Lord, help me, but I believe President Donald Trump had a point recently when, in talking about police officers shooting a Black man, he said that the cops had “choked.”
The president’s comparison of police taking another human being’s life with golfers missing a three-foot putt was stupid and demeans both the cops and the victim of their violence. But beneath his bluster and wrong-headed analogies, when Trump speaks of choking, he is really talking about fear. People tend to choke when they are nervous. And it is a small step from nervousness to fear, an emotion that can be a driving force in many police shootings.
In his comments, Trump was referring to Jacob Blake, whom Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shot seven times in the back. But police fear was also clearly at play in the killing of Breonna Taylor in their botched raid on her home, with Friday’s release of the grand jury decision that investigated her death providing more detail on just what went wrong.
The firing of 32 shots indicating panic fire and the description by one of officers who burst into Taylor’s apartment of being “overwhelmed” by a “surreal” scene of what he described as flashing lights and seeing a “larger than normal human” shadow indicate may have been so scared that they no longer had control — or even knowledge — of their actions.
Let me be clear. I am not trying to justify the actions of police in these and other cases. But I do feel that the fear factor is too little remarked upon. And, unfortunately, when people do bring it up, they often — as Trump has done — place it as an alternative to racism as a motivator in police shootings of Black and Latino people. That’s also wrong.
This is not a binary choice between racism and fear. What is often behind these shootings is racism and fear. The combination produces a toxic brew that all too often results in dead or maimed people of color. Until we address these dual causes, we can expect to see more cases like Breonna Taylor’s, which is why those who want to see justice done must be willing to look holistically at what is underlying senseless deaths such as hers.
This fear has many roots, including racism itself. It is also produced by police training that often emphasizes that we live in a dangerous world in which officers are only a split second away from death or harm — even though violent crime rates are down from the highs of the mid-1990s.
That view is exacerbated by the overwrought sense of police danger portrayed in the news and the entertainment media and by politicians and a public that have bought into the notion that cops “put their lives on the line every day.” In 2017, 73 percent of law enforcement officers said that, except for time on the training range, they have never discharged their weapons— ever.
For sure, police work is dangerous. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, police officers and sheriff’s deputies suffer about 13.7 deaths on the job annually per 100,000 full-time cops. That’s much higher than workers as a whole, who are killed at a rate of 3.5 individuals per 100,000 full-time workers in the general workforce. But it is much lower than the death rate for loggers, agricultural workers and even garbage collectors (though no doubt this is aided by cops’ body armor and ability to shoot back at bad guys who seek to harm them).
And fewer cops are being killed. Last year, 135 officers died in the line of duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. That’s the second-lowest number in nearly half a century and far below the total yearly deaths during the early 1970s, the mayhem of the Prohibition era of the 1920s and the early 1930s when the annual death toll for cops hovered between 250 and 300.
So where does this fear come from? In part from training that, in many cases, emphasizes the dangers cops face and reminds them of colleagues who have been killed or maimed. Writing in Medium in 2018, Larry Smith, a former Baltimore police officer, recalled a yearly trip to the training range to requalify on his weapon during which he would be shown video after video of cops getting into shootouts during traffic stops. Smith describes it as: “basically hours of worst-case scenario training. There was very little emphasis on any sort of de-escalation. It was all ‘point and shoot.’”
This emphasis is also promoted by some of the people who train police officers in person, such as Dave Grossman, a retired army ranger who says that police are at “war” on the domestic front and calls for them to adopt a “warrior” mentality that overcomes any psychological resistance to killing. “Cops fight violence,” Grossman says. “What do they fight it with? Superior violence. Righteous violence.”
Grossman claims to have trained police agencies in all 50 states. Among those who took Grossman’s training was Jeronimo Yanez, the Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a 2016 traffic stop after Castile told him he had a licensed gun in his glove compartment.
At the same time, one cannot discount race as a factor in police violence. Black people are at particular risk of being killed by police. So much so that in recent years, more Black men in their 20s have died at the hands of police than were killed by diabetes, flu, pneumonia, chronic respiratory illness or cardiovascular disease. With fear of Black people based on stereotypes so pervasive in the society, it is not surprising — though still very tragic — that many cops have quick trigger fingers when it comes to African Americans.
“In one way it’s racism being played out through fear,” says Brendan O’Flaherty, a Columbia University professor who has studied fear in police. Referring to the killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy in Cleveland who was shot by a white police officer while brandishing what turned out to be a toy rifle, O’Flaherty said, “I can believe the officer was afraid of Tamir Rice. But, he was afraid of Tamir Rice because he was Black.”
Yet, there may be another major factor driving the police fear that all too often ends in tragedy. Researchers are beginning to delve into another factor to explain why cops are so afraid — the prevalence of guns.
A 2018 Small Arms Survey estimated that American civilians own about 393 million firearms.And that might account, in part, for the huge disparity between the number of people killed by cops in this country (more than 1,000 a year) and in Germany and Great Britain, where the police killed a combined total of 10 people.
Perhaps more significantly, researchers have determined that there are wide regional differences in police killings in the U.S. Police in cities in the West and the Southwest, where states often have looser gun laws, kill people at higher rates than cops in the northern Midwest and the Northeast, where gun laws tend to be stricter.
This is logical. When police confront someone brandishing — or firing — a gun, they are more likely to use force and kill them. And a research study from earlier this year provides evidence that police who encountered individuals who are armed or suspected to be“results in a greater frequency of police using fatal force.”
Researchers note the linkage between police shootings and lax gun laws is not rock solid and that other factors, such as differences in police training, have to be considered. Still, they say, it’s a topic worth exploring.
Poor training, racism, guns; they make up a crazy quilt of factors keeping cops more afraid than they need to be, and they need to be scared enough. Until the county figures out what to do about these factors, we are not likely to see any decrease in the number of people — especially the number of Black people like Taylor — slain by police officers each year.