There's been some highly publicized shootings, I'm sure every reader can think of several offhand. I'm more worried by some of the less famous ones. A guy considering buying a BB gun at Walmart. A 12 year old playing with a toy gun in the park. Worst of all, someone walking down the stairs in his apartment building who startled a rookie cop.
Of course, cops aren't just committing unjustified shootings of black people. You can find analogous incidents with victims who look like me, or my wife, or my son. Cops have been so free with their weapons they're often shooting dogs who pose no threat. But blacks are suffering a much higher rate of shootings per capita than whites (arguing about whether this is driven by racism, classism, or whatever is out of scope for this post and will probably lead to deleted comments).
This is often described as "militarization" of police work. That offends our soldiers, who point out they worked under much stricter rules for using force in a war zone than police have at home.
So why are cops shooting so many people?
Some of it is the laws they're enforcing. The "War on Drugs" is the biggest offender. Kicking in the door of a house and rushing in to knock down everyone who might be able to flush an ounce of pot looks just like a home invasion robbery. In fact, if they weren't cops, it would be a home invasion robbery. Add in middle of the night sleepiness, flash-bangs to daze everyone, and black uniforms and you have the perfect recipe for a homeowner to shoot a cop he thinks is a criminal or a cop to shoot someone he thinks might have a gun (plenty of examples in the links above).
Sometime cops are conducting drug raids for profit. "Asset forfeiture" lets the police seize cash or goods they think may be the result of an illegal transaction, and then the burden of proof is on the owner to show that they earned that money through legal means. That makes for more traffic stops, any one of which can turn tragic if a nervous cop mistakes an object for a weapon.
There's also police activity designed to generate revenue. The "speed trap" is the most familiar, issuing tickets to get cash for their town instead of for safety reasons. Other minor issues can lead to frequent tickets and fines. Part of why Ferguson blew up so quickly was that the population was already being harassed and squeezed for money by police activity intended to get cash. When people can't pay their fines the court issues a warrant. That leads to cops pulling over cars that look like they might have someone with a warrant on them inside, i.e., poor and black.
Take the revenue raising pressure far enough and you have Eric Garner, dead because New York outlaws selling cigarettes one at a time instead of in (taxed) packs. So the laws have cops aggressively interacting with lots of people who aren't hurting anyone.
Why are cops so quick to resort to lethal force?
Some of it is a paranoid culture. Too many cops have taken the Hill Street Blues "Let's do it to them before they do it to us" line to heart. Too many are embracing a warrior mentality, rather than being peace officers. Being a police officer is far from the most dangerous job in this country.
A big part of it is a lack of accountability. Cops are excused for panicking in situations where civilians are required to instantly assess the situation without error (see the drug raid scenario above). The legal system considers cops "us" rather than "them" and will cut them slack. And even if the police chief and district attorney think a cop has gone too far, there's the union to have their back. When that rookie panicked and shot Akai Gurley in the stairwell, he contacted his union rep before calling for an ambulance for his victim.
Police unions often incorporate protections against legal action in their contracts. Police have privileges not available to others, such as waiting days before being interrogated so they can get their story straight. Unions also prevent information sharing between departments, so a cop who racks up a record of abuse in one town can move on to another town instead of having his power taken away.
When a cop makes a split second decision on whether to shoot, he's balancing his own life against . . . well, hardly any consequences for a bad shoot. That's an easy decision. The balance may be tipping a bit back the other way--there was a Chicago cop in a recent incident who didn't shoot, not because she was afraid of legal action, but of bad publicity.
What can we do about it?
There's a simple solution. Abolish victimless crimes. Stop sending cops into people's houses to search for drugs. Stop using cops as revenue collectors. But if the country was ready for that the candidate I voted for yesterday would have a chance of winning.
Some folks are pushing for a halfway measure: don't have cops out patrolling, only have them respond to complaints or carry out warrants. That wouldn't end the drug war, but would reduce the number of shootings coming from traffic or sidewalk stops. It'd be a big improvement. I'm not sure it would fly with the public.
So I propose a technical fix: robots. A robot already appeared in this saga, when the Dallas PD* used one to bomb the guy shooting cops back in July (and unlike the Philadelphia PD, deployed a bomb without killing ten bystanders and burning down a city block).
Every police car could be equipped with a quadcopter drone carrying a video tablet, ribbon printer, and a card slider. In a traffic stop the drone would come up to the driver's side window. The cop would converse with the driver over the tablet. The driver's license can be photographed or swiped. The printer provides the ticket. No more shootings because a cop thought a wallet or cellphone or other object was a gun.
If the driver is an armed felon, the cop doesn't have to quickdraw to get in the first shot. The driver can shoot the drone, which is much cheaper to replace than a cop. That gives the cop video evidence of a crime and a good tactical position to respond from.
For drug warrants, send some small drones in to monitor the bathrooms so you can catch anyone flushing evidence. The cops can follow more slowly after everyone in the house has been alerted it's a police operation. Everyone's calmer, the cops can see if there's any weapons out, and we avoid panicked reflex shootings.
The traffic stop drone would cost less than a squad car (a DJI Matrice 100 runs about $5000, the rest would be COTS, integration and test would vary). Observation ones would be less than $1000 before the government contracting markup. So it's reasonable for a big city police department to deploy them now. Once there's enough out there for standardized models to go down the learning curve most departments ought to be able to afford them as standard equipment.
It's the 21st Century. Let's get some Robocops out there. They should have a lower bodycount than the movie version.
EDIT: After talking to somebody who knows hardware better than I do it looks like the quadcopter drones wouldn't work for this application. It would need something on treads, which is to say one like the bot Dallas PD used above.
*While I'm praising Dallas PD, I also want to point out that the shootout only had two civilian casualties while the shooter and five cops died and six cops were wounded. That's pretty damn professional shooting. I'm especially grateful since two of the bystanders are very close friends of mine.