By Dr David Laing Dawson
Laws, rules, policies, standards of practice, and expectations are all designed to limit what we have learned are the less positive and more anti-social potentials of human behaviour. All human behaviour, not just “bad apples”.
Sometimes societies control that which needn’t be controlled; sometimes our laws and rules turn out to be founded in prejudice; sometimes they give too little room for individual judgement; sometimes too much; sometimes the fears that drive them are unfounded; sometimes they can be used poorly, cruelly, unevenly, or for the enrichment of the few. Sometimes they simply don’t work. And sometimes the positive effect from a law is far outweighed by the negative. (making marijuana illegal e.g.)
Still, we need them, but once established, laws, rules, policies, and practices are resistant to change.
I am writing about this because it occurred to me, watching the videos we have all been watching, that with body cams, security cameras, and every potential witness carrying his or her own video camera, we have a new opportunity to dispassionately and objectively examine the enforcement, the enactment of laws, rules, and policies, and standards of practice, and make changes based on the actual observation of human behaviour and outcome.
Extensive video is available on, for example, the Rayshard Brooks death at the hands of police in a Wendy’s parking area. There are three decisive moments in these videos that lead to Brooks’ death.
The junior officer arrives first and arouses the sleeping Brooks. The officer is reasonable, polite, even jocular. Brooks cooperates but falls back asleep in his car in the drive through lane at Wendy’s. The more senior officer arrives and the junior officer fills him in thoroughly. The senior officer takes over. Brooks is compliant throughout but clearly confused in his story. He is obviously impaired and should not be driving. He may even be disoriented. The officers tell Brooks politely they will have to pat him down for weapons. Brooks complies. This is the first time they have moved in close and touched him.
The senior officer then takes Brooks through an agonizingly lengthy sobriety test and then politely asks Brooks if he is willing to take a breathalyzer test. Brooks agrees to do this.
To this point the officers have moved slowly, reasonably, politely. They have not touched Brooks without first getting his agreement.
After the breathalyzer the senior officer does tell Brooks he is drunk, and does tell him to put his hands behind his back, but then moves suddenly and quickly to get handcuffs on his wrists. The sudden movement startles Brooks and he fights back. They fall to the ground; the second officer piles in; one officer threatens to use his taser. Brooks wrestles free and runs off with the officer’s taser. One officer pursues Brooks. At one point in the video this officer can be seen passing his taser from right hand to left hand so he can draw his gun with his right hand. Brooks seems to partially turn and discharge the taser he is carrying at the police officer while he runs. The police officer fires his weapon about three times killing Brooks.
These decision points occur as I see them as 1. the sudden move to handcuff an intoxicated man. 2. the decision to pursue him after he has wrestled free. 3. drawing a gun during the pursuit and firing it.
The officer who fired his weapon has been charged with a criminal offence. Many Atlanta officers have resigned or called in sick. Systemic racism is being blamed. The video’s are being examined closely from a criminal perspective.
But policies, procedures, standards of practice are designed to protect us from our less happy instincts, be they hurt, rage, outrage, threat, aggression, stupidity, sloth, temper, or racism.
So looking at the three crucial moments: The first was the sudden move (without warning or discussion) to handcuff, triggering the aggressive reaction. This practice could be examined.
The second was the decision to pursue. Was that necessary? They had his ID and his car. It had not been a violent offence until the handcuffing. Just as there are now policies (at least in some jurisdictions) to avoid high speed car chases, might it be safer for everyone to not pursue in such a situation?
Finally the gun. Undoubtedly it is a fantasy to think we can move back to a time when police did not carry guns. But many mistakes can be avoided by slowing down the process, especially when flight/flight hormones have been activated. And to this end, here is a suggestion recently discussed with a police officer in Canada:
On regular patrol or traffic duty or calls to non-violent offences, or “mental health calls”, all weapons could be kept in a lock box in the trunk of the car with code or fingerprint access only.
And this means, for example, as in the Atlanta situation, that one more decision step would be in place, between the scuffle and the pursuit, giving at least a few seconds for the angry officer (be he racist or not) to calm down, slow down, and consider.
No sooner had I finished writing about the police shooting in Atlanta, in as dispassionate a manner as possible, a 62 year old man is killed by police in Mississauga, Ontario. Apparently in some kind of health crisis, barricaded in his apartment, known to have schizophrenia (or other mental illness), family members living in the same building.
Police respond with “uniform officers, tactical officers and K 9 unit”. There is communication for a while and then it stops.
On the grounds that the man poses a “risk to himself” the police go into action. They refuse help from the family. They go in armed. The confrontation quickly escalates from non lethal to lethal weapons discharged by police.
This is an absolutely ridiculous way to respond to a “health, well being, mental health check”.
To all police forces in Canada:
Please review all policies and procedures for response to such situations and use and incorporate expert advice on dealing with mental health crises. And do this before the calls to Defund the Police begin to make sense to all of us.