The situation in Ferguson Missouri could happen anywhere – and is a reoccurring theme around the nation: A young unarmed man (in this case, 18 year old Michael Brown) was killed by a police officer.
When is ‘Death by Police’ justifiable if a police officer kills an unarmed individual in the line of duty – and when does it become police brutality?
Death By Police
Too many unarmed people around the nation are dying at the hands of police. The following is a list of a few of the men who were killed by the police between 2012 and 2014.
- Ramarley Graham: Police chased Mr. Graham into his Bronx, NY home on February 2, 2012, and shot him in his bathroom. The officers thought he had a weapon.
- Manuel Loggins: A California Deputy Sheriff shot Loggins three times through his vehicle window on February seventh, 2012, after allegedly ordering Loggins to not return to his vehicle. Marine Sergeant Loggins was with his two daughters when he was killed.
- Eric Garner: Staten Island, NY police put Mr. Garner in an illegal chokehold on July 17, 2014 while arresting him for selling cigarettes on the sidewalk. Mr. Garner allegedly told the police officers that he couldn’t breathe. The officer continued the chokehold, and Mr. Garner died.
- Dillon Taylor: Utah police shot the unarmed Mr. Taylor in early August, 2014 after he walked away when the officers told him to stop. Mr. Taylor, wearing headphones and listening to music, couldn’t hear the officers speaking.
- Michael Brown: Officer Darren Wilson shot Mr. Brown 6 times after stopping him for walking in the street in Ferguson, Missouri. The officer stated that Mr. Brown assaulted him and was rushing toward the officer when he was shot. Witness accounts vary; investigations are ongoing.
Police Brutality and Excessive Force
There’s a significant divide between society’s expectation that the police have the responsibility to ‘protect and serve’ – and the reality for some Americans. Police officers are supposed to keep peace and help residents when they can. However, unfortunately, some members of the police force are more focused on making arrests, issuing citations, and in some cases, exercising power through harassment or violence.
Many see police departments exercising a lack of accountability and transparency – and witness officers protecting their own – which widens the divide between the police and the community. Military-style policing, such as the riot-control measures seen in Ferguson, Missouri when riots protesting the death of Michael Brown arose, exacerbates the situation as well, encouraging the “us against them” mentality.
Justifiable Homicide in the Line of Duty
There are often questions by the public when what looks to us like murder is labeled as ‘justifiable homicide’ in the courts. This confusion can cause emotions to run high. So when is it acceptable for a police officer to kill someone while on duty? It depends on who you ask.
According to Federal Law (and the Supreme Court) lethal force is only acceptable in the defense of life (whether the threat is real or merely perceived, as with Mr. Graham, and allegedly with Mr. Brown, above) or to prevent the escape of a violent felon. Local police departments may have more strict rules – and may fire an officer who was within the realm of Federal Law, but in violation of local policies.
When there is an officer-involved homicide, there’s a criminal investigation to determine whether the officer had cause, and was justified in his or her actions. Though it may seem rare, law enforcement personnel are sometimes criminally prosecuted, with one in three officers who is formally charged being convicted.
How Can You Protect Yourself From Police Brutality?
With police brutality hitting every state in America at one point or another, everyone in the United States needs to know how to conduct themselves when confronted by the police. Remember – there is a point when it stops being a matter of who is right or wrong, and becomes a matter of life and death. No one is above the law – simply surviving to tell your story may be the best option.
Respect the officer’s authority, and comply with legitimate requests – but know your rights.
- You have the right to record the actions of police officers, and can report inappropriate actions to the ACLU.
- You have the right to remain silent to avoid incriminating yourself. Plead the 5th and say it out loud.
- You have the right to refuse a search of your person , or your property (car, wallet, phone, home), if there is no warrant – But remember that the police do not need a warrant if there’s probable cause.
- You have the right to leave the area calmly if you are not under arrest. If you are placed under arrest, ask for an attorney.
- Regardless of your immigration status, you have constitutional rights – the Fifth (right to avoid self-incrimination) and Fourteenth (right to due process) in particular.
Don’t Challenge Me
A recent column by policeman Sunil Dutta in the Washington Post exemplifies the attitude you need to remember when interacting with authorities:
“if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me.”
Police and Society: Improving Relations, Keeping the Peace
The use of body cameras, as well as standardization of cruiser-cameras would be effective tools in an initiative to reduce both police brutality and community problems due to misconceptions or confusion. The knowledge that every move is being recorded could reduce issues in corrupt departments of ‘hiding behind the badge’ – as every confrontation would be recorded. Unfortunately, bureaucracy is not working, as the political and judicial systems don’t always mete out justice -and when there’s injustice, there are problems on all levels of society.
Although there are actions youth can take to avoid confrontations with the police, the focus needs to be on wider-reaching solutions. Everyone can work together to reduce deaths by police – whether or not they’re justified in the eyes of the law.
What would you do, if you were confronted violently by someone in uniform?