In much of America, it’s more dangerous to be policed than to be a police officer

When he spoke to civic or church groups about the law and policing, the late Johnnie Cochran often would pose this question: “Who do you think is the most powerful person in the criminal justice system?”

Inevitably, most people would respond, “the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

“Wrong,” Johnnie would respond. “The most powerful single person in the entire criminal justice system is the cop on the street, because only he has the power to summarily execute you—and get away with it.”

In the months since Ferguson, I’ve thought a great deal about Johnnie’s question and about his views on abusive policing and police reform. Nobody I’ve ever encountered understood both sets of issues quite so deeply or so personally—first and foremost, as an African American man who, as the Irish say, lived deeply within the life of his people, and also as a defense attorney, prosecutor and civic activist. (Los Angeles is fortunate to have equally knowledgeable and sophisticated reformers like the Advancement Project’s Connie Rice to continue the work of ensuring constitutional policing.)

Many of those thoughts were back with me this week when I went over the Los Angeles Police Department’s extraordinary 300-page analysis of its shootings over the past year. It’s extraordinary because of its depth, candor and introspection; it’s extraordinary because LAPD is a deeply changed department since it entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice that required reforms aimed at establishing norms of policing in accord with the Constitution.

It is no longer the department against which attorneys like Cochran and Rice waged their long, lonely struggle. This is a department that has increasingly internalized the requirements of constitutional policing under two successive reformer chiefs, Bill Bratton and Charlie Beck.

And yet.

As the report lays out, 14 or more than one in three of the 38 people LAPD officers shot last year were mentally ill. Nearly one in four of the 1,900 instances in which officers used nonlethal force also involved a person who are mentally ill. A disproportionate number of all of those shot were African American (52) and 58% or 89 were Latinos, who now make up roughly half the city’s population. African Americans comprised 33% of those arrested for violent crimes in Los Angeles and 26% of all those stopped by LAPD.

ACLU attorneys found those numbers troubling, and they are. Perhaps, though, they need to be weighed against the fact that most violent criminals afflict members of their own ethnic group and African Americans and Latinos also are disproportionately victims of violent crime.  There’s a clear history of discriminatory police stops that needs to be kept in mind, but solving violent crimes against blacks and Latinos probably still will involve stopping and questioning most minority suspects.

Beck was quick to point out that his officers had 1.5 million contacts with the public last year of which fewer than 2,000 involved any use of force. “We’re more than willing to look ourselves in the mirror and ask, ‘What’s occurring and how can we do better?” Beck said.

Policing is a hazardous business, but in much of the country it’s a lot safer being a police officer than it is to be policed. Just under 1,000 people were killed by American police officers last year; 133 officers were killed in the line of duty.

More training on how to peacefully de-escalate confrontations with the mentally ill, particularly those on drugs or alcohol, as so many are, is a good place to start. Continuing to make tasers and beanbag shotguns more widely available to patrol officers also would be a plus.

Nationally, though, policing and, particularly, the treatment of African American men by police agencies continues to be a scandal. In part, that’s because it actually makes no sense to talk about “American policing.” There are 18,000 different police forces in this country. Some of the major urban departments, like LAPD, have gone through wrenchingly substantial reforms in recent years.

The vast majority of small and medium-sized departments—and they’re the majority—go on pretty much as before. Policing is a hazardous business, but in much of the country it’s a lot safer being a police officer than it is to be policed. Just under 1,000 people were killed by American police officers last year; 133 officers were killed in the line of duty, though the greatest share of them lost their lives to heart attacks and auto and motorcycle accidents.

Perhaps what we need are federally established standards for police training and would apply everywhere and a national licensing exam on the requirements of constitutional policing that everyone would have to pass before pinning on a badge. (Actually, we’ll probably get a single-payer health system before either one of those things passes the Congress.)

We also need to acknowledge that many of the most troubling statistics in the LAPD’s report originate in social crises beyond the control of even the most conscientious police chiefs. We do an appalling job of caring for the mentally ill in this country. Why are so many of them on the streets to confront police officers? All of us are responsible for that situation.

So, too, homelessness: Los Angeles homeless population has been growing rapidly while policy-makers sit on their hands. A significant number of the homeless also have serious mental health and substance abuse problems. How has that contributed to the up-tic in LAPD’s use of force against the mentally ill?

Too often even conscientious departments, as the reformed LAPD has become, end up acting as catchers for every social curveball a callously indifferent and heedlessly self-preoccupied country allows to be hurled onto the streets.

Then, there’s the question that, like the biblical poor, is always with us: guns. According to the most reliable numbers, we now have 357 guns in America today, which is 40 million more than we have people.

Despite the fact that Congress has not passed any form of firearm restriction in eight years, the weird anxiety engendered by Barack Obama’s presence in the White House has ushered in a golden age for U.S. gun makers. When Obama took office, American manufacturers were turning out 5.6 guns per year. Today, their output has doubled to 10.9 firearms annually.

In such a country, where people are better armed than the wretched Yeminis, even well-trained police officers hardly can be blamed for approaching every stop or domestic violence call as a potential shootout. Seven out of every 10 of the people shot by police in America last year had a gun.

Too often even conscientious departments, as the reformed LAPD has become, end up acting as catchers for every social curveball a callously indifferent and heedlessly self-preoccupied country allows to be hurled onto the streets.

As Sir Robert Peel, who established the first modern police force in mid-19th Century London put it: “The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

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