1 in 11 U.S. Gun Deaths Is at the Hands of Police. How Do We Stop the Killing?

The documentary film “Peace Officer” explains the connection between the war on drugs and the militarization of police, and what it will take to reduce police violence in America.
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Film still from Peace Officer.

In the documentary Peace Officer, Todd Blair brandishes a golf club as a SWAT team bursts into his Utah home in 2010. Despite being out of reach of gun-wielding cops in body armor, he is blasted by three deadly shots an instant later.

“The very SWAT team that I founded in the 1970s killed my son-in-law in my presence.”

It wasn’t until 2015—the first time a full year of police killings had been tabulated—that America learned how unremarkable shootings like Blair’s were. According to The Guardian, 1,019 people were killed by police gunfire last year. That number is roughly 9 percent of all gun-related homicides annually in the United States.

It’s also one measure of how violent policing is. Peace Officer, directed by Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson, puts names and faces on the statistics starting with William “Dub” Lawrence. It follows his meticulous investigation of the heavy-handed police response to a domestic dispute that ends in the killing of his son-in-law, Brian Wood. It’s one of four police-related killings covered by the film; the other three involved attempted drug busts and aggressive “no-knock raids.” Through expert interviews, heartbreaking stories of lives lost, and police-procedural reconstructions of the killings, viewers follow the intertwined trends of the drug war and the militarization of police that began in the 1970s.

Wood’s death is a bitter irony for the 70-something Lawrence, who on screen tells a packed auditorium in a quivering voice, “The very SWAT team that I founded in the 1970s killed my son-in-law in my presence.” In 1975, Lawrence, then newly elected sheriff of Utah’s Davis County, set up one of the first Special Weapons and Tactics units in the state. Lawrence says the epidemic of police violence won’t be halted unless “they are shown that this is an error, this is wrong.”

Reducing police violence begins with changing the view that police are the guardians of the social order.

Lawrence’s commitment to police reform is as deep as his anguish, but he’s on the wrong track. It’s useless to ask police to change their ways because the problem is police impunity. Real civilian control and oversight of police needs to be established, which would break new ground, not return to a mythologized past of the friendly officer on the beat. Police have long been a repressive force in America, from Colonial-era slave patrols to the police violence that sparked many urban rebellions in the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter movement against systemic racism in policing and criminal justice today.

Reducing police violence begins with changing the view that police are the guardians of the social order. A seemingly innocuous statement by Lawrence, explaining that SWAT teams are intended to “neutralize or defuse violent situations,” suggests why policing is so resistant to reform. It’s not that the deadly encounters just happen. One expert in the film says, “The police are creating these circumstances, they’re creating the volatility, they’re creating the violence.”

Lawrence’s use of “neutralize” is telling, as well. Despite his loss he still employs a euphemism that downplays police killings. This cuts to the heart of America’s epidemic of police violence, brutality, and profiling—the mindset of impunity seeps through society, from politicians and the media to courts and police forces and down to the beat cop.

That attitude is evidenced in the film’s most chilling moment, an interview with Salt Lake County Sheriff James Winder. He argues police forces should not train officers to take time to identify threats because once a cop pulls out a gun, “in their mind, the whole reason they’re using deadly force is you’re about to kill me.” He implies that police can kill, no questions asked, and this is not idle chatter as prosecutions of police have been extraordinarily rare in the thousands of cases of shootings over the last decade.

“The police are creating these circumstances, they’re creating the volatility, they’re creating the violence.”

Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics, argues state violence begins with policing of minor infractions that fills jails with brown bodies and city coffers with greenbacks. He says it “is based on a mindset that people of color commit more crime and therefore must be subjected to harsher police tactics.” It’s complemented by a “warrior mentality” in which police see themselves at war with masses of the public. This was brought into relief by the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, as police in full battle gear rumbled down the street on armored military vehicles, facing down rebellious but unarmed youth.

Simple and far-reaching policies could diminish police violence: decriminalizing drugs, ending for-profit policing and prisons, demilitarizing police, boosting services to treat mental illness and reduce domestic violence, shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline, stringent gun control, independent civilian review of police with subpoena power, and reducing the size and number of police forces. None of these is an easy task, however, as the main impediment is transforming the attitudes that portray children as “super-predators,” drug users as the scourge of society, and entire communities as criminals, illegals, or terrorists.

Social movements are on the cutting edge of transforming attitudes. In 2015, anti-racist activists pushed Seattle City Council members to pass a resolution calling for zero detention of youth and replacing incarceration with community-based alternatives to prison. Courts from Colorado to Connecticut have issued rulings voiding thousands of convictions for marijuana possession, building on the work of anti-prohibitionist campaigners. Critical Resistance is leading the movement to abolish prisons while immigrant-rights groups have convinced some media outlets to stop using the term “illegal aliens.”

That some police are finally being held accountable is thanks to the confluence of Black Lives Matter with digital technology.

That some police are finally being held accountable is thanks to the confluence of Black Lives Matter with digital technology. Of the many videoed killings—Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford III—Walter Scott’s is the most telling. Based on cellphone footage, South Carolina cop Michael T. Slager is awaiting trial on murder charges for shooting a fleeing and unarmed Scott in the back. Slager seemed confident the summary execution would go unquestioned as he is seen on video apparently planting evidence on Scott’s body. He is also alleged to have falsified police reports to claim he felt threatened—the magic words—and a responding officer was also accused of falsifying a report.

This mindset is codified in Supreme Court cases such as Terry v. Ohio, which deferred to the “necessarily swift action predicated upon the on-the-spot observations of the officer on the beat,” and United States v. Cortez, which, in evaluating the constitutionality of search and seizures, ruled that “evidence collected must be weighed as understood by those versed in the field of law enforcement.”

Another mindset is possible, suggests Kristian Williams, in Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America: believing that police are obsolete. This idea provokes horror from many who believe society would collapse into anarchy without the thin blue line. That’s not to say policies to reduce policing are useless, but they should be implemented with the purpose of enhancing community life, support, control, and accountability so as to eliminate much of the need for policing.

Williams covers self-defense bodies, gang truces, feminist safety patrols, popular courts, and popular justice in examining “crime control without police.” In West Philadelphia, community patrols helped reduce crime by 33 percent in the 1970s. The truce between the Bloods and Crips after the 1992 L.A. riots reduced gang killings. Organizations from Brooklyn to Seattle have created safe spaces and courses in relationship skills to both prevent domestic violence and aid survivors. But many efforts lacked resources, were haphazard, or were overly ambitious, undermining grassroots crime control. When revolutionary movements handled crime control for entire communities, such as the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, there was a bias toward efficient methods like beatings, kneecappings, and executions, over due process and careful investigation.

Community-based alternatives to dialing 911 whenever there is a disturbance to order or public safety are possible. But making the necessary policy and social changes to make police as obsolete as possible, means transforming our mindset.

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