“He was going for my gun.” This is the statement that allows the police to shoot innocent, unarmed people on the street. Remember, according to the law, all of these police shootings are of innocent individuals: they have been convicted of no crimes.
The police killed Africa, a man who found himself homeless after receiving court-ordered mental health treatment. Africa was unarmed, but fought. The police failed to restrain him. We can’t attribute this police shooting to firearms or anything unique about the American milieu. That is, this is a common event that occurs in the United States even in the absence of armed criminal suspects. The American police are, basically, willing to shoot unarmed people in scenarios where police violence is virtually unheard of outside of the United States.
There are a few points surrounding this event to consider.
First, mental health treatment is not a panacea for social ills. In many cases it can compound them. It isn’t uncommon for men and women to enter mental health treatment facilities, often under legal compulsion, only to find themselves homeless when they are released. It’s oft repeated that the mentally ill homeless population is due to a lack of mental health treatment, but a system of compulsory mental health treatment without support systems exacerbates the homelessness problem. Mental health facilities work, unfortunately, like prisons: you’re released, you’re on the street and no one is there to help you stay on track.
Second, maybe Africa was right to fight the police. In a totalitarian state where human beings – black men disproportionately – are shot routinely by law enforcement, or, accused and convicted of crimes they did not do, fighting the police becomes a rational act. This may be hard to fathom, but it is literally rational. Police apologists will immediately go to: “But he fought the police!” He did, and good for him.
Third, the prevalence of police shootings and the protests surrounding them have changed nothing. In training law enforcement are taught two things: any altercation, including with an unarmed individual, may be fatal and the full weight of the police department will be behind the officer after a lawful shooting. The result is that police have no fear of legal sanction, nor of public opinion. Instead, they have a disproportionate fear of contact with criminal suspects. This goes against the desired projection, that is, the police as brave individuals who defend the innocent. The police, on and off duty, are fearful persons who live with almost pathological levels of paranoia.
It isn’t surprising, then, that the police department also attracts individuals who have authoritarian personalities. As per Bob Altemeyer’s research, the authoritarian personality is more afraid and perceives higher levels of threat than the average person. They see threat where none exists and they exaggerate threat where it does exist. The police department, the academy and training policies, exacerbate this facet of the authoritarian personality. And they give the authoritarian follower a weapon and and almost blanket protection to use it.
To revisit the third point, protests and an official response to police violence has not had any effect. We understand both the institutional (the law protects them) and the psychological (fearful of threat) reasons for this, but that is not enough. To end the police problem Americans need to adopt tactics that go beyond protests. The legal institutions that do exist are broken in such thorough and complete ways that reform is impossible. The only solution is to dismantle the institutions, fully, and replace them with alternatives that do not have the structural and institutional pitfalls that policing as we know it does.
That is to say, police shootings of this nature will continue until policing itself, at least policing as we know it, is abolished.