The events surrounding the officer involved shooting of an ‘unarmed’ person in Ferguson, Missouri, are not unique by any measure. The public response was remarkable; the rioting was not understandable. Events like this have happened throughout our country’s history, and many of these events have been “answered” with a demand for instant or popular justice levied by the media or the public, prior to all of the facts being known. This kind of justice is driven by emotion, is not evidence based, and is just plain wrong. We must trust that the rule of law is not incorrect.
After one of these event’s headlines disappear, the media moves on to the next most current notorious event, because it sells, and oftentimes drops the first event altogether. It is no longer as important as when it first caught fire. No one watches day old house fires, because they are no longer burning!
Emotional justice does a disservice to all of us. As citizens, we are all stakeholders in this country, and should all be working together. This should include educating the citizens of our communities, as to what police really encounter on a daily basis, instead of having them believe that what they see on TV or movies about police response is what really happens.
Police officers witness wonderful and horrible things; are required to make decisions within micro seconds in critical situations; must respond when no ‘normal’ citizen would because of the danger; must rely on the limited training they get and the experience they acquire on-the-job; are not allowed by the public to make mistakes, even though they are human and subject to the laws of physics and biology and everything else that goes with being a human.
What the public does not generally know is that police officers are always behind the proverbial time curve when it comes to situations involving the use of force. What they also don’t realize is that an “unarmed” person can still be a threat to life or limb. A traditional weapon i.e., knife, gun, etc. only arms a person who is less capable of defending himself (e.g., David v Goliath, where David had a rock and sling and Goliath only had… get this… size and strength [?] therefore David was ‘armed’ and Goliath was… unarmed you say?) Generally, most folks have no idea as to how many questions run through a cop’s head before he acts in any heated situation. At light-speed, a cop must process all of those questions before he acts, and those micro seconds can cause a delay in action which can and does cost officers their lives. Like every citizen, cops have a right to go home after work, too!
The appropriate amount of force to use to control any threat can only be judged by one willing to stand in the shoes of the officer, know and experience what went on only during that thin slice of time when the event occurred, from the limited human perspective of one, who is faced with the danger of loss of life or limb, and act in spite of the fear of great bodily harm or death, when no average citizen could or would. No small task, is it! Judgement of these incidents cannot be accomplished by angry emotional responses and a demand for prosecution without real verifiable facts. That is neither justice, nor just.
The United States Supreme Court has addressed the issue of use of force by police in countless decisions. The decisions by the justices repeatedly reflect a deep understanding of what police are faced with on a daily basis. Their decisions provide guidance to the law enforcement community.
So who is to educate the public at large? The media could and should run the lead on this effort! I suggest the media might include some of the wisdom found in those Supreme Court case decisions in their coverage of these heated events, as they occur. It would be helpful, and ethically wise as stories develop, to indicate to the listeners that the story is developing and that all of the facts are not known. Media follow-up of these heated cases, after the facts are known, would be a smart thing to do. Police departments can wisely respond with some information, too, so long as an investigation or prosecution will not be compromised by the release of information. Some information is better than none. The public has a right to know at least some of the facts, and more of the facts as the situation resolves.