Jordan Edwards had a 3.5-grade point average. By all accounts, he was a good kid, loved by many. He made the mistake of attending the wrong party, the wrong night with the wrong cop on duty. And now this 15-year-old is dead after a shot to the head from an officer responding to a noise complaint last weekend.
The Police Department in Balch Springs, Tex., initially said that the unnamed officer fired on a car carrying Jordan and his brothers because the car was reversing down a street toward the officer in an “aggressive manner.” During a news conference just a day later, Police Chief Jonathan Haber told reporters that video of the episode showed the opposite.
We still don’t know exactly what transpired. We may never know what the officer was really thinking when he opened fire on a car full of children. Whatever the officer’s motivation or the facts of the case, taking the life of an unarmed kid was far too easy; the consequences far too severe.
My own child asked a simple question about the tragedy: “Why did the policeman need a gun?” The answers I gave her were not convincing.
“Police might encounter a dangerous person and need to protect themselves and others.”
But Jordan Edwards wasn’t dangerous and posed no threat. Who was the officer protecting?
“Police need to deter crime with a show of strength.”
Jordan Edwards didn’t commit a crime, and he was still killed.
My daughter’s question lingers with me. Do all police need to carry guns in every circumstance? Could police in routine situations carry only non-lethal weapons without sacrificing public and personal safety? It’s time we consider our options.
Unarmed people — disproportionately black and brown people — are killed by police officers with shocking regularity. We have our own examples here in Madison and the wounds opened by Tony Robinson’s killing remain raw across the community.
In the backdrop is a rise in gun ownership in America. Sales are booming and the number of guns circulating across the country is estimated in the hundreds of millions. Yet, police appear to be safer now than in years past.
Per the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 41 police officers were shot and killed in line the line of duty in 2015 – down from the previous year and about 20 percent less than the 10-year average. Even with a rise to 64 in 2016, fueled by ambush-style shootings of multiple armed officers, researchers credit the advent of bullet proof vests for a dramatic reduction in the number of police deaths since the 1970s.
The number of guns in the United States does not seem to have impacted police deaths — even if death by gun has become a more common occurrence in the general public.
Despite the gains in police safety and a decrease in violent crime across the nation, unarmed people are routinely shot and killed by police. According to the Guardian, 235 unarmed people were killed by police – out of some 1,100 total -in 2015. In 2016, 169 more unarmed people were killed by police. Jordan Edwards is the 23rd unarmed person of 331 people shot and killed by police so far in 2017.
Charges are rarely brought in incidents of police killings and few cops are ever convicted of a crime. Juries, aware of the difficulty and danger of the job, are hesitant to second guess police who make life or death decisions in fractions of a second. But the lack of accountability when police kill innocent people has left communities divided – Madison is no exception. Police, politicians, and the court system have lost some measure of public trust. Neighbors argue without nuance about whether you’re “for” or “against” the police; “for” or “against” Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, residents have few assurances that the death toll will stop rising.
The law establishes that deadly force is warranted when an officer has reasonable belief that he or she, or a bystander, is at risk of dying or being seriously injured. But “belief” seems a broad standard to determine whether a kid lives or dies. Officers are human beings under tremendous stress; fallible and subject to the same biases we all struggle with.
I have no trouble imagining I might break under the pressure of the job and make a tragic, fatal mistake. When “belief” of a threat, not evidence, can justify firing bullets into innocent people, then you have to wonder if lawmakers and officers can imagine the same.
Society cannot afford the loss of innocent lives at the hands of police any more than it can afford to sacrifice officers in the line of duty. New approaches to law enforcement might keep both the public and public servants safe.
“Imagine a Madison neighborhood with unarmed street officers. Perhaps those officers are equipped with heath care and social work skills to manage problems that drugs and poverty create. I see communities that would embrace police as neighbors — not occupying forces. I see communities that would rally behind police in a way Madison has not seen for a long time. And I see safer communities where a kid like Jordan Edwards — or Tony Robinson — cannot be shot by an officer that believes in threats that may not exist.”
In Britain, Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand, officers are unarmed when they are on patrol. Police are only equipped with firearms in special and well-defined circumstances. And it can be argued that police officers have saved lives because they were unable to shoot.
One-third of people in Iceland own a rifle or handgun, yet the police do not typically carry. Only about a quarter of Irish police are even trained in how to use a firearm. Eight in ten of Britain’s Police Federation members actually said they did not want to be armed — this despite other survey data saying at least a third of British officers feared for their lives while on duty. The same sentiments are reflected in Norway and New Zealand as well as at least a dozen other nations that do not allow police to carry guns. It is no surprise that in these international examples, the number of police killings of anyone, let alone unarmed people, are a fraction of a fraction of what they are in the United States.
America is a different place with different realities, no doubt. But isn’t there something we can learn from other advanced nations? Aren’t dramatic changes absolutely necessary given the carnage we’re witnessing across the country? Can’t Madison be a place that charts a new path for police and community relations?
A review of 552 police incidents logged on crimereports.com (an aggregator linked from the Madison Police Department website) in Madison from April 19–May 3 suggest that in the vast majority of cases, a firearm may not be necessary or even advisable. During the two-week stretch, 51% of incidents were categorized as related to “Quality of Life” (think: public drunkenness). Another 46% were “Property Crime” reports. Only 2% were categorized as “Violent.”
That picture — and it is but a pixel of a much larger image — suggests that guns are in the hands of most police as a matter of culture and inertia (“it’s the way it is”) rather than need. Police in countries without armed police patrol communities without guns, in part, to demonstrate approachability and build goodwill with the communities they serve. No one needs worry that an officer will shoot and kill an unarmed citizen because officers are not able to.
Madison is well suited to test different approaches to how police serve and protect the public. This community has been fractured over police use of force policies. Police are in a unique position to change the storyline but it will not happen without courage and broad community support.
We all could benefit from a pilot program to test non-lethal policing practices including, but not limited to, eliminating officer-held guns from routine situations. Coupled with adequate training, enhanced compensation for participating officers, and increased police budgets for implementation, we have plenty of reason to think we will succeed and reduce deaths without compromising the safety of officers and the public. We have every reason to try.
Imagine a Madison neighborhood with unarmed street officers. Perhaps those officers are equipped with heath care and social work skills to manage problems that drugs and poverty create. I see communities that would embrace police as neighbors — not occupying forces. I see communities that would rally behind police in a way Madison has not seen for a long time. And I see safer communities where a kid like Jordan Edwards — or Tony Robinson — cannot be shot by an officer that believes in threats that may not exist.
A non-lethal ethic within the police force and across our community won’t solve all crime. Nor will it eliminate all risks. Economic and racial equality and legitimate opportunity for advancement for the poor are even bigger challenges to tackle. And police will continue to put themselves on the line in circumstances few of us would volunteer for.
But we must insist on a police force that will first, and foremost, do no harm.