A bad state of mind
The time is now to reform police use-of-lethal force policies
By Randy Jurado Ertll 04/05/2012
There is a significant need to revise policies governing the use of lethal force by police departments. This issue has become even more relevant with a recent report by the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC) focusing on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
This report helps shine light on an important issue that mainly impacts Latinos and African Americans. As a concerned community, we need to pay attention to the recent fatal shooting of “suspect” Kendrec McDade, 19, of Azusa. McDade was shot in Pasadena on March 24 after he allegedly reached into his waistband while running from police near the intersection of Orange Grove Boulevard and Sunset Avenue, as reported by a number of local newspapers. Many questions surrounding this incident need to be answered.
The PARC semiannual report compiled by Special Counsel Merrick J. Bobb states that investigators “focus in particular on ‘state-of-mind’ or ‘perception’ shootings where deputies perceive, accurately or not, that a suspect may be armed or going for a gun. We are concerned to see that state-of-mind shootings rose by more than 50 percent in the past year. We note that 2010 had the highest proportion of hit shootings in recent years in which the suspect was unarmed. This fact was further reflected in 2010 in the number of ‘waistband shootings’ where the suspect was shot at upon reportedly reaching for his waistband.”
The report further states, “61 percent of suspects in state-of-mind shootings turn out to be unarmed. What troubles us is that African American or Latino youth is more likely to be the subject of a mistaken perception of dangerousness than is a white or Asian person.”
The report goes on to state that “Latinos appear to be significantly overrepresented in shooting incidents in comparison to their overall arrest rates, while white suspects are underrepresented.”
Regardless of race or ethnicity, police-related beatings and shootings need to be investigated and monitored more closely. Let us not forget the July 5 fatal beating of Kelly Thomas, who was homeless and suffered from schizophrenia, by Fullerton police Officers Jay Cicinelli and Manuel Ramos. The two officers have been charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
We must remind law enforcement officials to provide suitable services to create safety and trust, not just in affluent areas, but also in poor and middle-class neighborhoods. What occurred in Fullerton was a tragedy and an injustice. But Kelly Thomas’ case may have been ignored if he were not the son of Ron Thomas, a retired Orange County sheriff’s deputy. Ron Thomas has led a citywide effort to bring justice to his murdered son. He is persistent and not afraid, especially because he has countless supporters and he knows how our legal system favors the more affluent.
Wealthy individuals and powerful bureaucracies can hire high-caliber criminal defense attorneys while the poor usually get convicted and sentenced, since they cannot afford seasoned, well-known, expensive lawyers.
Officers in police departments around the country have used lethal force in many questionable circumstances. Here are some of the most notorious in the last couple of decades — at least those that the public is aware of. Many cases go unnoticed or unreported because the families of the victims are afraid to speak up or do not know how to access media attention and political support.
Back in 1991, a Salvadoran immigrant was shot by an African-American police officer and rioting occurred for two days in the Mount Pleasant area in Washington, DC. Lack of bilingual police officers and cultural insensitivity had built up into distrust and antagonism between the community and the police department.
Of course, we cannot forget the savage beating of Rodney King by four white police officers. These officers were acquitted on April 29, 1992, and the community was so outraged that rioting lasted for six days, resulting in many deaths and more than $1 billion in property damages.
On Jan. 1, 2009, a white transit officer in Oakland shot and killed Oscar Grant, a black man, while he was being subdued on the ground.
City councils, police oversight commissions and independent community panels must devise clearer and more stringent policies for the use of lethal force.
Let’s just hope and pray that these types of shootings can be prevented in the future through the implementation of better tactics to subdue or disarm individuals who pose a clear and present danger to civilians and police officers. Also, police officers should also be trained in how to better communicate and treat individuals who have mental and physical challenges.
The Police Assessment Resource Center says that “the problems we describe can be resolved or substantially ameliorated by further training, strict accountability, and focused attention.”
If that doesn’t happen, distrust of police will only continue to rise, not just in poor communities, but in middle-class areas as well.
That’s the last thing we need.
Randy Jurado Ertll is the executive director of El Centro de Accion Social in Pasadena and the author of the book “Hope in Times of Darkness: A Salvadoran American Experience.” Visit randyjuradoertll.com.