Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Death by Uniform

The news in recent weeks has featured a few stories about citizens – guilty of disturbances that injured no one, or guilty of nothing at all – being killed at the hands of a uniformed authority.

- There is the 2012 Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman shooting, which involved the stalking and killing of an unarmed teenager by a private security guard.

- Just the other day, there was another legal chapter to the 2007 multiple tasings and subsequent death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport by four RCMP officers. The Polish immigrant had become agitated, and had thrown about some furniture, but was unarmed and presenting no threat to anyone.


- And finally, just a few nights ago, James Forcillo, one of more than a dozen police officers on the scene, shot and killed Sammy Yatim, a knife-wielding teenager, who had ordered passengers off of a streetcar, but had harmed no one and was, at the time, in no position to do so.


It is clear that each of these three killings was pointless. Of the three victims, only Yatim even had a weapon. In none of the cases was the victim posing a threat to anyone or committing a crime at the time they were attacked. The disturbances that the last two had committed had ended, and while it might be argued that there was a potential for violence by the perpetrators, there was no need to apply deadly force.

In other words, the application of deadly force had nothing at all to do with the actions or disposition of the victims, and it had everything to do with the disposition of the uniformed killers.

One of the striking aspects of Yatim's killing is that, while there were many armed officers on the scene, all nine shots were fired by a single officer. How might the situation have resolved itself had that one officer had not been present? It's impossible to say, but there was at least the potential of an arrest without inordinate force.

Two questions come to my mind, about these incidents and others like them. First HOW and WHY are police officers, soldiers and security guards trained, that the use of deadly force is sanctioned, encouraged and permitted when it isn’t necessary? And the second question has to do with WHO is recruited, hired and trained to carry lethal weapons in policing and security roles?

In relation to this second question, I recall a pamphlet I read many years ago. It was about the military draft, and it shifted my thinking about how a nation raises an army. The pamphlet was from the American Friends Service Committee.

AFSC is an activist, social justice, anti-war ,Quaker organization that had a very visible presence in the Vietnam era, and that I didn't know was still active until I googled it just now. I wouldn't have imagined that such an organization would support a military draft, but its reasoning gave me a whole new perspective. I had once faced the possibility of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, but was saved from having to respond to such a calling when the draft ended shortly after I turned 18. I had no use for a draft, and had no issues with the all-volunteer military that replaced it.

This pamphlet offered a compelling argument. It reasoned that the military attracts certain types of people, just as business, gardening, the arts, sports car racing and massage therapy do. It argued (and I'm paraphrasing here – I read this about 3 decades ago) that the military attracts those who are more aggressive, more comfortable with violence, amenable to regimentation and hierarchical structures, less empathetic, etc.

An entirely volunteer army, the AFSC claimed, would draw heavily from the part of the population that skewed toward these militaristic natures and attitudes, and it would under-represent the more docile, empathetic, democratic and free-thinking elements of a population. The all-volunteer army would tend to have more careerists, and it would likely be a more effective army, where it comes to purely military objectives. But it would also be less compatible with peace-keeping functions, it wouldn't relate as well to civilian populations and would be more likely to committee atrocities against them.

The AFSC argued in favor of a draft because it would keep the military more representative, more balanced and more humane. If a nation must maintain an army, let it at least be a more civil army. And it’s a powerful argument.

This rationale comes to mind when I reflect on atrocities like those described, committed by uniformed police and security guards against the defenceless. I’ve interacted with quite a few police and security officers over the years. I’ve mostly found them polite and appropriate in their actions, and I don’t suggest that most are anything but that. But I’ve also experienced aggressive officers, quick to use intimidation and control, who seem to be looking for confrontation, and eager to get physical.

When I look at the Dziekanski and the Yatim videos, I believe I’m witnessing the actions of this latter group, officers with little capacity for empathy, eager to use force, perhaps living out some long held fantasy, or expressing some psychological predisposition. What a frightening thing it is that such individuals are given arms and license to use them wilfully against the population they are sworn to protect.

I don’t offer any complete answers here, but at least some considerations. The idea of a draft to staff a police force is absurd (actually, maybe not so absurd). And I can only imagine the difficulty in screening candidates for an army or police force, and keeping those with the assertive skills needed while eliminating the sociopaths and power junkies. But a better job has to be done. And certainly more must be done on the training, oversight and disciplinary fronts, to assure that force is used in measured ways that don’t generate needless injury and death.

What do you think?

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