whether the justifications for the shootings were equally clear remains for investigators to determine. But there are facts and impressions that are obvious.
As with so many of these police shootings that have drawn keen and broad attention since Ferguson in 2014, the deadly encounters in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn., began with less than emergency situations. In Baton Rouge, a homeless man called 911 to say a man selling CDs outside a convenience store had threatened him with a gun. In Falcon Heights, a police officer pulled over a man whose car had a broken taillight. But the situations suddenly escalated into police shootings.
One fact that contributed greatly to the shootings was that both of the slain men had guns. The talk from the NRA and streetwise people is that carrying a gun will make you safer. It didn’t for these civilians. Their possession of a gun made the police officers fearful. They appear to have fired more from fear than in response to an actual threat.
That fear may also be heightened by race. Black citizens have long said they believe they are viewed more suspiciously by white officers. These shootings raise racial tensions and the risk of more violence.
Minor incidents exploding into fatal police shootings happen too often and raise questions about police training. Police regularly review the circumstances that justify deadly force, but how well are they trained in keeping situations from escalating? Do a macho police code and officers’ demands for full and immediate respect fuel encounters that could be resolved without violence? Should police be responding to traffic stops with guns drawn or barking that people they’re questioning should “get on the ground”?
Police work can become deadly in an instant. So far this year, 21 officers have been killed by gunfire. Eight others have have died by vehicular assault. But police are also killing people. So far this year, 509 people have been shot and killed by police, according to The Washington Post’s data base on police shootings. Last year, 990 people were shot dead by police. A report by The Guardian found that U.S. police fatally shot more people in the first 24 days of 2015 than police did in England and Wales, combined, over the past 24 years.
Many of those killed in the U.S. were armed, but hundreds were not. Clearly many shootings of unarmed individuals would be prevented by training police to de-escalate situations. That approach has already been applied to police chases with fewer officers engaging in dangerous, high-speed chases when pursuing someone on a traffic or other minor offense.
Some police leaders are advocating de-escalation training, but police unions and groups have been resistant. They say a less aggressive approach raises the risks for officers. But the shootings of this week show that something has to change so that minor incidents don’t become deadly encounters.