Like many of you, I’m concerned about the number of avoidable deaths, particularly with people of color. A few years back, I was pulled over by an officer who appeared mad enough to shoot me and then lied under oath to give me a ticket. He was an Oregon State Trooper. While I did feel I deserved the ticket, I remain troubled with the idea of a police officer committing a felony to convict a citizen of a misdemeanor. This one event pivoted my perception of anyone wearing a badge from being worthy of trust to being someone likely to abuse their power to accomplish a personal goal.
I believe we have most (but not all) the technology we need to address illegal police shootings; it is simply a matter of doing causal analysis on each shooting to determine the elements that caused it and then eliminating those elements.
When trying to fix any problem, you first have to determine the cause. Otherwise, your fix won’t work, and you may make the problem worse. For instance, after seeing an officer go to prison for a mistake, other police officers are increasingly likely to cover up mistakes because those mistakes will continue to occur. I’m not saying an officer shouldn’t go to jail for a severe mistake, but that sending them to jail by itself doesn’t address the problem’s cause and thus won’t assure it won’t recur. The goal should be to prevent the next death, not just to appease a justifiably angry mob.
I used to wear a badge, and I realize that with budget cuts and underfunding, police departments not only don’t get the best and brightest, but they also can’t afford adequate training. They often can either do adequate background checks or accept officers with a questionable past to fill jobs that would otherwise go unfilled. In watching the various national scandals surrounding unnecessary deaths, they seem to fall into three categories but only have one outcome.
The three categories are: The officers aren’t suitable for the job (tend to abuse power or react badly under stress), aren’t sufficiently well trained, and the overdependence on firearms. Sadly, regardless of the cause, the most common remedy is generally to punish the officer at the center of the problem (and often it isn’t their fault). However, none of these causes are well addressed by punishing the officer. The first is caused by a selection problem, the second by inadequate training, and the third by inappropriate tools.
Once you identify the cause of the problem, then you can resource how to fix it. With each unfortunate death, we have the tools to analyze what happened entirely and then develop and test different practices and devices. For instance, had the dispatcher or the police seargent had a streamed view of the officer’s camera, she would have seen the problem earlier and, based on testimony, been able to save George Floyd’s life. While this might have led to disciplinary action against the officer, it would have saved both lives and maybe removed the officer from the force or forced oversight needed to correct an abuse of power problem. Simply providing real-time camera telemetry to command or dispatch when officers interact with citizens should provide the level of oversight needed to prevent another George Floyd.
Simulation can also help with training. With Mixed Reality, we have significantly reduced the cost of deploying realistic simulations. When an officer, which has happened more than once, draws and fires a gun rather than their taser, it seems likely they relied on muscle memory because they overtrained with the gun and undertrained with the taser. In law enforcement, you develop muscle memory on the range and are typically required to train and regularly qualify with a gun. But Tasers are far more expensive to shoot, and often it is assumed that the officer will know how to fire them if you qualify with a gun. But, in a crisis, you are more likely to rely on muscle memory because things are developing too fast to think through your reactions; thus, the officer ends up grabbing the tool they have practiced with more. In this case, a gun. With simulation, you can simulate the firing of a Taser and shift emphasis from the gun to the taser for repetitive training and muscle memory. Given that most police officers have never fired their gun outside of the range during an average police career, focusing on the tool they are more likely to use for simulations should result in fewer accidental shots.
Finally, the taser sucks. It is incredibly unreliable as a stopping weapon; it can cause death in someone with a heart problem. We need a safer, more reliable, non-lethal way to disable someone. Developing such a weapon, given the kind of focus we had on addressing the pandemic, could result in a gun replacement for officers that would allow them to make mistakes without a fatal outcome. If we look at the cost of the demonstrations, police distrust, avoidable deaths, and avoidable catastrophic life changes for both dependents of those that died and the police officer(s) now held accountable as well as their families, a more effective, safe alternative to tasers and guns would save millions if not billions of dollars. One device that looks promising is the Bolawrap which works to disable, kind of like how Spiderman uses webs, it has some falling risk, but it is potentially safer than a Taser and a ton better than a gun for disabling someone. The Marshall Project is working on several exciting alternatives to guns and tasers, some of which look viable.
It is common to jump to blame and consequences when looking at disturbing problems like police abuse of power and brutality. But if you don’t spend the time determining the cause of the problem, you won’t know how to fix it permanently; you’ll only appease folks (with decreasing effectiveness) while waiting for the next similar event to occur. In most cases, the cause of a problem tends to have more to do with how the person that made a mistake was selected, trained, or equipped, and those issues are rarely addressed with permanence by punishing the individual alone. This approach is much like the difference between giving a person a fish and teaching them to fish. One addresses an instance the other eliminates the problem, so it doesn’t recur.
In the end, this problem can be solved with better oversight, better training, and better tools. Sadly, we don’t seem to have the will to definitively fix this problem yet, which sadly means more avoidable deaths until we do. One final thought is that if you have one instance of something then dealing with it individually works; when a problem recurs repeatedly, that is a systematic problem. Only fixing the system will genuinely keep the next person safe and alive.