Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What is an itchy-fingered cop to do?

The shooting death of John T. Williams, a Native American and part-time wood carver and full-time inebriate, by a Seattle police officer was merely the most egregious lethal event of that particularly weekend. It was still a week before Labor Day, and the police were already busy having holiday “fun.” Williams was just one of five people killed by police within a few days. In the case of the near-deaf Williams, he was clearly a no threat to anyone (let alone the officer) but Ian Birk, a 2-year “veteran” looking for “action,” decided on his own to create a “Dirty Harry” movie with a Native American who was walking past his patrol car holding a piece of wood and a three-inch knife. Birk’s inability to adequately “size-up” the situation points to poor training and lack of cultural awareness; the culture that allows police shoot to kill first and think later needs to be addressed, but that will never happen so long as police internal investigations are white-washing farces and all-white inquest juries find police who kill even unarmed people “justified.” In any event, while police who are killed in the line-of-fire are in fact rare occurrences but get plenty of media coverage; I read a story in a Chicago publication that of 84 deaths by police fire over the past decade, only one made the front page of the Tribune and Sun-Times. A google search for the number of people killed by Seattle police in 2009 only turned-up recent stories about the police killed in two separate incidents in Lakewood and Seattle.

Two of the other four people killed two weeks ago were tasered to death. One was an unarmed man who allegedly was running up and down the street, causing a “disturbance.” The 5-foot-6, 125-lbs man allegedly “wrestled” two police officers to the ground before being tasered, causing his heart to stop. Death-by-taser seems to be an ever increasing affair; an Amnesty International report stated that between June 2001 and August 2008, there had been 351 reported death by taser, and another report found that in the first six months of 2009, there were 96 deaths by taser. Amnesty noted that the manufacturer of the taser has purposely limited or doctored medical studies on their effect, so no one really knows their actual effect on bodily organs or what a “safe” shock is. Whether-or-not Amnesty’s suggestion that police departments ban the use of tasers or limit their use to otherwise “lethal” encounters will decrease the number of deaths by police is admittedly problematic, however; it will merely give police what in their minds are fewer “choices” in their reaction to confrontations that all too often are exacerbated by their own actions—meaning even more deaths.

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