Monday, July 11, 2016

Racial Tensions and Law Enforcement

A lot has been in the news lately about law enforcement and racial tensions. The past week has seen two black men killed by police officers (in Louisiana and Minnesota), and several police officers killed in Dallas by a gunman who specifically wanted to "kill white people — particularly white police officers".
As a middle-aged, middle-class white man, I don't feel at all qualified to comment on racial (or class, or gender-based) tensions. But I suppose that's actually part of the problem. When those of us not directly affected do nothing more than watch from afar, these sorts of problems never go away. So I'll say my piece anyhow.

Treating minority populations of any kind differently from the majority is a terrible execution of the freedom-based system that the United States was founded upon. All of us should absolutely be pushing to punish any such discrimination and reform the system to prevent it.

At the same time, we can't expect our law enforcement officers to ignore threats. The Dallas shootings drive home how dangerous it can be to simply be a police officer, or even just be perceived as one. Each encounter with a suspect has the potential to be harmful to the officer. Though the shootings in Dallas weren't part of a normal suspect interaction, they still serve to remind us how much risk is taken by law enforcement officers.

As with just about everything in life, the extremes aren't a good solution for either side. Officers have to be able to use some amount of their own judgement in deciding when a suspect is a threat, and how much force is needed to remove that threat. That judgement can't simply be based on the suspect's skin color, or the way they are dressed, or what their name sounds like. It's a balancing act, and there's no perfect solution.

A couple of potential actions come to mind, to move closer to that balance. Non-lethal force options, such as tasers instead of guns, would help in many situations. Improvements to the current versions should be pursued to make them useful in as many situations as possible. Upgrades to psychological screening for law enforcement officers would also be a step in the right direction, using modern techniques to maximize the chance of weeding out those most likely to engage in discrimination. Doing those screens regularly and without exception would help to weed out the few bad actors from the majority of hard-working, fair-minded officers.

Nothing is going to completely remove either discrimination (because law enforcement officers are human beings) or threats to those officers (because so are suspects). But we can and should be taking actions that move us as close as possible to the proper balance between officer safety and suspect rights.

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